Since it began with 2014’s Godzilla, Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse has grown to include four films and Skull Island, an anime-inspired Netflix TV series that premiered earlier this year. Now, the franchise is set to expand again this fall with Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, a live-action TV series that explores the origins of the secret government organization that has been tracking the MonsterVerse’s titans for decades, as well as its response to the world-changing G-Day disaster seen in Godzilla. Of all of the multimedia franchise’s installments, Monarch is easily the most ambitious and complex to date.
The show’s ambition both serves and hurts it. Over the course of its first five episodes, which were the only installments of the 10-episode series provided early to critics, Monarch spins an intricate web of intersecting timelines, conspiracies, characters, and potential threats. It puts a lot on its plate, but while its attempts to humanize the gargantuan world of the MonsterVerse are appreciated, the series ultimately emerges as a reflection of its own flawed franchise. Much like the four films that have preceded it, Monarch works best when it’s focused solely on delivering the kind of globe-trotting thrills that people go to MonsterVerse movies to see in the first place — but it struggles whenever it tries to do anything more than that.
At the center of Monarch: Legacy of Monsters are Cate (Anna Sawai) and Kentaro Randa (Ren Watabe), a pair of half-siblings who learn about each other’s existence only after their father dies under mysterious circumstances. When they begin to look into his recent disappearance, the two discover a collection of hidden files that all point back to Monarch, the organization that has been tracking monsters like Godzilla and King Kong ever since the late 1940s. After enlisting the help of Kentaro’s on-again, off-again partner, May (Kiersey Clemons), the three characters accidentally catch the attention of Tim (Joe Tippett), a low-level Monarch worker desperate to uncover the greater secrets of his own organization.
Cate and Kentaro’s investigation not only sends them and May on the run, but also on a quest to find Lee Shaw (Kurt Russell), a former U.S. colonel with ties to the forming of Monarch; their missing father; and their grandfather, Bill Randa (Anders Holm). The further into their mission they get, the more that Cate and Kentaro begin to realize the potential greater ramifications of their father’s research. What follows is a quasi-chase around the world that may bring Cate, Kentaro, May, and Lee, as well as their relentless pursuers, closer to discovering the true nature of Monarch and the titans it was created to monitor.
As a piece of franchise expansion, Monarch, which was developed by Chris Black and comic book writer Matt Fraction, tries to both fill in some of the gaps in the MonsterVerse’s existing lore and carve out a place for itself as a blockbuster adventure show that could conceivably run for multiple seasons. Unfortunately, it only manages to successfully do one of those things. The series expects viewers to come into it with a level of interest in its eponymous organization that the MonsterVerse has never truly earned, which results in several of its actual, Monarch-centric storylines falling flat.
Try as it might, the series never makes a compelling case for why viewers should care about most of its characters. Cate and Kentaro’s relationship is so emotionally convoluted and their bond with their father so undefined that neither Sawai nor Watabe is able to bring much personality or charisma to their characters. The show’s flashbacks to their lives prior to its first episode, meanwhile, reveal little necessary information about Cate and Kentaro’s characters and feel increasingly like filler the more time Monarch spends on them.
The same is true for the series’ focus on several of its least interesting figures — namely, Tippet’s Tim and Holm’s Bill, the latter of whom feels so divorced from the quasi-villainous version of the character played by John Goodman in 2017’s Kong: Skull Island that one could be forgiven for forgetting that they’re supposed to be the same person. Indeed, among Monarch’s cast, only two characters make much of an impact.
Clemons’ May proves to be a gutsy, likable counter to Sawai’s Cate and Watabe’s Kentaro, while Russell’s older Lee shows up at the end of Monarch’s second episode and promptly runs away with the whole show. Unburdened by the kind of fresh emotional trauma felt by the show’s leads, Russell brings a level of active energy to Monarch that allows it to seamlessly shift gears into a more awe-inspiring, spectacle-driven form of storytelling in its later episodes that is markedly different from the timeline-hopping, exposition-heavy approach of its opening installments. In a handful of flashbacks to Lee’s life, Wyatt Russell also shines as the younger version of the character played by his father.
Once Monarch actually starts producing the monster-heavy set pieces promised by its title, the series becomes significantly more fun. Its third episode, which follows the show’s heroes as they travel from Japan to South Korea and then to Alaska, is such a rip-roaring, breezy blockbuster adventure that it manages to achieve a big-screen, cinematic quality that still feels relatively elusive on television. The best version of Monarch is, in other words, the one that most resembles a massive monster movie.
That fact makes the series’ decision to pile on so many other superfluous subplots and characters genuinely frustrating, but not enough to render the entire project a waste of time. On the contrary, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is a fairly entertaining, if occasionally tedious, TV show. Its roar isn’t quite as loud as some may want and its bite not quite as sharp, but if nothing else, at least it’s capable of reminding us all why Kurt Russell is — and will forever be — one of Hollywood’s greatest stars.