Godzilla Minus One and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire provide an excellent service for Kaiju film fans. Assuming some quality from Legendary’s upcoming outing, they’ll be the only two entries newcomers need to see to understand the appeal. Minus One captures the epic, almost mythic blockbuster-as-metaphor action/horror Ishiro Honda imagined in 1954. The New Empire, conversely, delivers the massive, schlocky, absurd action spectacle he’s been ever since. Godzilla would be incomplete without either.
A Brief History of Godzilla
I fell in love with Godzilla and Kaiju films around age 8. My dad loved old monster movies because the cheesy effects made him laugh. I loved them because the towering beasts and the scale of their fight scenes boggled my tiny mind. My favorite entry was Godzilla vs. Megalon, a film about an undersea nation sending its insectoid deity to fight a giant robot. The 1973 classic briefly mentions nuclear tests, using them as an explanation for the subterranean country’s rage. It would be several years before I understood why that story element mattered.
Godzilla Minus One is one of three proper horror entries in the franchise. It, Shin Godzilla, and Godzilla share DNA less prevalent in other iterations. Ishirō Honda’s 1954 classic is not vague about its themes. The Bikini Atoll nuclear tests were so fresh in Japan’s cultural memory that the film’s opening moments caused immense distress. Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle’s book Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, notes that Honda was not Toho’s first choice. Other directors thought it was a stupid premise, but Honda found a grim, haunting truth in the giant monster. Its immediate follow-up, Godzilla Raids Again, lost that nuance, becoming the empty spectacle filmmakers feared. Over the next few decades, thoughtful, reflective, nuclear holocaust Godzilla faded into the goofy hero we know today. These identities can be separated, but neither can be ignored. Godzilla is both.
Godzilla Fans Have the Best of Both Worlds
Most modern franchises are multifaceted. Comic book movies must contend with the fact that their source material was written primarily for children. Batman is a fun example, given that every successive film adaptation pushes the Caped Crusader closer to Sin City. Godzilla and other Kaiju movies started serious and almost immediately shifted to silly. I see a lot of modern Batman fans, compared to the efforts of other comic book devotees, demanding more adult themes and content. Ignoring the Adam West days of the franchise rarely enhances the experience, but people fear it being seen as kid’s stuff. If only the comedic, colorful, chaotic days of the Bat could live in harmony alongside its grimdark, haunted, violent counterpart. Godzilla fans get to enjoy both through the magic of two radically different production companies with distinct visions. This may be the best era to be a Kaiju movie connoisseur.
Toho Co., Ltd licensed its Kaiju characters to Legendary Pictures in 2014. Legendary’s founder, self-proclaimed fanboy, billionaire, and Southern rock guitarist Thomas Tull carefully negotiated the rights for Godzilla, Kong, and several other creatures. He and Legendary’s team used the cinematic universe model that Marvel popularized. Of course, the Godzilla franchise used a similar technique decades before Iron Man came out, making it a return to form. Each entry in Legendary’s Monsterverse is a massive, colorful spectacle. They have themes, but their execution prioritizes bombast over substance. Godzilla vs. Kong isn’t about to make a dense statement about the perils of war. Instead, you’ll have to go to Godzilla Minus One for that. It will, however, feature a towering gorilla and his radioactive dinosaur enemy-turned-ally in an all-out brawl for the fate of the Hollow Earth.
For decades, the Godzilla franchise struggled to balance its initial meaning with its blockbuster spectacle, but sillier elements won almost every time. Tons of people, myself included, once saw the King of the Monsters only as the dancing, tail-whipping, drop-kicking lizard from films like Godzilla vs. Megalon. Most grew up, returned to the 1954 original, and discovered the power in his debut feature. Finally, we have a worthy successor with Godzilla Minus One. With Godzilla x Kong up next, we have both facets of the character earning their keep. Long live the King in all of his forms.