Godzilla and King Kong were two characters I knew of growing up but whose films I’d never seen. Everything I knew of them had been gleaned through cultural osmosis—I knew Godzilla was inspired by/related to the droppings of the atomic bombs in Japan, I knew that King Kong regularly climbed tall buildings with damsels in distress in hand, and I knew that both creatures tended to be defenders of humanity, fighting against other monsters. But that’s about it. Until recently, I’d never seen even a minute of any film that featured them—outside of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes that riffed a couple of Godzilla films from the 1960s/1970s. So, with the imminent release of Godzilla vs Kong on HBO Max, I thought it might be time to look into Hollywood’s latest attempt to resurrect both of these franchises—this time, in a shared universe called the “MonsterVerse.” I didn’t really know what to expect or how good the movies would be, but I was excited to watch them. And, having seen the three that have been released, they’re as much of a mixed bag as I suspected. Some of them are very good, some of them are less good. But there’s clearly a lot of fun to be had in this universe. So, in that spirit, I’d like to share some brief thoughts on the three MonsterVerse films that have been released, followed by my hopes for Godzilla vs Kong.
(NOTE: There are full spoilers for Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Read at your own risk.)
I didn’t love this movie. The pacing was slow as molasses, there were too many characters to develop them enough for me to care about them, and there wasn’t enough Godzilla in the first two-thirds of the movie. Too much of the film centers around Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor Johnson, but the film forgets to make either of their characters interesting. Instead, they’ve got that kind of father/son dynamic you’ve seen in dozens of films. So much time is spent on them and their conflict that you don’t really get any world-building, any development on the MUTOs/Kaiju, or anything like that. For two-thirds of the film, it’s a boring family drama that’s been pasted on top of an action film. And that family drama is an absolute slog to get through. It doesn’t help that the supporting characters are just as boring as the lead characters. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins show some promise, but the movie never does anything with them and it’s a shame. They’re just here for exposition.
The last third is pretty rad, though, and it almost makes up for the rest of the movie. You can tell this is a Gareth Edwards film because the final act (when Godzilla fights the other Kaiju and breathes atomic fire down one’s throat) is so good it makes the whole movie way more enjoyable. Like how the last act of Rogue One is what makes that film as enjoyable as it is. I wish the fight scenes focused more on the Kaiju and less on the people, but they were still cool. The CGI on Godzilla and the other Kaiju is neat, but you don’t always get to see their designs very clearly as they’re often hidden in shadow or obstructed by buildings and smoke. Ultimately, it’s an uneven film that’s saved by a stellar third act. There are way too many human characters, none of whom are developed very well. I know none of their names and refer to them only by the actors who play them. Because I couldn’t care less about the humans, focusing so much on them made the whole film extremely boring. In the future: less boring humans, more monsters, please. (3 out of 5 wands.)
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
This movie’s way better than Godzilla (2014). The plot’s a bit silly, but it’s paced very well. More focus is given to King Kong and the other Kaiju that live on Skull Island, instead of wasting time on overly dramatic character nonsense. The characters are still a bit thinly sketched, but the actors are so good that it’s way easier to go along with it. I mean Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Reilly, and John Goodman are a dream team. It does help that there’s a bit more nuance to the characters in this one—particularly when it comes to Samuel L. Jackson’s character. Plus, King Kong shows up for more than ten minutes! In fact, he’s in the movie quite a bit! The CGI on him is pretty stellar and I enjoyed all his action scenes with the humans and with the Skullcrawlers.
Equally good is how well this movie handles its world-building. Setting it 40+ years before the other films in the franchise helps audiences understand the history of the MUTOs/Kaiju. There’s a lot of cool stuff on Skull Island about the Hollow Earth and about how King Kong fits into the world of Godzilla and his ilk (like Mothra/Ghidorah, Rodan, etc) and it definitely does its job at making me want to watch more films in this universe. Also, I finally understand some of the love for King Kong—he’s a badass here. Also—I need a sequel set in the 70s with Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston working for Monarch and finding a new MUTO/Titan. It’s a shame they’re not in the Godzilla films or Godzilla vs Kong. Overall, a much better balance of human stuff, monster stuff, and much-needed exposition. I really enjoyed it. (4 out of 5 wands.)
Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)
This might be my least favorite of the bunch. Sure, there’s a lot more Godzilla in this one than there is in the 2014 Godzilla film. But it was such a slog watching King of the Monsters. As usual, there are too many characters and the film spends far too much time following them, shortchanging the various Kaiju/MUTOs/Titans/whatever we’re calling them now. The worst thing is that there is an interesting plot somewhere in here. The idea of an ecoterrorist group wanting to allow the Titans free rein on the earth as their destruction seems to heal the planet is a great one. As is the idea that various world governments might not be so fond of allowing giant, uncontrollable monsters free rein over the earth. Unfortunately, neither of these plots—or the characters associated with them—are explored with any depth. All of the inciting incidents building up to these plots have happened in between movies and just get explained away with throwaway dialogue. This film seems like it’s supposed to be the one that fully establishes this shared MonsterVerse, but all of the world-building seems to be happening outside of the movies, leaving the audience playing catchup as the filmmakers assume we know the ins and the outs. It’s like there should’ve been another movie in between Kong: Skull Island and this one that focused more on Monarch.
The antagonists are as generic as they come. Charles Dance’s character is painted as a bog-standard terrorist, with thinly-sketched motivations. And the plotline with Vera Farmiga/Kyle Chander/Millie Bobby Brown is super boring, cliche, and takes up time that could be spent better developing the antagonists and their point of view. Instead, we follow another group of bland, interchangeable characters. And, since the previous Godzilla film spent all of its time developing characters that don’t return for this one, the ones who do return (notably Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) feel even less developed than the new characters, and their deaths are completely emotionless, regardless of what the film wants you to feel. It’s funny—Mothra’s death ended up having more of an impact on me than either Watanabe or Hawkins’ deaths. Equally baffling is the film’s insistence on keeping the Titans in darkness. The CGI is beautiful, yet we can hardly see it. Godzilla and Mothra have these gorgeous scenes where they glow in the dark, but so often the action is obscured by either shadow or thick smoke, making it hard to enjoy these beautiful designs. I dunno. Something about this film didn’t work for me. It felt like a season of a TV show crammed into a film—the pacing was weird, either speeding past important plot details or dwelling far too long on things that didn’t feel important. I get what the movie was going for, I just don’t think it worked. Ultimately, too many characters + too much going on + not enough focus = a boring movie. (2.5 out of 5 wands.)
My Hopes for Godzilla vs Kong (2021)
Chiefly: either have fewer human characters and focus more on Godzilla and Kong or set up some kind of plotline with a handful of characters with compelling backstories that explores this universe in new and intriguing ways. I’d like a film that’s more Kong: Skull Island than Godzilla: King of the Monsters. I’d like the Titans to be shown in daylight more often—and unobscured by smoke/debris/etc. These are gorgeous designs and I’d like to be able to see them clearly. I’d like a lot of action scenes, with the focus actually being on the monsters fighting instead of the humans trying to survive—the more carnage, the better. I’d like some better world-building. And, honestly, I’d like the filmmakers to stop trying to make me care about the human characters. I don’t. I suspect most people who are watching these movies don’t care about the human characters. Sure, it’d be nice to have some interesting ones, but I don’t need a plot that has some emotional center around parents/kids or whatever—like both of the Godzilla films have had. Just give me some characters that are fun to follow and who can help facilitate the fight between Godzilla, King Kong, and whatever other Titans appear in the film. All of us are here to see a bunch of giant monsters fight each other and it would be nice if these movies would remember that.