Ten years ago, at the start of this grand MonsterVerse experiment, I commented on the binary nature of Godzilla. Is he a deathly serious allegory for nuclear destruction and humanity’s infinitesimal place in the grand scheme of things; or is he a giant goofy monster in a rubber suit fighting monsters and aliens in hugely spectacular set pieces of epic destruction? The truth is, he’s both. In fact, it’s frankly delightful that between last year’s Godzilla Minus One and the brand new Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, both sides of the character are represented. Sort of. We’ll get there.

See, while Godzilla has always been given free license to indulge in the inherent absurdity of his premise, the same couldn’t be said of King Kong. For most of the character’s history (almost as long as the history of cinema itself), he was strictly limited as a tragic figure. Kong was the giant ape who got stolen from uncharted territory to chase after a pretty blonde and carry her up to the tallest tower in NYC, where airplanes shot him down. Granted, it’s a genuinely good story that utilizes Kong as an allegory for numerous themes about colonialism, environmentalism, and so on. And it’s admittedly hard to find some way of extending the character’s life in a way that doesn’t cheapen Kong’s iconic death.

Somehow, it took Hollywood over 80 years to realize that they could simply not kill Kong. Y’know, reboot the character into an iteration that doesn’t die at the end. He’s a fictional character. We can do that. We could always do that.

Even more baffling is that aside from a few obscure and short-lived animated shows, it’s like Kong could never be over-the-top fun unless he was battling Godzilla in some Japanese crossover film. Even in Kong: Skull Island — the character’s introduction to the MonsterVerse in 2017 — the movie was all about loading the bases for a clash with Godzilla further down the line. Kong and Godzilla are both giant monsters known for rampaging through city streets, but Kong was never allowed to be as fun and spectacular as Godzilla without the King of the Monsters there to give permission. What the hell?

Of course, the other crucial factor here is director Adam Wingard. With the previous Godzilla vs. Kong entry, Wingard showed a clear bias toward Kong, and he only doubled down on that bias with the sequel. The central crisis, the main antagonist, most of the character development, the whole damn plot… so much of this movie is focused on Kong and his supporting cast that Godzilla could’ve been cut from the movie entirely and not much of anything would’ve been lost.

That said, the previous entry also showed Wingard’s uncanny knack for humanizing the kaiju. (I know they’re called “Titans” in this universe, fuck off, they’re kaiju.) It’s truly astounding how all the various kinds of monsters are so clearly emotive under Wingard’s direction. These giant masses of CGI pixels are holding detailed conversations with each other through body language, roars, extreme close-ups, expressions that shouldn’t be so clear or expressive when they’re so inhuman, and every unspoken word is crystal clear. It’s incredible.

Last but not least, a major malfunction of Godzilla vs. Kong was how overstuffed it was, cramming in far too much world-building into too little runtime. The upside is that precisely because the previous entry put so much time and effort into establishing Hollow Earth, we can hit the ground running and have fun with the concept in the sequel. I can honestly say I had fun exploring Hollow Earth in this movie, and most of the resident beasts were used in entertaining ways — most especially with that “fuck yeah” moment in the climax. Granted, a lot of the world-building is founded on flimsy contrivances, but if you’re already on board with a world filled with kaiju instead of iron and magma, the bar for suspending disbelief should be pretty much nonexistent.

Anyway, what’s the story? Well, we pick up three years after the previous film. Godzilla and Kong have apparently reached an understanding, such that Kong is given free reign in Hollow Earth while Godzilla gets to slaughter all the kaiju he wants up top. Everything’s good between them so long as they stay out of each other’s way.

Oh, and Godzilla has apparently made the Coliseum in Rome into his own personal nest. No idea why, but it’s a funny visual and actually kinda cute, so we’ll run with it.

Millie Bobby Brown is absent this go-round, so we get to put our full attention toward a returning Kaylee Hottle in the role of Jia. She’s now a teenager, going through a typical adolescence of trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs. However, this particular girl’s process is compounded by her status as an adopted orphan and the last known surviving one of her tribe. It makes for a sweet parallel with her big buddy Kong, a social ape who’s spent the past few years running through Hollow Earth in a futile search for others like him.

Except the search may not have been as futile as everyone thought.

Long story short, it turns out that there’s a legion of other giant apes out there, under the rule of the tyrannical Scar King. And because the Scar King was such an insufferable tyrannical asshole, he and his army of followers were exiled to a place even deeper into Hollow Earth than anyone thought possible.

On the one hand, Kong needs to be around others like him. And it’s not just for his own social and emotional needs — Kong is getting older, he’s picking up injuries, and there’s a whole sequence about how he gets put down for a while by a bad tooth. Monarch can only do so much to care for Kong, and he’d presumably go a lot farther with other great apes to help care for him. On the other hand, Kong has to balance that out with the prospect of setting loose a power-mad tyrant with an army of kaiju at his command, and a world-class kaiju in his own right.

It’s a lot for Kong to process over the course of the movie. And where’s Godzilla while Kong is going through all this development? Well, Godzilla somehow knows that something is up down in Hollow Earth, so he’s soaking up all the radiation he can. That’s it. Godzilla is simply going from one radiation source to another. That’s all he does.

Yes, it’s awesome to see Godzilla doing what he does best. Sure, who doesn’t love to see a kaiju team-up? But it’s still disappointing to see a kaiju of Godzilla’s status reduced to a supporting role… hell, he’s not even a supporting role, he’s basically a plot device! Why give him top billing right alongside Kong if this is all he was going to do? Hell, why put him in the movie at all?!

If the filmmakers wanted to make a Kong movie so badly, just scale down the threat to something Kong could handle on his own and make a freaking Kong movie! You think this iteration of Kong couldn’t sustain his own franchise within the MonsterVerse? Because it looks to me like he certainly could. And it’s not like audiences will forget Godzilla or stop caring about him if he stops showing up in multiplexes.

So, what about the other human characters? Well, I’ve already mentioned Kaylee Hottle, who does fine work playing a young woman trying to grow up and find her place in all the craziness happening around her. Kudos are also due to Rebecca Hall — returning as Dr. Ilene Andrews, Jia’s adoptive mother and the world’s foremost expert on Kong — who makes a meal out of this character trying to find her work/life balance while also coming to grips with this highly unusual parenting scenario. Dan Stevens returns as Trapper, now an eccentric loose cannon who’s set himself up as a kaiju veterinarian. It’s as awesome as it sounds.

Then there’s Brian Tyree Henry, returning as conspiracy theorist podcaster Bernie Hayes. I didn’t like the “loud black clownish comic relief” archetype when he was played by Anthony Anderson in Transformers, I fucking hate the archetype as played by Tyrese Gibson in the Fast and Furious movies, and I don’t like it any more here. That said, the character does raise a crucial point with regards to the franchise’s omnipresent theme of humanity’s place in nature. We get one genuinely insightful scene regarding the pristine nature of Hollow Earth, and how much longer it can survive contact with humanity. Or perhaps how much longer humanity can survive contact with Hollow Earth. Both valid questions pertaining to Bernie’s obsessive need to document and broadcast everything pertaining to the kaiju.

In the smaller roles, it’s always a pleasure to see Rachel House onscreen, even if she’s only there for exposition. Alex Ferns seems to be having great fun hamming it up, wearing his “I will die and/or turn evil” sign with tremendous pride. Overall, the human cast is quite limited this time, and the focus on quality over quantity is certainly welcome.

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire isn’t a bad movie. I appreciate the efforts at focusing on a tighter cast of human characters, and giving Jia a development arc parallel to Kong’s was a brilliant touch. It feels like the MonsterVerse is finally hitting its stride, but with Kong as the standard-bearer instead of Godzilla. That doesn’t feel right. For all of Wingard’s incredible talents at making the inhuman giant monsters into sympathetic characters, the filmmakers seem uninterested in developing any other kaiju aside from Kong into anything other than plot devices. That would be fine if this was only a Kong franchise, but the MonsterVerse was supposed to be more than that.

The MonsterVerse was made and marketed to be a megafranchise comprised of multiple sprawling film series, following the MCU model. That promise was never kept, and that’s probably for the best. But it doesn’t change the fact that this was built to be something so much bigger than it presently is. Godzilla and Mothra and Ghidorah and Mechagodzilla and all the rest deserve so much better than they’re presently getting.

I worry that this megafranchise might have peaked with Godzilla: King of the Monsters and this is the best we can hope for from here on out. Sure, it’s okay. I’m good with this cast of human characters and I’m definitely good with Kong getting his own CGI action tentpole blockbuster franchise. But if these movies are gonna keep getting made and marketed as huge teamups and crossovers between iconic kaiju, we’ve gotta go bigger than this.


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