Light Mode

Can Monarch: Legacy of Monsters Finally Make Us Care About Godzilla’s Human Characters?

The MonsterVerse has always aimed for big and bold with its appearances in popular culture, which makes the relative quiet around Apple TV+’s Monarch: Legacy of Monsters pretty intriguing.

Godzilla vs. Kong  came to movie screens with all the blockbuster bombast we’ve come to expect from Hollywood adaptations of foreign properties. And while its pandemic-era launch partially succumbed to the COVID virus in terms of box-office draw, fans of the beasties in both their classic and modern incarnations loved that the goofiness was dialed up to make way for what they really wanted — a giant monkey socking a giant lizard in the face.

What can we say? We’re easy to please.

- Advertisement -

Though we might be suckers for kaiju sucker-punches, the Godzilla films have a certain chintzy prestige that fans from the 1950s onwards carry with them as fond memories. Many classic monster movies, whether of Toho or Hollywood lineage, legitimately have something to say, with Godzilla the enormous, raging embodiment of man’s scientific-military-industrial recklessness with the environment and his unleashing of forces beyond our control. Blending post-Hiroshima nuclear dread, the psychological scars of Japan’s devastating 2011 tsunami and the wanton dumping of radioactive waste into his emergence from the sea, the King of the Monsters becomes the destructive penance mankind must pay for its negligence in caring for planet earth. And this message can’t be made without human characters.

Frustratingly, the human protagonists of these movies have lost their importance over the years. Bog-standard civilians like Madi Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) and cut-and-paste scientists like Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) have failed to impact our visceral connection to Godzilla’s outings in a memorable way. And although the military camaraderie of  Kong: Skull Island’s  humans make them Vietnam War-colored reflections of the adventurer pack from Peter Jackson’s charming King Kong, it doesn’t raise them much beyond MUTO-fodder.

Perspectives have changed over the decades, but it’s crucial to remember that the very first Godzilla movie is baked-in with human characters who serve as our awed, horrified surrogates as the monster rises from the irradiated depths of Tokyo Bay. It is fun to watch him kick down skyscrapers, yes. But at its heart the Godzilla franchise tells one long, cautionary tale about the careless frivolity and arrogance of mankind as this world’s flawed custodians. We need people in these movies to actually carry this theme through, but the MonsterVerse has seen plenty of complaints about its failure to create believable, multidimensional people we actually care about.

Which makes it all the more interesting, and promising, that Monarch exists in the first place.

Cutting between two different time periods–the organization’s beginnings in the 1950s, and the wake of Godzilla’s 2014 attack on San Francisco — Monarch will need to rely heavily on its human dramatis personae to succeed. It isn’t the monster-of-the-week version of X-Files that many wanted from a MonsterVerse series. But it’s at its best in establishing the bureaucracy at the heart of these stories in a way that echoes that classic supernatural police procedural — the creation of Monarch, the organization, begins with only three scientists, including Wyatt Russell’s Lee Shaw, and it is through their eyes that we see it develop into labyrinthine, sprawling and secretive government bureau. 

What we found most fascinating about Monarch are its parallels to the New Weird subgenre of horror films — in each episode the unexplainable rears its head, and Monarch’s monster hunters must push up through the weight of their monotony and paperwork to meet the threat. In a sense it’s like Marvel Studios’ Loki, borrowing its musty government buildings and cafeteria chitchat while the planet falls to kaiju carnage. 

- Advertisement -

If its first five episodes are an indication, Monarch has a fair crack at making people feel important in a world that is designed to make them feel small. The series intro shows the organization in two different and distinct lights — a group of Indiana Jones-esque scientific discoverers hoping to make a splash in the wider world, and a mysterious unit that’s hidden from the public yet responds instantly to every kaiju attack with automatic rifles and geiger counters as if they’d seen it coming well in advance. The modern story makes the people of Monarch appear small, but because they fear a telling-off from a superior or revocation of a security clearance more than the descending foot of a 400-foot behemoth. Kurt and Wyatt Russell’s young-old Shaw is a victim of bureaucracy in an institution he helped to create, one that’s grown far larger than himself — but he’s also a vital role player, and giving him the spotlight does wonders to elevate the importance of his appearances. Like the government officials of 2016’s Shin Godzilla who, despite their absurd job titles (Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary? What?), have a real hand in bringing the monster to its knees, Shaw is set to loom large in the evolving MonsterVerse.

The franchise has often embraced the idea that just about anyone with courage and ingenuity plucked from the streets of San Francisco can become a hero in the face of the utter destruction the monsters bring on. But Monarch gives the action a somewhat more grounded and realistic feel. We’d all probably get a little bored of monsters punching each other silly for ten fifty-minute installments, and even though a lot of fans would claim that’s a dream come true, deep in their creature-loving hearts they’d probably concede the series needs a little something more to make it work.

Of course, all this might not work in the end. But thus far, at least, Monarch has provided compelling evidence that it could bring the MonsterVerse closer than ever to making its human characters truly valuable by putting them in the driver’s seat of an organization by far larger than themselves. After all, if the likes of Godzilla and the MUTOs of Skull Island are what they’re trying to manage here, it’s size they’ll need.


Joseph Kime is a journalist, author and podcaster from Devon, UK. He is the Senior Trending News Writer for gaming site GGRecon, writer of the self-published essay collection Building A Universe, and co-creator of The Big Screen Book Club podcast. After graduating from Plymouth’s MarJon University with a degree in Journalism, he’s written for the likes of The Digital Fix, Zavvi and FANDOM. He’s Nobuhiko Ōbayashi’s biggest fan, and will talk your ear off about the significance of Kiki’s Delivery Service.

- Advertisement -