Godzilla was always a mythical creature to Michael Dougherty, even before he was in charge of quickening the Big G’s atomic breath back to life again in this summer’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Growing up in a multicultural background in Columbus, Ohio, boyhood Dougherty saw Godzilla movies as more than camp delights about men in rubber suits knocking over paper buildings—they were an expression of deep-seated paranoia about the consequences of man’s hubris in trying to control the natural world, as well as monuments to a type of professional craft mostly alien to Hollywood cinema.
“I grew up watching these movies,” Dougherty tells a group of journalists at Toho Studios in Japan, who have assembled to glimpse his American love letter to kaiju and Toho’s Showa era. “I was a little half-Asian kid growing up in Ohio, and I was made fun of a lot, and to watch these amazing movies about giant monsters—and I already had the love of dinosaurs and animals and nature—that were made by other Asian people, it meant the world to me.”
Indeed, Dougherty fondly recalls discovering at about the age of four or five-years-old that “Ray Harryhausen movies lied to me” about dinosaurs and humans living together. But with pictures like Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), Dougherty had an escape from cowboys and cops and robbers that otherwise filled his 1970s TV set, and instead got fairy girls from Infant Island translating to humans a debate between Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan about the merits of fighting a three-headed dragon on behalf of humanity.
“It’s amazing scene, by the way. I strongly suggest you go back and watch that movie… Rodan and Godzilla are like, ‘Fuck the humans. They bully us. Why should we help them?’ And it’s the first time as a kid that you suddenly saw things from the monster’s point-of-view. Where the monsters saw us as the monsters; the monsters saw us as the bullies that were trying to prevent them from having happy lives.”
It’s also in its own way a precursor for Dougherty’s take on Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers’ MonsterVerse. Begun only five years ago by Hollywood as a more somber affair that paid better fealty to Toho than the bastardized Hollywood Godzilla of 1998, this American MonsterVerse is only now hitting its stride with Dougherty at the helm. While 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters doesn’t (quite) have fairies interpreting Monster Language to international men of mystery, it does have a kitchen sink mentality that once again positions the space monster Ghidorah as the Thanos of the MonsterVerse—a role he played nearly five decades before Marvel Studios’ emergence. With the triple-headed threat on the rise, the other hidden kaiju of the world are forced to either bend the knee or fight. And Godzilla bends the knee to no one.
A wonderfully weird mix of biblical awe for these ancient “Titans”—such as Godzilla and Mothra having a celestial communion and Ghidorah roaring in demonic defiance of humanity’s miniscule idols while atop a volcano overlooking an impotent church—and the bemusing theatricality of fight night at the WWE, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a big silly movie that is made by people who still take the creatures seriously. With the humans at the center of it being comical yet earnest enough to gain our attention before being ushered off the stage when it’s time for the next battle royale, King of the Monsters is probably the movie most Godzilla fans have wanted to see an American studio produce, and one that harkens back to the first time these creatures ever crossed over.
“They’re the crown jewels of the Toho universe,” Dougherty says of Godzilla, Ghidorah, Rodan, and Mothra. “They’re the ones that I feel like most Godzilla fans, and maybe most non-Godzilla fans, are the most familiar with… You sense they’re sort of the first monster team-up and truly the most iconic of the Toho universe, so it made sense they were the first to get re-adapted to the big screen for Hollywood.”
This appreciation for Toho’s legacy, and that clear inner-childhood nerdiness still enthusing Dougherty (who is said to have a replica of the Oxygen Destroyer from the original 1954 Gojira movie in his living room), is what makes his approach standout. Noting one special easter egg to me, Dougherty says for him it’s about having enough nods and meta-textual winks to keep the fans happy—a far cry from how the creatures were treated when he was on the other side of the fandom paradigm. His first home movie as a kid was a Godzilla movie, and while Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin were on the road to disaster by turning the Big Guy into a T. Rex knockoff, Dougherty was prepping his first student film at New York University as yet another fan-scaled giant monster movie.
Says Dougherty, “I even remember when I was in college, they were shooting Roland Emmerich’s movie in New York, and I was like a little bit jealous and a little bit angry I wasn’t going to be able to do it. But here we are.”
In the week leading up to Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters release, there is some debate about his madcap approach of requiring high caliber actors like Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, and Vera Farmiga to stare in revelry at the giant monsters like those humans of Harryhausen yore—even as the above video proves, Dougherty took amusing advantage of actors like Watanabe and Zhang’s pedigree on-set—but there is no question for a number of Toho fans that he’s returned to what made this universe so appealing once upon a time.
“Toho has been doing this since the ‘50s and ‘60s,” the director says. “God bless Marvel. What they have done in sort of reviving and revitalizing the concept of cinematic universes, they deserve all the accolades in the world for it. But you know the first attempts at it were the Monster universe that Universal was quietly attempting to build back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and then Toho really took the ball and ran with it.” King of the Monsters carries that ball even further and to dizzying kaiju heights, which you will be able to view at a godseye level when it opens on Friday, May 31.