Review – Monarch: Legacy Of Monsters

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Overview

Directing Matt Shakman, Julian Holmes, Mairzee Almas, Hiromi Kamata, Andy Goddard

Producing Thomas Tull, Hiro Matsuoka, Takemasa Arita, Max Borenstein, Brad Van Arragon, Andy Goddard, Andrew Colville, Matt Fraction, Matt Shakman, Tory Tunnell, Joby Harold, Chris Black, Brian Rogers, Yoshimitsu Banno, Kenji Okuhira, Scott Schofield, Al Letson

Writing Chris Black, Andrew Colville, Milla Bell-Hart, Amanda Overton, Karl Greenfeld, Mariko Tamaki, Al Letson

Starring Anna Sawai, Kiersey Clemons, Ren Watabe, Kurt Russell, Wyatt Russell, Mari Yamamoto, Anders Holm, Joe Tippett, Elisa Lasowski

Genre Science Fiction/Drama

Platforms AppleTV+

Release Date November 17, 2023 - January 12, 2024

It is a good time to be a Godzilla fan right now! Godzilla Minus One and its rerelease Godzilla Minus One Minus Color have become one of the biggest blockbusters of the past two months. A new movie, Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire, is set to release soon, and AppleTV+’s spin-off television show has proved to be a surprising highlight of recent television.

The latter was not necessarily expected, as it was always likely a streaming-exclusive prequel to a franchise that is struggling to keep the lights on with blockbuster box office returns would simply flail around and falter. Yet, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters has proven to be an unexpected highlight.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Limited blood or on-screen death, but characters are depicted dying offscreen and monster attacks result in several characters dying
Language/Crude Humor: Some language throughout
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters regularly drink alcohol
Sexual Content: Several scenes of characters lying (covered) naked in bed after presumably having sex, one scene involves two women lying in bed and an implied lesbian relationship
Spiritual Content: Minimal religious or spiritual content
Other Negative Content: Themes of adultery, infidelity, lying, and violence towards animals
Positive Content: Themes of family, love, truthtelling, and communication

Review

I had no expectations for Monarch: Legacy of Monsters when the show launched in November. It marked one of the first times the Godzilla franchise was brought to serialized entertainment, outside of random children’s cartoons. It was also released on a smaller streaming platform. Legacy’s Godzilla franchise is a decade old at this point with four major films, and the majority of them have been met with lukewarm box office returns and generally negative film criticism. The highest-grossing film of the lot is still the original 2014 reboot with $514 million global returns, while both its direct sequels fall respectively short at $387 billion and $470 billion.

These are huge numbers, but they aren’t the returns Warner Bros. likely wanted. They certainly raise the question of why AppleTV+ would pour hundreds of millions of dollars into a spin-off series. Thankfully, the final result is quite surprising and well thought out. Monarch shares a lot of curious DNA Godzilla Minus One, in that both franchises are about tiny humans running around corners of buildings.

It is easy to assume a show like Monarch exists to capitalize on an existing brand, given how much demand there is for lore-related content for blockbuster franchises like Godzilla. Thankfully, it falls far more onto the Andor side of spin-off prequels than the Solo side, building an original drama tangential to the events of the series while still offering world-building tidbits for the lore obsessives. While the Titans do make a handful of appearances, they are merely the instigators of a much larger story that feels far more human than the stories we get in films like Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

The story follows Cate Randa (Anna Sawai), a school teacher from San Francisco who is suffering from PTSD after a school bus full of her students was killed in the bridge attack when Godzilla and the MUTOs fought in 2014. Following those events, she is traveling to Japan to wrap up her father’s business. When she arrives, she discovers her father had a secret double life with a second wife and son in Japan and he was also secretly working for an anti-Titan government organization called Monarch, which he hid from both families. The discovery of this sets Cate and her half-brother Kentaro on a globe-trotting quest to discover the truth with the aid of retired Monarch co-founder Lee Shaw (Kurt Russell).

As this story plays out, the show regularly cuts back to flashbacks from the 1950s which depict the founding of the Monarch organization, as a young Shaw (Wyatt Russell) and a Japanese scientist Keiko (Mari Yamamoto) work with a younger version of John Goodman’s character from Kong: Skull Island to track down Kaiju and discover potential portals to the Hollow Earth. As this happens, these characters grapple with a complicated love triangle, military politics, racial discrimination, and death as their organization comes face to face with the cold realities of the battle they’ve chosen to fight.

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is a story comprised of multiple fascinating dualities: America and Japan, lies and secrets, past and future, etc. What all these conflicts have in struggle is absence. These characters are either unwilling to communicate their true feelings towards one another, or they feel compelled to hide the truth for the good of other people. This usually backfires, as the only thing keeping corruption or bitterness from seeping into the equation is the virtue of these characters.

This is true for both the Monarch organization and the individual character relationships. Monarch started as an idealistic organization that hid its secrets for the public good but became another bureaucratic part of the military-industrial complex as its founders died, disappeared, or were bought off. Similarly, Cate’s father Hiroshi Randa unintentionally sets the entire plot in motion by guarding every member of his life with a web of secrets and lies, being an idealistic scientist who is also clearly an unloyal husband and an absent father. He’s willing to do anything to save the world, but he fails at the most basic commitments of his life.

None of the characters, except some of the corporate executives, are depicted as plainly evil or malicious. The 2015 version of Monarch is depicted as corrupt and lazy, largely unwilling and unable to deal with monster threats until it is too late. Their agents are mostly bureaucrats, and their attempts to hunt down people who could threaten their organization are mostly bumbling and conflicted, given they have hired guns able to track anyone across the world, yet don’t necessarily want to act like world police that blanketly hunt down anyone with access to their top secret documents. Most everyone in the series is complicated and fully rounded.

Naturally, the fate of these characters is all set in stone, as we know from the four movies. Godzilla first appears in 2014 and destroys San Francisco, then Ghidorah is unleashed by eco-terrorists in 2019 and destroys dozens of major cities, and Mecha-Godzilla is unleashed by the comically evil Apex Corporation in 2021, destroying Hong Kong, resulting in Godzilla and Kong’s faceoff. There is nearly a decade of history between all of these events, with multiple major factions. None of the characters in Monarch can change these events, with most of the story taking place between 2015 and 2017, but their stories still highlight the ways these characters can grow amid the futility of their situations.

Monarch clearly set out to be the more grounded and mature entry into Legendary’s Godzilla franchise, and it does a solid job in this task of plotting a complicated dramatic narrative filled with intrigue and mystery. It’s amazing the series almost entirely holds off the monster battles that make this franchise popular, introducing two or three new smaller Kaijus as minor obstacles for our characters to deal with that are easily dispatched in the rare moments Godzilla makes appearances.

This preference for drama over spectacle might make the show a bit frustrating for monster fans who either want Kaiju battles or massive lore dumps, but it also feels like a far more wholesome and thoughtful companion piece to the existing films. As was the case with Godzilla Minus One, there is a lot to be said about exploring the lives of the people getting stepped on. Godzilla isn’t the only monster in the world, as people can act monstrously, too. These decisions leave a legacy for others to deal with. Still, the wonderful part about watching this series end is it does offer a wonderful moment of personal redemption amid that complicated legacy.

It is unclear whether AppleTV+ will continue the storyline setup in this series into a second season, as the main plot threads are resolved and the timeline has mostly been advanced to the status quo of the second and third movies. It’s unclear whether there is an audience for more of these small characters and their journeys. While it’s a flawed show in parts, it’s something I hope we see more of in the future.

The Bottom Line

 

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is a surprising drama filled with intrigue and excellent special effects that stands above its own franchise with some of its best character writing to date.

 

8

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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