There’s a very difficult dance Godzilla fans must play when suggesting entries to watch, because we know what to expect from the legacy franchise. It makes sense people want to know; the series has been around for nearly 60 years, and the number of entries seems daunting. Here’s the secret: it’s all kind of bad, and where Monarch: Legacy of Monsters could have allowed these issues room the breath, it is instead ten hours long, ten times as expensive, and shows the monsters for the same amount of time as any of the aforementioned kaiju classics, if not less. Through all that, it doesn’t do much to create compelling human characters to follow throughout its runtime.
Save for a select few that include Ishiro Honda’s classic Gojira, (I personally also recommend Rodan on Criterion Collection), the rest of the series is very much template B-movies of their time from the 1970’s through the 2000’s. This sometimes works, as the medium occasionally finds a synergy between the effects presentation and writing to let viewers look in awe and terror alongside the characters without being grating. Great examples include The 90’s Gamara trilogy and most recently Hideaki Anno’s award winning Shin-Godzilla.
What’ve you got in there, Godzilla vs Kong?
Sometimes that’s exactly what you need on a weekend chill out movie — a film that’s nostalgic and nonsensical. A true classic Godzilla feature of yesteryear has ninety minutes of humans with thin characterization, low budget sets, techno-babble, themes of survivors guilt, adversaries in the form of politicians, tech bros and aliens (sometimes all three.) At the end of the day, a Godzilla fan takes comfort in the excitement in the classic tokusatsu sequences as they watch big monsters wrestle about on screen for the final twenty to thirty minutes.
A Legendary Legacy
Legendary Pictures is known for creating hit genre films with massive impact, and have always burst at the seams with style and production value. We have them to thank for producing most of Christopher Nolan’s films, Zack Snyder’s 300, The Pacific Rim series, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, Denis Villenueve’s Dune, and so many others. While not all of their filmography are winners, they are all visually unique and manage to excite audiences with some of the best visual effects in the business, memorable iconography, and characters. Unfortunately, Warner Bros’ hemorrhaging of money left a crater in Legendary’s wallet when they, without asking first, put Godzilla vs Kong up for Day and Date streaming release in 2021.
In retaliation, Legendary, which fully financed that film, took Monarch: Legacy of Monsters to a new home at Apple TV+, but it is still very much connected to Legendary’s preestablished Monsterverse that began with Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla. Save for The Expanse on Prime Video, this series is no doubt the most expensive venture into television for Legendary to date, and the show sure looks like it.
Unfortunately, alongside the Apple TV+ budget to keep Edwards’ Godzilla looking fresh comes some poor writing, which is the biggest failing of this new series that for better or for worse tries to bridge the gap between the 2014 film and the rest of the films in the franchise: Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Kong Skull Island, and of course Godzilla vs Kong and its sequel this spring. With the baggage of how divisive every one of those films are to a global audience, it also comes with their established story beats. Perhaps a different version of this series could have made these things puzzle together neatly, but instead, we get to follow frustrating heroes and villains, all of whom make inconsistent decisions, while the world’s acclimation to Godzilla and the Titans settle into the backdrop.
The San Francisco Treat [Minor Spoilers Ahead]
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters’ best use of its world comes in the form of the global adjustments to the events of the 2014 Godzilla film. The event in San Francisco, labeled G-Day in this series, is a fantastic backdrop for the tension of a world preparing for its next kaiju attack with defense artillery, in news media, with technology, and hazard signs with Godzilla’s silhouette adorned across sets throughout. This eventually leads to the best worldbuilding ties to the films this series has to offer. In a visit back to the abandoned hot zone that was San Francisco, as the main characters sneak across the rubble and resurface traumatic events on that fateful day to achieve the next puzzle piece in their globe trotting quest.
None of this is particularly new in Godzilla media (see Godzilla vs. Biollante for great examples of this.) However, for the first time we’re seeing the problems that have plagued this version of the franchise stretched so far for runtime that the disparity between reflecting on Godzilla’s romps of the past shine a spotlight on his very apparent lack of presence in the series, and the thinly written characters.
“The President is dead, you got that? Somebody’s had him for dinner”
There are a few Titans but none that are as recognizable or interesting as Godzilla himself, who is featured in a few captivating, fleeting scenes. His appearances feel more like bird watching pigeons when you spend ten hours to catch as much (if not less) screen time of him as the 2014 film, which was famously criticized for not having enough Godzilla in it. If seeing Godzilla finally appear is inducing anything short of heart pounding excitement, then something is amiss.
Instead we spend most of the series with our main characters in 2015. Anna Sawai (Pachinko) plays Cate, a schoolteacher who was living in San Francisco with her mother on G Day 2014 when Godzilla destroyed the MUTOs. After the event, her father abandons her and disappears. When she arrives in Tokyo in 2015 after reports of his death, she discovers she has a secret step-brother, Kentaro (Ren Watabe). When the two discover their father’s secret files with the help of Kentaro’s on-and-off girlfriend May (Kiersey Clemons), their breech pings back to Monarch, where The Morning Show’s Joe Tippett springs back and forth between helping and not helping them discover more about their missing father and answer if he’s really dead as they learn more about their legacy with the agency of Monarch.
This barely scratches the surface of the spaghetti plot in this series, as there is also the big inclusions of famous action star Kurt Russell as defector Colonel Lee Shaw and his son Wyatt Russell (Falcon and the Winter Soldier), who plays a younger version of the same character in a much more interesting B-plot about the founding of Monarch. The split timeline weaves inconsistently throughout the season, as we see flashbacks out of order for no reason other than drip feeding reveals and loose thematic ties throughout.
Show me the way to go home. / I’m tired and I wanna go to bed.
However, it shouldn’t go without saying Wyatt Russell as young Shaw, Mari Yamamoto (Pachinko) as Keiko and Anders Holm as a younger version of John Goodman’s Kong character Bill Randa, really are the bright spots on this otherwise droll melodrama. While it isn’t without its problems, it creates a fun historical period piece environment that shows the three traveling the globe to identify monster sightings, learn more about Godzilla, and fight for funding from a US government that does little to mask its displays of sexism and racism.
While it is trope loaded as anything harkening to B-movies and serials of the mid 20th century, these moments show a glimpse of a fun procedural that this show could have been, like a retro X-Files with quirky science nerds working in the military system with a monster of the week. Hilm, Russell Jr., and Yamamoto display a spark of enthusiasm for the subject material and character chemistry that is missing from the rest of the series. Kurt Russell is profoundly wasted, despite his son having so much to chew on in his flashback sequences, at least that we know up to the end of episode eight, as he tries to win over the hearts and minds of the main characters.
The main trio, all of whom should be functioning adults, flail and protest at moving the story forward like teenagers throwing tantrums. May, Cate, and Kentaro play hot potato over who wants to drop the ball and go home and end their adventure, on several occasions bringing the story to a screeching halt, even in the most dire of survival situations. There is more that Monarch ends up showing about what these three characters don’t want, rather than what they do, making them overall largely unlikable.
Between them and the see-sawing of Monarch choosing to be good or not, it feels like a level of melodrama that would make The CW blush in embarrassment. The crediting of veterans of both The Morning Show and Severance between these episodes speaks for itself in how wildly different the tone can feel, and the performances between these main characters and their surrounding cast feel out of place where some appear overdramatic, and others too cartoonish in tone.
If every character in the modern setting realized they were in a B-movie, it’d feel like 2019’s King of the Monsters. On the other hand, if every character were deadpan serious we’d be looking at something more in line with 2014’s Godzilla film. This show, unfortunately, exists as the body of the ouroboros that is the tonal spectrum of Legendary’s Monsterverse, and this show’s main purpose is to bridge that gap. In that essence, it does do its job, for better or worse and by doing so will likely please very few people for the very same reason nobody liked every entry in the series thus far.