Our current entertainment moment is dominated by attempts to convert intellectual property, seemingly any kind of intellectual property, into multi-tentacled media franchises that can extend into infinity. In some respects, Godzilla has been ahead of the game for decades. The first Godzilla film (Gojira in Japan) appeared in 1954 and still works brilliantly as a blunt, chilling metaphor for atomic destruction with a genuinely scary monster at its core. It's also an effective self-sustained story that ends with its monster's death, seemingly giving sequels nowhere to go.
Yet go they did: The original (and still ongoing) Japanese series has lasted so long it divides into distinct eras, each with its own reboot and sequels. A first attempt to Americanize the big guy stalled out after one film in 1998, but a series launched in 2014 has proven more successful, as the very existence of Monarch: Legacy of Monsters attests. Godzilla movies (and offshoots in other media) don't really give creators that much to work with. Godzilla must attack or defend humanity. Various other monsters complicate his efforts. But that hasn't stopped generations of writers and directors from finding new ways to fill all that blank space. 2016's Shin Godzilla, for instance, puts together a pretty biting satire of Japanese bureaucracy and American foreign policy from basic Godzilla building blocks.
Five episodes in, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters doesn't offer much in the way of satire, but it shares some of the best Godzilla movies' impulse to construct a complicated framework around what seems like the simplest of premises. It's an extension of the MonsterVerse, the media franchise kicked off with Godzillain 2014. Subsequent years brought King Kong, in many respects the original kaiju, into the fold, first with Skull Island. One Godzilla sequel later (2019's Godzilla: King of the Monsters) and Kong and Godzilla were at each other's throats with Godzilla vs. Kong. (They're due for a rematch and/or team-up with next year's Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire.) The films have been more miss than hit, but they've all featured cool creature designs and hinted at an intriguing overarching story, a kind of grand unified theory of giant monsters (or "titans," to use the preferred MonsterVerse term).
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters attempts to flesh out that story via a decades-spanning tale set at various points in Monarch's existence, from its origins after World War II to its shadowy agenda in 2015, the year after the events of the first MonsterVerse film. Co-created by Chris Black (Severance) and the inventive comic book writer Matt Fraction (Sex Criminals), it's part monster movie, part X-Files riff, part family drama. If the first half of this debut season doesn't reveal the show as being great at any of those elements, it does establish it as being good enough at all of them, and intriguing enough to keep watching for reasons beyond the appearance of giant snow-dwellers and other assorted beasties.
The 2015 action commences with Cate Randa (Anna Sawai) making her way to a Tokyo where everyday life has carried on after picking up some conspicuous anti-Godzilla security protocols. Until recently a San Francisco schoolteacher, her life was disrupted by the attack on her city and the disappearance (and, seemingly at least, death) of her father, a scientist we'll soon learn had a relationship with Monarch. He also had a different sort of relationship: Shortly after arriving Cate discovers her father's second family and a half-brother named Kentaro (Ren Watabe), an artist similarly troubled by their father's absence. With the help of Kentaro's friend May (Kiersey Clemons), a skilled codebreaker with mysterious origins, they begin to investigate Monarch's business.
Elsewhere on the timeline, in the post-war era, we meet Keiko (Pachinko's Mari Yamamoto), a gifted scientist charged with investigating monster activity and paired with Lee Shaw (Wyatt Russell), a square-jawed American soldier, for protection. Together they encounter Bill Randa (Anders Holm as the character played by John Goodman in Skull Island; note the surname), a cryptozoologist conducting research of his own. It's the threesome that will lay the groundwork for Monarch's work in the future, work that will have an impact on future generations.
Between carefully doled out monster encounters (accomplished via impressive special effects), Monarch: Legacy of Monsters advances its intersecting stories a little bit at a time. Revelations about its characters move at a similarly deliberate pace. Episodes play less like individual installments than chapters in a long story. That makes it a tough show to judge halfway through a season. Will Cate and Kentaro's investigation ultimately take them somewhere or just keep the mystery spinning? Will what we learn of Cate's backstory and messy pre-Godzilla life deepen the character, or is it just there to provide some shading (and maybe fill some time)?
All that's TBD, but Monarch offers plenty of encouraging signs at this halfway point. When Kurt Russell shows up as the older Lee Shaw (now in his nineties but mysteriously well preserved), it gives the show a jolt of energy and suggests the momentum will continue to mount in the season's back half. In the meantime, Monarch works quite well as a slick, TV-shaped blockbuster movie anchored by a charismatic cast. The giant monsters may get audiences in the door, but, as Godzilla movies have long understood, it takes a healthy imagination to keep them there.
Premieres: Two episodes premiere Friday, Nov. 17 on Apple TV+, with subsequent installments appearing weekly after that
Who's in it: Wyatt Russell, Anna Sawai, Kurt Russell, Kiersey Clemons
Who's behind it: Chris Black and Matt Fraction
For fans of: Conspiracies, giant monsters, the Russell family
How many episodes we watched: 5 of 10