Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros’ MonsterVerse—a franchise featuring Godzilla, King Kong, and additional beasts from Japan’s Toho Studios—has done a fantastic job bringing its gargantuan creatures to over-the-top life. What it has not done, however, is devise a single storyline or human character worth paying attention to, and that streak remains intact with Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, a live-action Apple TV+ series that’s set directly after 2014’s Godzilla. Light on destructive colossuses and heavy on dull dual-timeline drama, it’s a footnote affair that fills in trivial narrative gaps and focuses on its least compelling participants—and, in doing the latter, manages to largely squander both Wyatt Russell and his father Kurt.
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is similar to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in that it finds a little bit of space between its primary franchise tales and expands it to make room for a standalone saga. Its first two episodes directed by WandaVision’s Matt Shakman, Chris Black and Matt Fraction’s 10-part affair (premiering Nov. 17) picks up in 2015 in the aftermath of Godzilla’s rampage through San Francisco, and therefore before the iconic kaiju fought kindred “Titans” (also known as MUTOs, for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and King Kong in Godzilla vs. Kong.
Unsurprisingly, humanity has been profoundly shaken by the knowledge that it’s no longer at the top of the food chain, and that annihilation is now an ever-present possibility. Thus, it has responded by devising various measures to prepare for ensuing attacks, from metropolitan warning systems (air raid sirens, cellphone alerts) and bomb shelters to evacuation posters, paths, and plans. Such world-building details are smartly imagined by the show, lending its fantasy a dash of believable realism.
Having suffered intense trauma but survived “G-Day” (as Godzilla’s San Fran debut has been dubbed), elementary school teacher Cate Randa (Anna Sawai) travels to Tokyo to find her MIA father. At an apartment that he apparently owned, she instead discovers her dad’s secret second family, including his son Kentaro (Ren Watabe). This is distressing for both of them, and during an ensuing visit to their father’s office, they stumble upon another mystery: a safe containing archaic data-storage tapes in a satchel emblazoned with an insignia that Cate remembers seeing on military and scientific personnel on G-Day.
Fortunately for them, Kentaro’s American expat ex-girlfriend May (Kiersey Clemons) is a computer whiz with a fondness for old-school media, and she deduces that this cache has something to do with Godzilla. While the trio may be stunned by this, it’s no surprise to us, since Monarch: Legacy of Monsters opens with a 1970s scene of Cate and Kentaro’s grandfather Bill Randa (a de-aged John Goodman) evading a giant spider on Skull Island and tossing the satchel into the sea, after which it’s scooped up by fishermen in 2013.
Goodman plays no part in the remainder of Monarch: Legacy of Monsters (or, at least, the eight episodes provided to press), but his character Bill does, via the series’ concurrent 1950s action. In that thread, a young and eager Bill (Anders Holm) partners with fellow scientist Keiko (Mari Yamamoto) and her army escort Lee Shaw (Wyatt Russell) on a quest to understand the strange phenomena taking place around the planet.
In 1959 Kazakhstan, catastrophe strikes, but the show subsequently jumps backwards to the early ’50s to elucidate how the threesome met and founded the covert monster-hunting government outfit Monarch, which required contentious back-and-forths with hard-headed and bigoted military brass and trips to far-flung places where they encounter imposing MUTOs. They even run into Godzilla, although he basically does nothing during these sequences except prove himself more or less invincible. Anyone hoping for more than brief teaser sights of the nuclear-powered behemoth will be gravely disappointed.
The Titans sprinkled throughout Monarch: Legacy of Monsters are impressively enormous and ferocious, and their appearances are one of the series’ few bright spots. The others are the performances of Wyatt Russell and his dad Kurt as the older Lee Shaw, who in 2015 is located by Cate, Kentaro, and May in a Zen retreat that’s actually a Monarch prison. Kurt’s Lee is a wise and rascally veteran who goes back decades with Cate and Kentaro’s father and has a beef with his old employer, and the mystery of what this Lee knows—and what his goal is, and also how he’s so young and spry for a 90-year-old guy—proves initially tantalizing. Kurt exudes charisma and the series receives a star-wattage jolt whenever he’s on screen, and that’s almost as true for his son, whose turn keeps the 1950s-set material reasonably engaging.
Regrettably, however, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters de-prioritizes both in favor of Cate, Kentaro, and May, three protagonists who quickly evolve from bland to irritating to (especially in the case of May) outright insufferable. The same can be said about their globe-trotting hunt for their dad, which drags on and on and leads—in both the past and their present—to revelations about the Titans that have already been divulged by the feature films. It’s stunning that so much time and effort is spent on having these men and women ascertain things we already know. Then again, it’s in keeping with a venture that mistakenly thinks viewers have tuned in to see the sleuthing exploits of young-adult bores rather than Godzilla and his ilk lay waste to civilization and each other, the possibility of which is negated by timeline considerations: namely, had Godzilla done something of monumental importance in 2015, Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Godzilla vs. Kong would have mentioned it.
Such are the problems inherent to a project like Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, whose main purpose is fleshing out mythology nooks and crannies that demand no elaboration. It’s always conceivable that, in its concluding two installments, the show will rebound significantly and justify its own existence—or, at least, give the Russells something to do that’s worthy of their talents. Even that type of last-second recovery, though, wouldn’t change the fact that the franchise’s modern take on these characters has been a letdown, and that fans eager for a monstrous fix might be better off checking out Toho’s new movie Godzilla Minus One.
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