Monarch: Legacy of Monsters will premiere Friday, Nov. 17, exclusively on the Apple TV+ streaming service.
The first critique you’ll likely hear regarding Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, the first live-action attempt at a series about Godzilla? “Too much focus on the humans.”
It’s an old refrain that no attempt at the character has avoided across his nearly 70-year history, regardless of what each film itself contains. Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla is lauded for its human focus and sense of scale, despite its limited exposure to the monster, while its 2019 sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, took hits for its human cast despite featuring the most monster action of any Western swing at original Japanese production company Toho’s famous stable of atomic monstrosities. Any Godzilla or tokusatsu film has to find the right balance between big visual-effects sequences and the actual story connecting them, and it’s impossible to please every audience with any one solution.
Too many audiences seem incapable of accepting the two elements as complementary, not at odds. No one loses out on monster action because of the human element. An interesting human story is necessary to fill the space between expensive moments of delightful smashing, and that story can take on any number of forms.
Some fans prefer their human characters to feel relatable and down-to-earth; that’s the precedent set by 1954’s original Gojira, with its love triangle and grounded, hyper-allegorical response to the monster’s first atomic-fueled rampage in Tokyo. Prior to that film, director Ishirō Honda had built a career crafting intimate dramas, and he was the right man to meld Eiji Tsuburaya’s groundbreaking special effects with the weeping heart of post-war Japan. Just over 20 years later, the same creative team produced 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla, which ended the Showa era of Godzilla films with a story whose human element was found in the soul of a mad scientist helping aliens control kaiju in exchange for the life of his cyborg daughter. There were 14 films in the franchise between Gojira and Terror, with a majority directed by Honda (with Jun Fukuda handling nearly all the rest), and each finding its way to tell a story between monster fight sequences. They don’t all succeed, but the bookends to that era have, to me, always felt like perfect examples of how inherently flexible Godzilla can be as a concept.
All of this preamble is my way of establishing two things about my perspective on Monarch: Legacy of Monsters. First, I think about Godzilla way too much, and I can only view this new series from creators Chris Black and Matt Fraction through that lens. Second, because I’m such a dork, I can’t engage with the show on the level of simply arguing whether its balance of humans and kaiju is off-kilter. That is now the manner in which I view these stories. I have seen too many of them and grown to love their existence within the school of the genre rather than as the simple experiences intended. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I was bored by the human stuff.” My 4-year-old says it all the time during some of the newer movies in the Godzilla series. (He’s never bored by the Showa movies, though.) Me? I just cannot do it.
So there. You have my perspective on this. Now, here’s my core thought on the first half of Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, which Apple TV+ provided to critics alongside the pilot episode’s New York Comic Con premiere: What makes Monarch very interesting is its conscious attempt to bridge the gap between Gojira and Terror‘s respective approaches to telling human stories within the Godzilla framework. It’s a show that recognizes both aspects of the character’s legacy and deliberately, if not entirely successfully, attempts to provide audiences with both approaches in a single narrative construct. It’s an admirable venture made by a host of writers and directors who clearly want to make a series that engages with the totality of the character’s potential despite the streaming medium’s inherent budgetary and structural limitations.
The solution is to combine two parallel narratives, separated by 70 years of history and nestled very firmly in the continuity established by the 2014 Godzilla, 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, Godzilla: King of the Monsters and 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong. The primary story follows Cate Randa (Anna Sawai), a San Francisco-based teacher who experienced unspeakable tragedy during the events depicted in the 2014 Godzilla, aka G-Day. Cate travels to Japan in search of her missing father and discovers he had a secret family there, including her half-brother, Kentaro (Ren Watabe), who becomes just as obsessed with finding their missing patriarch. Cate and Kentaro’s search leads them to discover Monarch, the mysterious organization whose actions in this particular continuity define humanity’s interaction with kaiju.
Meanwhile, a story set in the 1950s focuses on the founding of Monarch by three underappreciated researchers — Keiko (Mari Yamamoto), Bill Randa (Anders Holm) and Lee Shaw (Wyatt Russell). Cate is Randa’s granddaughter, making this a multi-generational saga full of mysteries, hidden traumas and buried secrets that link her and Kentaro to mankind’s discovery of Godzilla and his kind. Fans of Kong: Skull Island might recognize Randa’s name, too; John Goodman plays him in that film, and the actor briefly reprises the role here in the premiere episode.
The pilot introduces both stories, weaving them together as a nice introduction to Cate and the past group of explorers. Pilot episodes are traditionally a tricky business: They must give audiences a taste of everything to come in a series while feeling like their own contained unit. In the streaming age, with full-season orders, that idea has often been pushed aside for stories that feel like a first chapter. Blessedly, that is not the case here: The first episode of Monarch is just about everything the show has to offer in terms of kaiju, drama and mystery, all wrapped into one package. To varying degrees, subsequent episodes continue the patterns established here. But for the most part, every flavor of the show is sampled in its first 50 minutes.
It also contains numerous direct, but sometimes slightly disconnected, attachments to its cinematic continuity. Therein lies one quasi-frustration with Monarch. It’s synced up quite closely with 2014’s Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island but very loosely with the two subsequent films, which are much larger in their scope and depiction of Monarch. Perhaps it’s only an issue for someone like me who loves the breadth of these things, but there’s a sense this show could have (and maybe should have) released five or six years ago rather than in 2023 when the franchise as a whole has built itself into something bigger. We know where Monarch is as of King of the Monsters, and its depiction here doesn’t feel like an organization that will develop flying fortresses and secret bases scattered across the globe just years later.
That said, the 1950s section of the story has a lot of juice and often feels a lot like Kong: Skull Island in a very positive way. It features giant monsters, weird science and colorful characters who make exploring that little universe fun. It contrasts well with Cate’s more straightforwardly dramatic story, where trauma takes center stage in a profoundly mid-2010s way; it isn’t until later episodes — when she meets an older Lee Shaw (Kurt Russell, picking up the role from his son and running away with it thanks to his inherent charisma) — that Cate’s story becomes a little more visceral.
Each episode features at least one kaiju, even for the briefest of sequences. Given the budget behind these monsters, it’s nice that they prioritized their inclusion at appropriate intervals, although here’s another major nerd nitpick: It doesn’t appear Toho licensed its big-name monsters to production company Legendary for this show, and that’s a goddamn shame. It’s no secret among fans of the genre that the reason why King of the Monsters only included the big four — Godzilla, King Ghidorah, Mothra and Rodan — is that it’s hideously expensive and complicated to convince Toho to play ball, and it’s clear they’re not doing so here. That’s a big problem because the replacement monsters just lack the same feel thus far. They’re fine but it’s kind of a “kaiju we have at home” situation.
There’s a reason my son is so inherently excited about monsters he sees in the Godzilla movies: They’re just a total cut above in design and, more importantly, character. I hope the back half features at least one or two recognizable or distinct monsters, especially if any of them fight Godzilla.
That brings us to the key question for fans wondering if Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is worth their time: How much Godzilla is there? Not much, but he is effectively used — particularly during a great sequence in a subsequent episode. This is very much a story about people interacting with the world Godzilla created rather than the monster himself. When he does appear, it’s with a sense of awe.
As for its humans, some principal characters’ emotional stories feel stock, and Monarch has the same issue as most streaming series: It’s clear the episode order doesn’t reflect the amount of story to be told. That means entire episodes are devoted to repeating beats we have either inferred or already understood. However, for a live-action Godzilla show, it consciously tries its damndest to capture the different flavors of human storytelling that the franchise has used to survive over a half-century in hearts and minds of fans worldwide, and that level of thoroughness in its creative philosophy is very admirable. At this point, it’s hard to say whether Monarch sticks the landing, but I have high hopes for the back half.
And let’s be real: Even if it ends up flubbing the landing, what’s the worst that can happen? An ultimately subpar Godzilla story? Like that’s never happened before.