Warning: This article contains spoilers for Godzilla vs. Kong, so if you haven’t watched the movie yet, go watch it on HBO Max! It’s pretty good!
It’s genuinely amusing to me how unsatisfied and polarized most kaiju movie fans have been by the “Monsterverse” films, the modern and westernized (though highly respectful) takes on Toho’s classic giant-monster stable, ever since Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla hit theaters in 2014. After a sort-of-muted debut, that film has seen a resurgence of popularity in online film communities thanks to it, well, kicking loads of ass, and because Edwards’ direction was genuinely skillful, and his action sequences were honestly awe-inspiring (the atomic breath sequence is still stunning). Yet those same communities hated Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island, given how heavily it aped Hell in the Pacific and Apocalypse Now! in crafting its aesthetic, making it a prime example of when the knowing reference has the opposite of its intended effect — insulting the audience, instead of flattering their keen recognition of cinematic allusion. Conversely, a lot of the G-Fan set loved it, because it is actually a pretty fun movie at its core (and it helps that it boasts the best performance from a human character in any of these films, thanks to the work of John C. Reilly).
Yet it seemed everyone, be they a cinephile or monster movie fan or average Joe audience member, really disliked Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters when it dropped back in 2019, though it does have its John the Baptist-like advocates, shouting about Ghidorah and “epic imagery” like they’re in Times Square trying to warn passerby of the impending Lizard People invasion. For me, it was a confluence of everything I’d previously hated about each of these movies: The human characters were a weird muddle of humorless melodramatics, the imagery was that faux-Spielbergian “wondrous” horseshit that seems to operate exclusively in tungsten and electric blues, and, worse of all, Dougherty fundamentally misunderstood what made Edwards’ direction work in the first place and applied that poor reasoning to his own direction. Sure, the Godzilla director framed aspects of his monsters’ fights around the perspective of his human characters, often to startling effect, but was had the sense to return his camera to a wider shot so that the carnage could be observed as if it were a typical fight scene between two humans. King of the Monsters, however, orients its massive action sequences nearly exclusively from the human perspective, with the occasional cutaway to Godzilla or Ghidorah destroying Fenway breaking up the monotony while Ice Cube’s kid tries to steal a Humvee or something. It was, at the very least, unsatisfying, and it performed terribly in an already-crowded multiplex landscape.
Happily, it looks like Adam Wingard studied where his predecessors went wrong, and set about bringing the Monsterverse back to basics without sacrificing everything that they’d previously established (say, like Warner Bros. is doing with The Suicide Squad) while also throwing in a heavy amount of the style he’d established and refined in films like You’re Next and The Guest to leave his own mark for other, future filmmakers in the series to study. Godzilla Vs. Kong is, perhaps, the best possible solution to the equation that Dougherty tried to solve with King of the Monsters two years ago: It brings in the genuine pseudoscientific wackiness of the Toho films (from all eras of the franchise) and attempts to merge it with the Western stylings of the Warner Bros. series, with its emphasis on scope and scale. It has a monster protagonist — Kong — buffeted by a human ensemble, besieged by both corporate malfeasance and Godzilla, which is a dramatic switch-up from the previous films, where the movements of the giant cat-lizard monster were wholly unknowable and continuously mysterious. It’s shorter than most of these movies (though it’ll never touch the expediency of the originals, which were over and done within 90 minutes), and never gets too bogged down in the human storylines that so many complained about last time around. It throws plenty of shade at the Pacific Rim films and the militaristic approach to Kaiju annihilation that they depict, yet it never feels catty. But, most importantly of all, the monsters fight real good.
There are, of course, issues, some of which present themselves almost entirely before one’s able to outline the film’s plot: It feels like we’re missing a movie’s worth of development for Kong, who now lives on Skull Island inside a giant Hunger Games-like holographic enclosure, given that the monster paradise is now consumed by an endless hurricane. Inside that enclosure, the grumpy, giant gorilla is observed by the Jane Goodall of Kong studies, played by Rebecca Hall, and a young deaf girl, an orphan from one of the tribes on Skull Island before the storm annihilated their society. If you’re wondering why I’m not listing character names, well, it’s because you’re only going to remember the names of the actors who play them anyway. It’s then that a fringe scientist, played by Alexander Skarsgard, reaches out to her and attempts to enlist her help in going on a wild and weird quest to the center of the Earth. You see, that wasn’t just Atlantis we saw in King of the Monsters: It was part of the Hollow Earth, a Skull Island-like paradise where the Earth’s core should be, that has with bizarre gravity, unlimited energy resources, and where both Godzilla and Kong’s ancestors came from. The big ape can lead them on the way to the center of the Earth through a portal in Antartica, and a mega-corporation called Apex, headed by Demian Bechir, is footing the bill to send some anti-gravity craft down there after him.
On the other side of the globe, a conspiracy theorist, played by Bryan Tyree Henry, infiltrates one of Apex’s facilities in Florida and is on the verge of uncovering some cool shit when Godzilla attacks, seemingly for no reason. The world is scared of his power, with the exception of Millie Bobby Brown, who seeks out Henry’s character for his intel on why the Titan seems to have a newfound grudge against the human world. She, the Kid from Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and the conspiracy theorist head out on a quest to find out why, and the trio stumble upon some wild, wild stuff, bantering about goofy stuff the entire time (this, honestly, will probably be the most grating aspect of the movie for most people — it’s Michael Bay humor without the edge or sociopathy, which means it doesn’t really work). After sneaking into the Apex facility and getting stuck on a hyperloop (yes, Elon, you finally have your proof-of-concept video) that jets them to Hong Kong, they discover that Apex has actually created a Mechagodzilla, which confirms basically every single person’s predictions about this film’s third act ever since it was announced. The Mechagodzilla design is a little disappointing: it really just looks like one of those off-brand Terminators from that Tootsie Pop commercial back in the ’90s, albeit one that really likes dinosaurs. Nothing really can beat the beautiful simplicity of the robot’s original Toho design, which has never been seriously equaled by any subsequent film in the franchise, but it’s not horrible.
Meanwhile, Kong and his Krew travel across the ocean in a convoy comprising of a ton of warships and a single cargo ship that serves as a makeshift bed for the giant ape, bound for Antarctica, when two huge things happen: Kong reveals to his captors that he can actually communicate with them via sign language, thanks to his friendship with the deaf girl, and Godzilla attacks the fleet. It’s during this fight that Godzilla vs. Kong finally silences the doubting voices inside of every Kaiju fan, who, up until that minute, has probably been worried that the shitty human characters, bad banter, and awkward pacing will be all that the film has to offer them. As mentioned above, the massive scale of these giants is well-preserved — there’s a fun moment where Kong plucks an F-15 off of the deck of an aircraft carrier and hurls it at Godzilla like it’s a dart — but Wingard is able to shoot the fight clearly, valuing the monster perspective over the humans’, and shows off his skill at creating fun scenarios: it’s a bad situation for Kong, as Godzilla tries to use his amphibious advantage to drown him throughout the fight, but the Ape manages to hold his own. It’s also here that the action-movie hero vibe that Wingard attempted to bring to Kong’s character really comes out in full force — there’s a direct quote to Bruce Willis in Die Hard in here, which the director has acknowledged as an influence on his behavior in the Ape’s behavior in these slugfests — and it’s genuinely a lot of fun to watch this unmoveable object meet up with this unstoppable force.
Rather than describe the rest of the movie for you in-depth, I’ll just talk about a few more of the things that I really enjoyed about Godzilla vs. Kong. The Hollow Earth is a fantastic setting, and I really hope that it’s explored in future films: It’s essentially an inverted Earth-covered sphere where the core of our planet should be, where, instead of blue sky, upside-down mountain ranges cover the sky, and its odd gravity should make for oodles of fun in the right hands, especially since Kong takes over residency as the King Down Below, isolated from humanity and his above-ground rival. It’s clear that Wingard agrees with most of the internet that, in terms of sheer power, Godzilla would whip Kong’s ass left and right any day of the week, as demonstrated by the final round of their one-on-one fight in Hong Kong — a gorgeous, neon-lit spectacle full of destruction and chaos on the kind of massive scale that only these types of film can properly bring without getting into truly thorny ethical issues (look no further than how every large-scale fantasy was received back in 2012/2013, when superheroes were regularly wiping out entire cities and starships were crashing head-first into San Francisco) — but it’s his approximation of our intelligence and emotion that makes Kong into a fearsome opponent. The skill with which he applies much-vaunted battle axe (made from the bones and plates of Godzilla’s ancestors, found in the throne room of Kongs in the center of the Earth) in his fights with both the real and robotic giants is proof of that, and what I thought would be a decently dumb decision — Kong using tools? — turns out to be a really smart move.
I’ve seen some people online saying that the reason this film is succeeding where others in the Monsterverse failed is that it’s “embracing stupidity,” which I think is a bullshit way to say that Wingard’s film is less concerned than its predecessors at trying to maintain a serious tone, one evocative of the original Honda film and its post-nuclear catastrophe expression of fear and grief, or to try and “move” you by asking you to invest in the relationship between a war criminal and her daughter like Dougherty did. Rather, it exists in the sphere of the Showa-era get-togethers, whose inventive fun eventually helped the series’ thematic medicine go down and endeared these monsters to generations of viewers, something that no director has ever fully attempted in a Western adaptation of the Kaiju film. Ultimately, the original films themselves proved that the series could accommodate different tones in different installments, and Wingard follows in their footsteps, choosing to aim for the broad semi-camp fantastic rather than the po-faced realistic here. This, I believe, comes from a love for the monsters at the film’s core which manifests itself to the point that the whole ethos behind this iteration of Mechagodzilla becomes a full refutation of the premise of Pacific Rim: One cannot understand the movements and perspectives of these giants, and attempting to make graven images of them in the forms of mechanical men will result in failure. The revelation that Ghidorah’s consciousness is locked-off inside of Mechagodzilla, and that the pilot must commune and connect with it every time they step into the cockpit (which is inside the polished skull of one of the monster’s heads), is a fun echo that ends exactly how you think it will: Ghidorah’s consciousness overwhelms and kills the pilot, and takes control of the mech.
So, to make a long story short, Godzilla vs. Kong is oodles of fun, a genuine theatrical spectacle arriving after a year where these types of big, bizarre action films have been totally absent from our media diets, into the wanting hands of hungry audiences, some of whom — hopefully vaccinated first — will head out to see it where it was meant to be seen. And based on how many already are despite it being available to stream, I predict we’ll be seeing plenty more of Kong and Godzilla in the future, especially now that they’ve established a solid truce. It feels good to be really excited about all of the possibilities in this particular fictional world again, and I can’t wait to see what else they’ll have in store for us in the future.