An ambitious expansion of Legendary’s MonsterVerse is light on monsters and delivers mixed results in its early episodes.
PLOT: Following the thunderous battle between Godzilla and the Titans that leveled San Francisco and the shocking revelation that monsters are real, this series tracks two siblings following in their father’s footsteps to uncover their family’s connection to the secretive organization known as Monarch. Clues lead them into the world of monsters and ultimately down the rabbit hole to Army officer Lee Shaw, taking place in the 1950s and half a century later where Monarch is threatened by what Shaw knows. The dramatic saga – spanning three generations – reveals buried secrets and the ways that epic, earth-shattering events can reverberate through our lives.
REVIEW: Believe it or not, we are four films and one television series into the MonsterVerse shared cinematic franchise. After two Godzilla films, Kong: Skull Island, a crossover blockbuster, and a pending sequel along with an animated Netflix series, the MonsterVerse has successfully teased the importance of the mysterious organization known as Monarch. Pervading the cryptoscience of the mutant creatures threatening the Earth, Monarch’s true motivations and depth of power have yet to be adequately explored on screen. In a partnership between Legendary Entertainment and Apple, we have Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, a ten-episode series connecting the various feature films into a cohesive mythology. Set predominantly in the 1950s and the years immediately following Godzilla’s arrival in 2014, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters peppers the creatures known as MUTOs and Titans through these episodes, which mainly focus on the human characters associated with the titular organization.
Comprised of ten hour-long chapters, I have seen the first five episodes of Monarch: Legacy of Monsters. The first two episodes premiered today at New York Comic Con and will surely rouse audiences with the prospect of what is to come in this series. In those first two hours, we glimpse Bill Randa (John Goodman) escaping from monsters during the events of Kong: Skull Island. While Kong himself is not featured, the opening chapters give us an alternate look at Godzilla during his demolition of San Francisco in what the series calls G-Day. Aside from those connections to the feature films, much of the first half of Monarch’s debut season is spent following Cate Randa (Anna Sawai) and Kentaro Randa (Ren Watabe), half-siblings who have lived a world apart and never knew they shared a father, Hiroshi Randa. In trying to discover where their father disappeared, Cate and Kentaro are drawn into their family history and its connection to Monarch.
As you likely deduced from their last name, Cate and Kentaro’s grandfather is Bill Randa. In flashbacks, we meet young Bill (Anders Holm) and his wife, Keiko (Mari Yamamoto), as they partner with Lee Shaw (Wyatt Russell) in the early days of the organization known as Monarch. Shifting back to the 1950s and then forward to the present day, the siblings team with Kentaro’s ex-girlfriend May (Kiersey Clemons) to find Lee Shaw (now played by Kurt Russell) and try to track down their dad before another major event to the cataclysmic battle between Godzilla, Kong, and the Titans attacking the globe. Each episode adds more to these monsters’ mystery and teases Monarch’s potentially sinister motivations while parsing out an action sequence or two. In the episodes I have seen, we have two appearances by Godzilla, one of which I mentioned, and the other is a new glimpse at an early interaction with the beast in the South Pacific in the 1950s. The rest of the monsters are new creations we have never seen, each with unique abilities. Shaw explains that no two MUTOs share the same powers, which gives the writers unlimited potential in what they bring to the screen.
Like in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is more of a character-driven series rather than a giant kaiju blockbuster. I was interested in the flashbacks between Lee, Keiko, and Bill Randa. The love triangle aspect of their relationship is an intriguing concept that does not work as well with Cate, Kentaro, and May in the contemporary sequences. The connection in this story is Lee Shaw, who transitions from a military man in the early days to a rebellious outlier in the organization he helped create. Wyatt Russell and Kurt Russell, aside from being father and son in real life, parallel each other’s performances wonderfully as the series dodges how the seventy-two-year-old Kurt could be portraying a character who should be well into his nineties in the modern-day scenes. Both Russells are no strangers to big-budget productions, both having been a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but neither really gets to do that much beyond talking here. Kurt Russell gets a chase sequence and a mountain-top scene that reminded me of his work in The Thing, but Wyatt gets less intense work here. In fact, most of the work in this series is spent developing Kentaro, Cate, and May, with flashbacks showing us their recent history involving art shows and romances, with only Cate’s presence on G-Day being any substantial MonsterVerse involvement.
Developed by Chris Black and Matt Fraction, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters benefits from WandaVision and upcoming Fantastic Four director Matt Shakman, helming the first two episodes, followed by episodes helmed by Mairzee Almas, Julian Holmes, Hiromi Kamata, and Andy Goddard. Filmed using Apple Vision Pro technology for 3D on mobile devices, the series looks very cinematic with top-notch special effects work on the creatures. While the globe-trotting narrative offers diverse locations from Japan and Korea to San Francisco and Alaska, the South Pacific, and beyond, the monsters featured never reach the size or scale of Godzilla or Kong. While smaller and menacing, it detracts from the ambitious tone the trailer sets for the series. The story itself lives up to the title in that this series is about Monarch and the organization’s legacy rather than the monsters themselves. As an exploration of the impact of living in a world where Godzilla exists, Monarch showcases how the world fares in the aftermath of a devastating event. The character work here is quite good, but halfway through the season, I am still unsure why we should care about the characters or their missing father.
Anchored by a great score from Leopold Ross, solid editing by Joe Talbot Hall, and the cinematography of Chris Seager, amongst others, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters consistently looks like it was made alongside the feature film blockbusters that preceded it. I am intrigued by the story and will definitely stick around to find out where this story goes. Still, with so much attention focused in the trailers on the presence of Kurt Russell and Wyatt Russell, I expected them to play a much larger role in the overall story. Had this series been about the early days of Monarch, leading from its inception to the events of Kong: Skull Island, or instead dedicated to exploring the fallout of Godzilla and Kong’s showdown, I think this series would have been more engrossing. Instead, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters feels like it is filling time. We follow the Randa grandchildren as they indirectly learn about Monarch and their family legacy while solving puzzles and playing detective around the globe. As an expansion of the MonsterVerse franchise, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is ambitious and looks great on screen, but the first batch of episodes fails to capitalize on the potential for this epic story.
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters premieres on November 17th on AppleTV+.