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Monarch: Legacy of Monsters Needs More Godzilla, Less Puny Human Melodrama

The monsters are almost an afterthought in this ambitious but sometimes plodding Apple TV+ spin-off.
  • Wyatt Russell, Mari Yamamoto, and Anders Holm in Monarch: Legacy of Monsters (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Wyatt Russell, Mari Yamamoto, and Anders Holm in Monarch: Legacy of Monsters (Photo: Apple TV+)

    No one watches Godzilla movies for the people. Which is not to say that those puny humans — scrambling to escape thunderous footsteps, screaming in the shadows of gods, convening in war rooms — are always bad company. There have been interesting characters and a handful of memorable performances across the nearly 70-year history of everyone’s favorite radioactive reptile. But let’s be real: More often than not, the scenes of people talking about Godzilla are what you dutifully sit through to get to the scenes of Godzilla going to town on a city. A movie can’t be all metropolitan destruction, right? You need at least a little human drama connecting one tinker-toy rampage to the next.

    There’s more than a little human drama in Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, the new limited series coming to Apple TV+ on November 17. Though officially set in the so-called MonsterVerse, the American movie franchise that includes a divisively chonky Godzilla, an unusually tall King Kong, and new versions of several Toho undercard attractions, this small-screen spin-off goes pretty light on the actual monsters. They get a few minutes of screentime per episode, which are otherwise preoccupied with the personal problems of the monster hunters. Monarch, in other words, isn’t so much the Godzilla show as a sprawling soap opera that happens to occasionally guest star Godzilla.

    The hook of the series, beyond the nominal involvement of the big boy and his skyscraper-sized friends, is the rather vast chronological scope of its story — a timeline that spans roughly the same number of decades that they’ve been making Godzilla movies. Created by sci-fi TV veteran Chris Black, Monarch chronicles the history of the eponymous, secret government agency of the MonsterVerse, formed after World War II to track the movements of “titans,” a.k.a. beastly prehistoric world-enders of the ’Zilla persuasion. The pilot episode begins with a brief flashback to the ’70s setting of Kong: Skull Island, with John Goodman briefly reprising his role for a trailer-ready cameo. The series then breaks in two separate directions, splintering into parallel narrative tracks running a half-century apart.

    The more contemporary action takes place in 2015, in the aftermath of what everyone refers to as G-Day — that is, the events of Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla, when the title titan stomped destructively into San Francisco to make short work of some oversized bugs in mating season. Young school teacher Cate (Anna Sawai) was one of the tiny civilians caught in the crossfire of that conflict; flashbacks pull the nifty Batman v Superman move of depicting the big bridge-attack scene in the movie from her heretofore unrevealed vantage. Flying to Tokyo to sort through the business of her father, who disappeared after the attack, Cate is rocked by some new bombshells: that she has a Japanese half-brother, Kentaro (Ren Watabe); and that the “family business” is Monarch, which their father was involved in and their grandmother helped form back in the 1950s.

    Intercut with these scenes of familial discovery, aided by expat American hacker May (Kiersey Clemons), are flashbacks to a midcentury Jules and Jim love triangle involving scientist Keiko (Mari Yamamoto); researcher Bill (Anders Holm), who turns out to be a younger version of Goodman’s character; and soldier Lee (Wyatt Russell). A couple episodes in, we’ll meet an older Lee in the aughts timeline, suddenly played by Wyatt’s famous father, Kurt Russell.

    More than the CGI beasties, this casting coup — creating a continuity of rugged Russell charisma — is the show’s best special effect. It’s fun to watch the younger star imitate his dad’s iconic swagger and saltiness, even if the math doesn’t quite add up. (“What can I say, good genes I guess,” the older Lee shrugs when one of the kids lampshades that he’d have to be about 90 by the present day.)

    Monarch is no cheapo streaming extension. It’s handsomely shot, with plainly high production values and sweeping overhead landscape shots that sometimes approximate the spooky majesty of Edwards’ movie. It’s clear that Black and his co-developer, comic-book writer Matt Fraction, have put a little thought into the ways that the world would change post-Godzilla. Their Tokyo is plastered with defensive weaponry and signage laying out emergency procedures in the event of a new attack. More provocatively, the show imagines popular conspiracy theories surrounding the titans, including one podcasting cabbie’s assertion that the monsters making mincemeat of the Bay Area were just a hoax… which is what some people would say if the events of Godzilla happened in our post-truth world.

    There’s a lot of potential in exploring the origins of an organization like Monarch. As the show suggests, all government agencies are shaped by competing opinions, biases, politics, and career aspirations. What the public does or doesn’t need to know becomes a matter of debate during the ’50s scenes — a perhaps optimistic spin on the conversations that have happened behind the closed doors of the FBI and CIA.

    Alas, Monarch isn’t really that interested in the logistics of the agency. It is not, in other words, an American counterpart to Shin Godzilla, the 2016 Japanese reboot that reimagined, with great procedural and satirical detail, how a modern government might bureaucratically respond to some titanic thing crashing through buildings like a bull in a china shop. The focus here is more on the melodrama of the characters’ entwined lives. Whole episodes get swallowed by romantic backstory. And taking its cues from the broken-family plotlines of the MonsterVerse movies, the show frequently centers the tense bond between Cate and Kentaro, both as shell-shocked by the news that their father had two families as they are by the periodic emergence of some huge critter.

    Speaking of which, where does Godzilla fit into all this? Only tangentially, as it turns out — rising briefly from the deep in one episode, spilling out of a cracking snow-covered mountain in another, always gone as quickly as he came. There wasn’t a whole lot of him in Edwards’ Godzilla either, but that movie made the most of his appearances, and got plenty of tension from his absence. Here, he’s like an action star they could only secure for one long weekend of shooting, popping in for just long enough to justify his appearance on the Redbox poster. And his off-brand brethren — nameless bugs, dragons, and ice-spewing arctic whatsits — are pretty sparingly incorporated, too. It’s certainly one way of doing Godzilla on a more modest TV budget.

    There is something admirably perverse about this human-first approach to giant-monster fare. Heard of the Bechdel test? Monarch passes the Biollante test: Multiple scenes in this Godzilla story feature two characters talking about something other than Godzilla. At 10 episodes, the series had to be more than just city-leveling shock and awe, more than nonstop G-Man action. The attempt to tell a cross-century, multi-generational story against the backdrop of a genre once dominated by guys in rubber suits is certainly ambitious, if nothing else.

    One might just wish the show had more sharply defined characters (there’s only so much good actors like the Russells and Clemons can do with this material) or less functionally expository dialogue for them to deliver. Without that, all the interpersonal stuff seems rather… well, small compared to the existence of walking, dinosaur-shaped atomic bombs. It would take a talent of Harold Pinter’s stature to keep the audience’s eyes from wandering to the skyline in the distance, looking for signs of something enormous to interrupt the waterworks.

    Monarch: Legacy of Monsters premieres November 17 on Apple TV+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums

    A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.

    TOPICS: Monarch: Legacy of Monsters