Godzilla vs. King Kong: The Human Ethics of Intra-Monster Violence

Cinema's top-billed bout is a battle between metaphors for slavery and annihilation. Choose a side!


In 2020, Warner Bros. will produce a big-budget Rorschach test disguised as a kaiju wrestling match. Godzilla vs. Kong will be something close to a remake of 1964’s King Kong vs. Godzilla starring CGI and our collective fear of forces beyond our control. Two monsters will enter and only one (presumably) will leave. Which one should puny humans root for?

Like most monsters, King Kong and Godzilla are more than scary looking animals. They are physical manifestations of uncomfortable truths. Here’s the truth that King Kong represents: The United States, which fancies itself a breakaway republic, was also a colonial power and behaved badly abroad even after the end of the African slave trade. Here’s the truth that Godzilla represents: Nuclear weapons cannot promise peace, only assure a vast escalation in violence. King Kong is a monster born of the textile trade, the great migration, and early 20th-century American adventures abroad. Godzilla is a monster born from an atomic blast.

Hollywood’s most iconic mega beast, King Kong, was introduced in 1933’s King Kong from directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, which was remade in 1976 and again in 2005 from Peter Jackson. A giant ape from the indigenous Skull Island, Kong is brought to New York in chains and shackles and on a large block — like an auction — before he breaks free and is shot from the Empire State Building by military muscle.

No one really argues that King Kong and African-American manhood are inseparable ideas. It’s no coincidence that the massive primate arrived just as a specific labor force was gaining influence in major American cities. King Kong fetishizes the strength of the African-American community in that moment, while also exoticizing it in a way that can only be described as racist. And, yeah, the whole obsessed with a white woman thing is pretty gross. All that said, King Kong is never presented as evil, merely monstrous and inhuman. The monster has a good heart even if his creators had questionable motivations.

In the opposite corner, weighing in at 164,000 tons, is the enduring Japanese champion of grindhouse, Godzilla. A destructive force of nature in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 Gojira, the big lizard became a guardian hero against aliens throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s with altering interpretations through the ‘80s onward. But his origins and the 1954 movie’s imagery evoke very clearly mid-century atomic fears, an unavoidable omen against man’s lust for war. Godzilla is basically this planet’s trump card in the ongoing game of mutually assured destruction. He will always save Earth, even from people, if it comes to that.

But Godzilla is a little less abstract than that because the movie was created after a very specific incident. Less than a decade after the U.S. leveled Nagasaki and Hiroshima to end World War II, the Lucky Dragon No. 5 fishing boat, flying a Japanese flag, ran into radiation from an American thermonuclear test at Bikini Atoll. One of the sailors died and, six months after that incident, Gojira smashed into theaters. Its opening scene: A fishing boat being destroyed by an unknown, destructive power.

In the modern context, both Godzilla and King Kong can seem like punishments for our sins, but when we look at the history of these beasts we see that neither is evil. King Kong is a decent enough sort, reacting in anger after being taken advantage of by capitalist. Godzilla is a dumb beast, but a critical part of Earth’s ecosystem.

Given that, it makes sense for people to root for Godzilla over King Kong. Godzilla is, after all, the ultimate apex predator and thus an integral part of our global ecosystem and an important alien deterrent. That said, no one should take any pleasure in King Kong’s destruction. He’s essentially a bystander mistaken for an aggressor because of his strength.

But if moral truths make the premise of Godzilla vs. King Kong a bit sad, they also clear the way for a movie we want to see. Rather than engaging with the source material and asking audiences to empathize, Guillermo del Toro will likely beat the two monsters together like an infant with plastic toys taking a Red Bull bath.

That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with having a good time in the theater. After all, there are monsters outside.

Update 1/20: The author previously wrote that King Kong climbed the Chrysler Building, when he in fact climbed the Empire State Building. That mistake has since been corrected. Don’t blame him, both buildings are wonders of mid-century metropolitan art deco.