When Hollywood’s history in the 2010s is written, it will be called the era of the big, extravagant shared universes. There were superheroes, yes, from Marvel Studios to DC Films; but there was also the failure to launch the Universal Monsters into the “Dark Universe,” and Star Wars going to TV. And then there was the MonsterVerse. Pound for pound, there was nothing bigger in scale (particularly when it came to protagonists’ height) than this Americanized vision of the kaiju. It’s the wild concept that brought Godzilla back to the West and put him in a death match with King Kong.
While currently only four films in length, Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse has produced four remarkably different visions of giant monsters (or “Titans”) doing battle in the ruins of our major cities. Starting stark and somber with Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014), this “universe” reached an unapologetically goofy crescendo this week with Godzilla vs. Kong. Each film between them has had a different director and a sharply unique aesthetic. So our staff of monster fanatics and Godzilla geeks has taken it on themselves to debate, vote, and rank every one of them. Below is the definitive list.
4. Godzilla (2014)
Gareth Edwards’ film, which kick-started this whole crazy thing, is arguably still the only one to get the “human drama” right. For about 40 minutes. The first act of the movie is a solid, tantalizing build-up to the realization there’s a giant lizard out there running amok. Equal parts Toho’s Gojira (1954) and a Christopher Nolan knockoff, Godzilla (2014) plays it straight, even incorporating the recent horrors of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011 into its tale of a family man (Bryan Cranston) driven to madness by the sight of beasts of unusual size.
… It then kills Cranston’s character off and leaves the film to his son, a cipher of an action hero who Aaron Taylor-Johnson had the unenviable task of making interesting. He did not succeed. More unfortunate is that a movie called Godzilla barely features the Big G. Content to focus on Cloverfield-esque monsters while teasing the action instead of showing it, Edwards’ film becomes a two-hour exercise in delayed gratification. When that gratification finally comes in the movie’s last 20 minutes, it’s too little too late.
There’s still a lot of stuff to like, however. The director’s sense of scale is used to visceral effect every brief moment Godzilla is on screen. The lizard’s first reveal, and then later a parachute HALO jump which travels the length of his body, are both visually breathtaking. Never before has Godzilla felt so enormous. And Ken Watanabe brings a great deal of gravitas to a role that in lesser hands would’ve been easily forgettable. Nevertheless, the movie would’ve benefitted taking to heart what Watanabe’s character tells the Americans: Let them fight. – David Crow
3. Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)
Billed as the culmination of the MonsterVerse (for now, at least), Godzilla vs. Kong certainly delivers on its title in two lengthy major battles between the legendary stars. Director Adam Wingard’s first picture of this size shows that he has a good eye for scope and spectacle: one can follow the titanic action, and Wingard is confident enough to shoot much of it in broad daylight, a refreshing change from the previous American Godzilla films. And speaking of Godzilla and his co-star, the big guys have more personality here than in previous entries, with Kong in particular coming as close to a well-rounded character as an ancient, 300-foot-tall gorilla can get.
It’s just too bad that the rest of the movie somewhat falls down. The plot and characters here are perhaps the most shallowly conceived yet for this series, and while no one is paying for Shakespearean human drama, at least there was something interesting going on with Vera Farmiga’s misguided scientist in KOTM. Even sadder is the lack of context and the absence of any development in some of the more interesting world-building of the previous films, leading to a noticeable stack of unanswered questions throughout the film. As for Mechagodzilla, it’s a cool bit of third act fan-service, but little else.
Godzilla vs. Kong does offer some knockout moments and one can’t deny the sheer nostalgic fun of seeing these two icons punch each other’s lights out, but the movie is also the narratively thinnest yet of this shared universe. – Don Kaye
2. Kong: Skull Island (2017)
After the mixed response to 2014’s Godzilla and its slow burn approach to introducing the iconic title monster, Kong: Skull Island was clearly a course correction—and it succeeds as such. While it still runs into the same problems Godzilla (and, indeed, all these movies) have faced in creating somewhat interesting human characters, no one could accuse this old-fashioned pulp adventure story of skimping when it came to a satisfying reinvention of its own legendary star, as well as plenty of awe-inspiring monster battles.
The film’s period setting of 1973 allows for much more humor than its predecessor, not to mention some terrific music cues. Similarly, the cast—including Marvel stars Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Tom Hiddleston, along with John Goodman and a walk-off-with-the-movie John C. Reilly—at least seems to be having fun under the direction of Jordan Vogt-Roberts, confidently handling his first tentpole-sized picture. Meanwhile the title character, who clearly dwarfs all previous iterations of the beast, wanders his domain like a lonely king, ready for battle instantly, but more interested in finding a nice big spot to sit and relax.
The plot finds most of the cast trying to make their way across a creature-infested Skull Island after Kong swats their helicopters out of the sky in a thrilling first act sequence, and you can tell who will survive based largely on their billing. But Vogt-Roberts keeps a playful, swashbuckling tone throughout, and the combination of monsterfest, old-fashioned jungle romp, and Apocalypse Now aesthetics somehow all works. – DK
1. Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)
A contentious choice to some, Godzilla: King of the Monsters was given top marks by all of our staff who voted. That’s because to a certain breed of Godzilla fan, Michael Dougherty’s majestically silly vision is terrific. Big, gaudy, and knowingly ridiculous, King of the Monsters eschews the grounded approach of Edwards’ 2014 movie in favor of sweeping grandeur.
Each of the four A-list Toho monsters in this film—Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah—is filmed with the awe and reverence of the crucifixion, and as evidenced by Ghidorah’s hellish roar before a fallen cross in the film, this is deliberate. King of the Monsters positions the kaiju as the original gods who’ve risen back to take their rightful place as rulers of the Earth, and the amount of fanboy love in each frame is infectious.
For those already converted to this faith, the film’s endless series of still frames, where Godzilla or Mothra flex for unseen painters, is joyous. King of the Monsters also reduces the humans to essentially comic book characters going on a breathless series of Saturday morning cartoon adventures. They act in service to the monsters’ film instead of leading it, with the best you can hope for from this peanut gallery being some Watanabe wisdom or scene-stealing comic relief by Bradley Whitford.
This might’ve been a deal breaker to audiences who wanted compelling human drama or full-fledged character arcs. But to kaiju aficionados who long ago understood that humans are the least interesting part, King of the Monsters strikes the right balance with affable archetypes (or sinister eco villains) who help Godzilla where possible and then get out of the way as the camera bows before the lizard for another hymn. This truly is the gonzo monster mash-up every child dreams of when they look at Godzilla toys. – DC
Mike Cecchini and Gavin Jasper also contributed to this feature.