There’s a clever ode to Planet of the Apes in Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong, the fourth film in Legendary’s Monsterverse series. Through the aid of sign language, it’s the discovery that Kong can talk, a secret that when revealed explores the depth of his bond with the only person he trusts within his enclosed life: Jia (played by real-life deaf actress Kaylee Hottle). The scene might be brief, a sudden shock to the rest of the characters who are unaware of Kong’s latent ability. Nevertheless, it provides a connection that gives the audience something to invest in. And if you happened to be #TeamKong, it’s emotional ammunition to root for his cause. For a franchise that has blessed us with scenes rich in visual spectacle, it’s also a rare moment of genuine sincerity.
Legendary’s Monsterverse has been a wild yet fascinating ride. If their inspired originators are anything to go by, with the 1954 Toho classic being an analogy for post-war trauma and heightened fears of atomic nuclear power, or the colonial undertones present in King Kong (1933), each film has its own unique timestamp signature. Gareth Edwards 2014 reboot erases the big-scale goofiness of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version so that it functions as a spiritual tribute to Ishirô Honda’s film. Kong: Skull Island debuted at a time where studios were actively trying their hand at shared universes. Godzilla: King of the Monsters tackled the vastness of Titan creatures at their disposal by deploying a Game of Thrones-style mythology (it’s no coincidence Charles Dance starred in the film). Then we have Godzilla vs. Kong – look, we’ve been in a pandemic for over a year now, and anything that resembles popcorn-friendly escapism with two monsters clashing in an ultimate fight for the ages is enough. We’ve deserved it, and the box office results do not lie. But as the series draws to a close with no immediate signs of continuation, there is one criticism that has overshadowed the franchise – its lack of compelling and engaging characters.
It’s a fascinating debate, purely because of how these films have tried to strike a balance between the monster action and humanity’s response. It’s not always easy to get right, but it hasn’t stopped the never-ending cries of its interaction being “boring” and “dull”. But then again, audiences should be under no illusions of what these films are when they signed up for this adventure. When we want to see these iconic monsters fight, rightly so, humans are not the focus. But when you have films such as Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim or Travis Knight’s Bumblebee, films that have combined character development and action without sacrificing its intent, you can’t help but wonder at the potential the Monsterverse could have had if it had mastered that trick.
The legacy of Ishirô Honda’s film was the profundity found in its post-war analogy. The film pauses for a debate, on a tearful mother hugging her children with the grim promise they’ll be meeting their father soon in heaven, or a scientist (Akihiko Hirata’s Dr. Daisuke Serizawa) wrestling with the moral ethics of using his Oxygen Destroyer. There’s some sense of perspective. Not only does it put a human face to the surrounding chaos, but the significant cost in the wake of this awakened reality. It’s an existential response, one that fundamentally reshapes humanity’s place in the world as superior beings. And our enjoyment – in its purest form – stems from how it reconciles that fact. The Monsterverse films are not deep in retrospect, and that’s ok. The franchise has established itself as an entertaining throwback to the B-movie absurdity of yesteryears. But each iteration has gradually rejected that identifying feature.
Admittedly, there are exceptions. Godzilla (2014) places the audience at frightening eye-level, tapping into a Spielberg/Jaws-inspired reveal of Godzilla’s arrival in its combat with the MUTOs. Kong: Skull Island has the most fun with its Vietnam War concept thanks to the performances of Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly. And while not perfect, Godzilla vs. Kong attempts to humanise the creatures with allies fighting in their respective corners – the standout performance belonging to Kaylee Hottle. To Wingard’s credit, while it can’t fix the franchise’s past mistakes, Godzilla vs. Kong is at least self-aware enough to ensure balance is maintained in raising the stakes, adding vibrancy to the colour palette and unearthing the deeper mysteries of both Godzilla and Kong’s existence.
But it’s almost as if there’s a self-defeating acceptance behind the scenes of what these characters are – expositional devices used to regurgitate a thinly-veiled plot. The Monsterverse is also guilty for leaning into archetypes rather than developing fully-fledged characters, relying on ‘copy and paste’ mechanics that saturate the screen with soldiers (Aaron-Taylor Johnson, O’Shea Jackson Jr.), authority figures (David Strathairn), quippy folk (Bradley Whitford and Thomas Middleditch), characters beset by tragedy (Bryan Cranston and Kyle Chandler) and so on. Eventually, they cross into tokenism, especially the saga’s use of Asian characters who are given little agency besides acting as a cultural validation between the original and the new. Through formulaic repetition, it offers nothing new to the experience.
The lack of consistency is obvious: each film hitting the reset button on visual tone and direction as if they were directly responding to audiences’ concerns, switching from a serious tone to self-aware humour; from mythology to good old-fashioned action basics. But this shift has also been an excuse for a revolving door policy. Familiar returns of Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) and Maddison (Millie Bobby Brown) are lost in the mix by the films’ incessant need to introduce new ones. Characters such as Alan Jorah (Charles Dance), James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) have disappeared from the Monsterverse lore. It’s a haphazard way of dealing with continuity, and any momentum between the films has to be re-established.
There’s nothing wrong with characters serving a purpose. Predator (1987) is a great example of exaggerated machismo avatars faced with elite competition. The Fast and the Furious franchise has adapted to the times, using “family” as an emotional anchor for its characters. It’s simple, but it’s effective, even if characters are tasked with the bare minimum of dialogue or exposition – a trick that the Monsterverse tries to recreate. But their characters are given precious little material that justifies their motivations. King of the Monsters is guilty of that fact, a film so despondent at humanity’s environmental and population failings that Vera Farmiga’s Dr. Emma Russell is willing to commit genocide to advance it. For a twist that carries a war crimes level of incomprehensible madness, it makes her subsequent redemption towards the end laughable.
Symptomatic of the problem, this recurrent failing makes the human cost much more prevalent, especially when audiences are constantly positioned in the middle of that destructive battleground. The Monsterverse has made it clear that humans are the real monsters, defined by their arrogance. However, it’s never interested in confronting that cause, and any attempt by the Monsterverse to articulate any moral dilemma is muddled at best. The major fault is not the films’ preference to focus on the humans instead of the monsters. It simply doesn’t know what to do with them when these questions are posed.
When these characters stand for nothing, depicted as empty shells for nonsensical exposition or drowned out by an excessive cast list, it comes as no surprise when the on-screen engagement is often met with a growing yet frustrating disconnect. These films are doing a lot within a short runtime, and with the lack of time and patience to make a convincing argument, the Monsterverse ends up sacrificing its best assets who may have been best placed to tackle that moral dilemma. Bryan Cranston’s Joe Ford, Watanabe’s Serizawa, or Hawkins’s Graham are killed off in their respective films as a dramatic beat, but not with a narrative element that actually warrants it.
Some would argue that the Monsterverse achieved what it needed to do. It’s easy to spin a narrative that celebrates the spectacle while accepting the shortcomings. Already, the fuse for the Monsterverse’s continuance has been lit. Yes, these movies could have been made sans humans, but there is a fundamental reason why humans are involved. These are genre films that have relied on humanity’s sense of curiosity and wonder. Through their actions, we see ourselves through the unimaginable, adding to the weight that tries to make sense of the world when faced with such devastating peril. And what better way to explore that connection through the emergence of these iconic monsters? Love it or hate it, they are here to stay, but if the franchise were to move forward, it’s how they’re utilised that makes that symbolic connection worthwhile. Otherwise, despite the spirited discourse of “let them fight”, it will continually end up being empty and unsatisfying.
Godzilla vs Kong – Full Review
Godzilla: King of the Monsters – Full Review
Kong: Skull Island – Full Review