“Cinematic universes” are not new to Godzilla. Nothing is new to the King of the Monsters after 65 years—not even the title King of the Monsters. Writer/director Michael Dougherty’s entry into Godzilla canon isn’t only the 35th film in a 65-year-old series, it’s also the third movie in Warner Bros. attempt to mold one of history’s original cinematic universes into something a little more Marvel-shaped, because have you seen the size of the box-office on Avengers: Endgame?
The first film in Warner Bros.’ “MonsterVerse” was 2014’s Godzilla, which showcased director Gareth Edwards’ ability to create legitimately awe-inspiring imagery and his propensity for leaving great actors hopelessly stranded. Since most audiences don’t prioritize people or plotting in a Godzilla movie, Edwards just needed a few undeniably powerful “Holy shit did you see that?” moments to counterbalance all his characters’ interminable gawping into the middle distance. He botched the humans, but he nailed the scale.
The follow-up, 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, was seemingly directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts as a direct response to the criticisms of Edwards’ ponderous, ungainly epic. With all the grace and restraint of a sugar-high 12-year-old racing around the living room screaming “LOOKIT ME,” Vogt-Roberts’ trip to Skull Island is a rocket-propelled freight train full of superheated stupid that never stops derailing; it’s less an actual movie than a wet heap of trailers balled up and glued in place by the presence of John C. Reilly. People who saw it mostly liked it.
And if you could enter films into a calculator, and you divided Godzilla by Kong, you would arrive at Godzilla: King of the Monsters. It is literally the average of the two approaches, which makes a sort of perversely pragmatic sense in this Moneyball era of big-budget movie-making.
King of the Monsters isn’t the incoherent mess that Skull Island was, but it never manages to elicit the fear-filled wonder that Godzilla did, either.
The story, for what it’s worth, involves two science parents (Vera Farmiga and Kyle Chandler) who are estranged by personal losses incurred during the climax of Edwards’ movie. One has kinda/sorta become an eco-extremist nut, and the other is Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights. Their kid is Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown, and she gets caught up in a conspiracy plot hatched by sassypants Charles Dance to loose a whole mess ‘o’ monsters on the Earth via some laptop doohickey that can remote-control kaiju. Godzilla doesn’t like this very much. Coach Taylor doesn’t like Godzilla very much. To quote Ken Watanabe’s much-meme’d line: Let them fight.
King of the Monsters isn’t the incoherent mess that Skull Island was, but it never manages to elicit the fear-filled wonder that Godzilla did, either. The characters aren’t the whispering cuts of cardboard Edwards presented, nor are they the empty action figures Vogt-Roberts sent pinwheeling off the back of his couch, yelling “AIEEEEEE!” all the way down. Dougherty surprisingly cuts away from his monster fights—which, all too often, are frustratingly obscured by voluminous rain and clouds—almost as frequently as Edwards did, but at least he cuts to people-centric action as opposed to, say, a kid watching TV in a living room. None of the talents present are wasted like Bryan Cranston was in Godzilla, but nobody gets close to eliciting the sort of emotion Reilly miraculously managed, either.
The one clear improvement? Composer Bear McCreary’s score, which deploys Akira Ikufube’s Godzilla theme and Yuji Koseki’s Mothra theme at just the right moments, elevating pretty-good action into something approaching real iconography. But otherwise, this movie isn’t just average, it’s the average. If Warners’ MonsterVerse is a pendulum, Dougherty caught this Godzilla-shaped weight at the dead center of its arc, then hugged it until certain it would stay still when he let it go.
This leaves King of the Monsters in the perfect place for people who’ve never seen a Godzilla flick before but have some idea of what they’re supposed to be. That’s not a bad place, because every Godzilla movie probably should work as someone’s first Godzilla, and the kid who dives into six-plus decades of rubber-suited madness with King of the Monsters will probably have a decently entertaining time. Hell, they might even have a synapse or two sparked by the larger ideas underpinning the story. Granted, those few metaphors end up so mixed and muddied they become just more weather in a movie already half-drowned in lightning and clouds, but since King of the Monsters only exists to get audiences to see Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020, the attempt to be something more than just a loud, dumb bridge to the next episode is appreciated.