Godzilla is about to turn 70, but he’s showing no sign of retiring.
Next month he roars ferociously back into cinemas with Toho Studios' new film "Minus One" (set after World War II) and on Friday he made his presence felt on U.S. shores with the Apple TV+ series "Monarch: Legacy of Monsters."
As a lifelong fan of the iconic Japanese kaiju (monster), I wanted to find out what some of the creators behind the series thought of Godzilla since "Monarch: Legacy of Monsters" riffs off the monsterverse of the American films launched in 2014 with Gareth Edwards' "Godzilla."
Matt Shakman is one of the directors on the 10-part series.
"I've loved Godzilla since I was a kiddo," Shakman said. "He's everything that cinema is, which is wonder, which is that combination of awe and terror and unknowability. And I love this notion that he's neither good nor bad. He's very hard to define and so he's a part of that bigger world you can't control."
For executive producer Tory Tunnell, Godzilla is "one of those characters that I don't know that I have a first memory of because I think it felt like he's always been with us, like Santa Claus. He's just that iconic character that's always been part of our world. I think that for people that aren't really familiar with the I.P. (intellectual property) they assume that he's a villain. But he's so much more complex than that."
In Japan, Godzilla was born out of an atomic blast that woke him from the ocean depths. He also rose out of real life tragedy after the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on the country. There was also an incident involving a fishing vessel that had gotten caught in atomic testing and the sailors came back sick. Those thematic and symbolic aspects of his character are not really featured in the American series but there are threads of his personality that do come through in both the Japanese and U.S. productions.
"Specific to our series, he really represents the confusion and the tension within our lead character, Cate," explained co-creator and writer Chris Black. "Is he a hero, or is he a villain? Is he a destroyer, or is he a protector? And she feels herself pulled between the monster that she saw destroying her city and characters like Shaw, who were saying, he's not who you think he is."
As visual effects supervisor for the series, Sean Konrad is one of the people bringing Godzilla to life.
"He's a defender of the planet, in a way, but he doesn't really understand humanity. And it's not that he doesn't care, but the way I've been thinking about it is like, how does an elephant regard an ant? It doesn't, right?" Konrad proposed. "It's a force of nature. It looks beyond us in a way. And what's interesting is giving a personality to a force of nature. It's like, what is that personality? And how does that come through?"
Over the decades, Godzilla has represented many things: the atomic bomb, nuclear power, a force of nature, a children's hero. He is constantly morphing and evolving.
"When we started to develop this, we talked about him as a representation of climate change and then COVID," Tunnell said. "But he's always been representative of some sort of human challenge that has felt like an existential threat."
Executive producer, co-creator, and co-writer Matt Fraction added, "To me, Godzilla represents the sublime and unknowable. That there's something beautiful and terrifying, awe-inspiring and fearsome about the world we live in and the forces that affect us that we can never hope to understand and if we're lucky enough, might get to catch a glimpse of for a few seconds."
And that is probably my main complaint about the show. The humans are far better developed and less annoying than any of their feature film counterparts, yet "Monarch" still keeps Godzilla as a supporting character to the human drama.
"The monsters are there to influence and affect our characters and to affect our story. But it isn't about the monsters, right?" Shakman said. "It's not about being up in the air at stratosphere level with Godzilla and King Kong fighting. It's about being down on the ground and having your life changed by the fact that Godzilla and Kong are fighting up above. And that, to me, was beautiful."
The show taps into Legendary Entertainment's existing monsterverse and plans to add some new creatures during the run of the series. It is set after Godzilla has taken on the Titans and alerted the world to the fact that monsters are real. The show follows multiple generations on a quest to unearth the secrets behind Monarch.
"For me, it's a really emotional story about a family and their legacy and about their fears and traumas and their hopes," explained Konrad. "And the thing is that the monsters at all these pivotal points represent that. It can represent a fear. It can represent a hope. And so whenever we're developing the visual effects for these things, we need to characterize the performances of these creatures to that thing that we're trying to do in the story."
In addition to monsters, the series boasts the clever casting of Kurt Russell and his son Wyatt as the character Lee Shaw.
"We knew we had this character who existed in the past and in the present," Black said. "We assumed we would cast two actors, a younger actor and an older actor. And then immediately, the idea that Kurt and Wyatt Russell were both available, interested, and had never been in a project together."
It is dream casting and fun to see them play off each other across time.
"Kurt and Wyatt had so much fun developing this character," Tunnell said. "They spent a lot of time off screen working with each other to make sure that they were calibrating that character in a way that Kurt was sort of coming down to Wyatt and Wyatt was coming up to Kurt. And so it felt really seamless. You have magic in a bottle with the idea of Wyatt is Kurt. You just see him, and he's such a young Kurt, but he is also his own person."
It is not easy for any of these actors to hold court with Godzilla but the Russells manage to keep us interested in the ground level human drama while we wait for Godzilla to make an appearance.
Monarch: The Legacy of Monsters" released two episodes on Friday and will be releasing one a week from now on. It builds on the film universe in some effective ways but if they are calling the show "Legacy of Monsters," I just want to see more monsters, please.