When every other movie studio was chasing Marvel’s Cinematic Universe — and most were failing — executives at Legendary Entertainment also called their shot, with something that would later be trademarked the “MonsterVerse.”
Back in 2015, the idea of a series of movies spun out of icons from generations earlier seemed laughable, and the first two entries didn’t do much to dissuade the notion. Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island were popcorn cinema at best. But with Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the MonsterVerse has its first great movie, and the beginning of an exciting new story.
Just as the MCU hits a major inflection point, Godzilla: King of the Monsters ushers in an epic new cinematic universe. Thanks to Michael Dougherty’s direction, an all-star cast, and excellent VFX work, the MonsterVerse expands in unexpected directions (New monsters! Moral ambiguity! A secret government organization with an underwater base!) that challenge Marvel’s dominance while paying tribute to the original cinematic universe of Godzilla.
You might not know it, but Godzilla actually kickstarted the idea of a cinematic universe back in the 1950s, thanks to a series of kaiju movies from Japanese studio Toho, which went on to produce 33 films starring the oversized lizard, as it battled with various other beasts crossing over from their own separate movies.
“Most people don’t realize that Toho was really a pioneer in the cinematic universe concept,” Dougherty tells Inverse. “It feels like once again things are coming full circle.”
Toho’s first Godzilla movie debuted in 1954. It was followed by Godzilla Raids Again in 1955, Rodan in 1956, and Mothra in 1961. Then, in 1964, they all came together “Avengers style” in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster.
“As a kid I’ll never forget how that blew my mind,” Dougherty says. “You always wished that Mothra and Rodan would cross over, but then finally we were getting that. In a lot of ways, it feels like we’re picking up where Toho left off.”
Godzilla: King of the Monsters recaptures that feeling of the original monster mashup, just with a much bigger budget. The sets are sweeping and epic, ranging from an arctic base where Ghidorah is contained at sub-zero temperatures to Godzilla’s ancient, underwater lair. And when those monsters collide, it’s like watching pro wrestling in the form of a renaissance painting. Some of the movie’s best visual moments are purely special effects, giving Dougherty the chance to illustrate the massive scale of these beasts, matched only by the mountains and oceans around them.
There’s a plot, too, one centered on the human characters that anchor the story even if it’s just an excuse to get to the monster fights. Godzilla: King of the Monsters ditches the Brody family — remember when Bryan Cranston was in Godzilla? — for the Russells. Father Mark (Kyle Chandler) holds a grudge against Godzilla for the death of his son, mother Emma (Vera Farmiga) is a scientist working on a method for communicating with the monsters, and their daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), is mostly just along for the ride. There’s also a few returning scientists (Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe) who seem eager to make their exits, along with an expanded Monarch crew that includes Thomas Middleditch, Ziyi Zhang, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Bradley Whitford.
To be honest, most of these roles are little more than forgettable appetizers compared to the main course: Godzilla and the rest of the monsters. Brown gives a decent performance that confirms she can act beyond her role on Stranger Things, while her parents motivations to fight for and/or against the monsters never make much sense. Middleditch gets a few funny jokes in, and Watanabe does what he does best by grounding this fantastical story in excellent, emotional acting — even when it’s just him and a green screen.
The real (human) star, however, is Charles Dance, who plays an eco-terrorist determined to give control of Earth back to the monsters before humanity destroys the planet. Channeling the same type of ruthless genius he played as Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones, Dance makes it easy to root for the villains.
“It was a no-brainer because he’s so elegant,” Dougherty says of casting Dance in the role. “I find he adds a layer of complexity and moral ambiguity even when he’s playing a ‘bad guy,’ because everything he says seems to make sense. He has a way of communicating in a certain cadence that makes you want to listen very carefully, because either you’re intrigued or intimidated or both.”
But Dance isn’t the real bad guy, at least not according to Dougherty. The director adds that while Dance may play a dangerous antagonist, he’s just a sideshow to the “true villain,” Ghidorah.
He’s not lying. A three-headed dragon with the wings of a bat, Ghidorah is a beautiful work of special effects. (Watching those three heads interact like squabbling siblings is pure joy.) He’s also a formidable enemy for Godzilla, and perhaps most of all, an absolute unit. Just look at this lad.
Ghidorah is just the tip of this kaiju-sized iceberg. By the end of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, there really is a kingdom’s worth of monsters for our king to rule over. Most, including what looks like a woolly mammoth and a beast that can best be described as a four-legged spider the size of a skyscraper, only get a few moments of screen time. But it’s enough to leave a lasting impact.
Of course, this is just the beginning, and there’s an even more epic crossover coming soon. Godzilla vs. Kong is slated for March 13, 2020, and after King of the Monsters, I can hardly wait for more monster showdowns.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters stomps into theaters on Friday, May 31.