One of the greatest strengths of Legendary’s MonsterVerse is that the three previous installments function perfectly well as standalone movies, and you don’t need to have immersed yourself in the lore of Monarch or the Titans to get a kick out of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island or Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
The trend continues with Adam Wingard’s supersized Godzilla vs. Kong, which is very much set in the same mythology as the aforementioned trio, but isn’t packed with the sort of connective tissue and references to previous events that’s characterized franchise filmmaking in the thirteen years since Marvel Studios set the precedent in Iron Man.
Godzilla vs. Kong has been a long time coming, having been subjected to extensive reshoots after a poor test screening and multiple release date delays caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, and it’s now set to hit theaters and HBO Max this coming Wednesday. The good news is that if you want to see epic action sequences focused on two gigantic adversaries beating the ever-loving sh*t out of each other in a succession of impressive battles that boast an incredible sense of awe-inspiring scale, then the movie is an absolute triumph.
The bad news is that the overwhelming majority of what happens in between is fairly uneventful and banal, with the human characters once again reduced to a footnote in the story, where very little is required of them other than delivering reams of heavy-handed and frequently nonsensical exposition, or gazing in open-mouthed wonder at something off camera.
The plot is set in motion by Brian Tyree Henry’s podcast conspiracy theorist, who infiltrates a facility run by his former employers at the shady Apex Corporation, just as Godzilla resurfaces for the first time in five years to raze the building to the ground. He ends up being tracked down by Millie Bobby Brown’s returning Madison Russell, who brings Julian Dennison’s Josh along for the ride, as they go on a road trip adventure to uncover a conspiracy. In all honesty, you could remove this entire subplot from the movie and it wouldn’t have much bearing on the overall structure at all, other than connecting it to King of the Monsters via Brown and a brief cameo from Kyle Chandler as her father.
The second non-monster storyline sees Apex figurehead Walter Simmons recruit a discredited scientist to his cause, who then teams up with his Monarch-employed former flame and her adopted daughter, as they seek to infiltrate the Hollow Earth by tricking Kong into believing others of his kind could be down there. It speaks volumes about the human element in Godzilla vs. Kong that the most memorable flesh and blood member of the cast is the one who doesn’t say a word, with Skull Island native and requisite adorable child Jia acting as the audience surrogate by communicating with the giant ape through sign language.
Godzilla has started wreaking havoc again and the two splinter groups of humans want to find out why, forcing the Apex crew to free Kong from his Monarch-sponsored residency as essentially a damage limitation device. Naturally, because this is a Hollywood blockbuster we’re talking about, Apex have nefarious intentions, and they’ve got a surprise up their sleeve to rid the world of the Titans for good. Obviously, this involves telepathically connecting Shun Ogiri’s Ren Serizawa (the son of Ken Watanabe’s Ishiro from the previous films, not that it’s mentioned or revealed to be important in any way) to the skull of King Ghidora so he can remotely control Mechagodzilla with his mind, just to give you an indication of how far-fetched things get, even for a creature feature.
Of course, the plot machinations are the least important aspect of the MonsterVerse by quite some distance, leaving it down to the set pieces to provide the bang for your buck. On that front, director Wingard delivers and then some, with the first battle between Godzilla and Kong taking place at sea, reducing everything around them to smoldering wreckage, all backed by a thumping soundtrack and a surprising level of visual panache.
The most unexpected highlight of Godzilla vs. Kong is undoubtedly the Hollow Earth, with the middle of the film making a wild detour into severely trippy and psychedelic territory as Apex tracks Kong through the underworld, where in some very on-the-nose but no less awesome iconography, he finally takes the throne and gets himself a superpowered axe for good measure.
Kong is certainly positioned as the hero of the piece, with Godzilla operating largely as the villain until we find out why he’s gone rogue, which makes sense when it’s much easier to have viewers relate to an ape with an expressive face than a gnarly-looking lizard. Weapon in hand, the two throw down all over Hong Kong in what’s definitely got to be an early contender for the best action scene you’ll see this year. Nothing is safe as the iconic kaiju batter absolute lumps out of each other, leveling entire buildings and half of the city in the process, although the collateral damage is never acknowledged.
Throwing Mechagodzilla into the mix inevitably invites comparisons to Legendary’s Pacific Rim, but the climactic war between the trio of hulking brutes is worth the price of admission alone, or an HBO Max subscription if you’re unwilling to go to the theater, even though it can’t be stressed enough that Godzilla vs. Kong demands to be seen on the biggest possible screen.
Refreshingly, the movie ends with an air of finality, although the door is admittedly left wide open for the MonsterVerse to continue. If you’re not sold on the concept of Godzilla vs. Kong going in, then it won’t do anything to change your mind in the slightest, but it delivers exactly what was promised to fans in abundance and then some, for better or worse.