The monster battles may be more epic than ever before, but with less-than-thrilling box office returns for the third feature in the MonsterVerse, Michael Dougherty’s “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” speaks to the moviegoing public’s dwindling affection for classic beasts wrecking havoc in a modern setting.
Just five years after Gareth Edwards’ franchise starter “Godzilla” opened to over $93 million in domestic returns, Dougherty’s film earned roughly half that, making just over $49 million during its domestic debut. Two years ago, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ “Kong: Skull Island” — the second film in a franchise dedicated to bringing classic Toho monsters back to the big screen for American audiences — opened to over $61 million in domestic dollars.
Internationally speaking, the MonsterVerse still packs a big appeal: even with a lackluster U.S. box office, “King of the Monsters” has already made $130 million in those all-important foreign markets. But critics are losing patience. While both “Godzilla” and “Kong: Skull Island” earned a Fresh stamp from Rotten Tomatoes, with each film pulling in enough positive reviews to get the fruit-based designation from the review aggregator, “King of the Monsters” has bottomed out with a Rotten 40 percent rating.
The franchise may be facing both a decline in commerciality and critical approval, but it’s not going away anytime soon, as there’s at least one more MonsterVerse film in the mix with Adam Wingard’s “Godzilla vs. Kong” set for a March 2020 release. And why should it? Godzilla and his pals — many of which made their MonsterVerse debut in “King of the Monsters” — have been beloved pop culture figures for decades, and the idea of freshening up such a seminal franchise for modern times is something of a no-brainer. But something isn’t working. Here are some ways the series could right a sinking ship.
1. Make us care about the humans.
The MonsterVerse hasn’t struggled with getting its monsters right. Edwards’ 2014 feature wisely held back on introducing its eponymous creature, and then gifted him with an unexpected affection for humankind. By the time Edwards’ film wrapped up, Godzilla was something of a hero to the world — a concept carried over more fully in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” which sees him facing off with various baddies who threaten Earth (and its human inhabitants).
If only he had better people to save. While Edwards’ film featured some supporting characters worth a closer look — from Ken Watanabe as a Monarch scientist with a soft spot for the big guy and Bryan Cranston as an engineer whose life has been destroyed by the burgeoning monster population — the majority of the film focused on the tragic (and mostly flaccid) misadventures of Navy lieutenant Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen). This was a mistake, and one that plagues “King of the Monsters” to an even more extreme extent.
While some original stars returned for more Titan-sized tragedies, including Watanabe’s Godzilla-loving Dr. Ishirō Serizawa and an all-too-brief reintroduction to Sally Hawkins’ Dr. Vivienne Graham, the majority of the film is built around an all-new (yet still ill-fated) family: the Russells. Even with stellar talents like Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmigia, and Millie Bobby Brown stepping into the franchise, a thin story and ludicrous motivations keep them from standing even a smidge of a chance against the star wattage of Godzilla.
Yes, the MonsterVerse is about monsters, but why should anyone care about the world they’re stomping through if the people that populate it are boring, strangely motivated, and with little to differentiate them from each other? Craft compelling human characters that can stand up to the monsters and imbue all that smashing with real stakes.
2. However, the monsters don’t need to care about the humans.
While it’s oddly charming that Godzilla has become a champion for the human race, it’s painted the big guy into a tricky narrative corner. That will only get weirder when he faces off against “Godzilla vs. Kong” in 2020, with early posters using the tantalizing tagline: “One will fall.”
King Kong’s affection for certain members of humankind has long been a hallmark of his personality, and one that Vogt-Roberts wisely capitalized on for “Skull Island,” allowing his Kong to fall a little bit in love with Brie Larson’s plucky Mason Weaver. That’s standard stuff, but the monsters’ interest in humankind is much smaller when you consider the massive scale of their Titan-sized world, which is built out more with each film.
The overall theme of the MonsterVerse is a smart one: this is really their world, humans are just living in it (for now, at least). It’s time to move the focus of both the franchise and the big baddies that stomp around it away from petty human interests — even if they now include more compelling characters — and get back to some classic monster drama.
3. Get those fight scenes out of the dark.
Each MonsterVerse film has upped the ante when it comes to those all-important monster on monster battles, from Godzilla and the MUTOs in the first film to Kong and the various villains that he shares his island home with to the many classic Godzilla foes (and even some friends) that appear in “King of the Monsters.” Every entry in the franchise has rolled out better effects, more vicious fights, and a greater sense of peril for both the Titans and the people who happen to be in their way, but Dougherty’s film made the worrying choice to cloak most of them in darkness, wet weather, and often muddled points of view.
What do audience want? They want more monster battles, but more importantly, they want to be able to see them. Pull those massive fighting sequences out of the darkness and the bad weather, abandon silly POV shots that play up the inability of human characters to fully understand what’s happening (so often hampered by filmmakers’ insistence on peering through actual portholes, foggy windows, and jittery vehicles — though Vogt-Roberts’ first large-scale helicopter battle in “Skull Island” stands out as a version of this style that works in thrilling manner). Let them fight.
4. Lean into the metaphorical possibilities of the universe.
To its credit, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” did attempt to build on one of the more intriguing elements of the franchise: that sense that the Titans are just retaking a world that once belonged to them, and has now been irreparably wounded by the bad work of mankind. Godzilla has always been steeped in concerns of the moment — this is a character who was created out of nuclear paranoia, after all — and while the MonsterVerse has tried to tap into similar concepts, none of the films so far have been willing to get overt and out-there about it. Nuclear paranoia has certainly remained relevant. What better way to honor the beloved character by remembering what inspired him in the first place — and move it into another moment rich with metaphorical possibilities?
“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is in theaters now.