In possibly my favorite Cinematic Universe going on right now, the compact Monsterverse comes to a climax in Godzilla vs. Kong, a film that brings together only 3 movies, Gareth Edward’s excellent Godzilla (2014), the terrific Kong: Skull Island (2017) and the deeply flawed but watchable Godzilla: King of Monsters (2019). As is tradition, Legendary has hired a creative indie filmmaker, giving Adam Wingard (both recommendable Your Next and The Guest) to helm his biggest movie yet – an insane, globe-trotting, epic scaled film that brings together the world of Kong, Godzilla and the film’s much hinted at Hollow Earth. We’re going to talk about the film, what it does right and what it does wrong, but because my HBOMax was buffering like mad and not giving it a fair hearing, we’re also going to talk about how this movie fits in with issues of license films.
While only 4 films deep, Godzilla vs. Kong feels lightyears way from Godzilla in the right ways. I’ve always loved how different each of these movies are and GvK is the most outlandish, sci-fi and beautifully technicolored one yet. The washed out hues of the 2014 film are replaced with a vibrant neon Tokyo. The perspective has flipped from the ground-level human experience of Elizabeth Olsen catching a glimpse of Godzilla from the street to framing up the two titans normally and the humans as ants that scurry around them. This is a movie with space-ships and Hollow Earth worldbuilding. Were Godzilla flings a radioactive axe into the side of a skyscraper.
What Wingard can’t get around is the basic structure that Versus movies like this not only all have, but have to have. It’s a problem arising from Hollywood grabbing beloved property licenses and dove into with both feet without ever figuring out how to solve. The movie follows exactly the patter you would expect: The two monsters emerge. The human characters, in useless filler stories, guide them together. They fight. There is no real winner and then they have to team up to defeat a common, even more dangerous, foe.
These movies have to promise something they can’t deliver because they don’t want to alienate the fanbase of either Godzilla or King Kong by having one defeat the other. From a investment standpoint, no studio would license out their creation to be killed and humiliated by another studio’s creation. So Godzilla vs. Kong like all Verses movies has to end in a draw that shows both monsters to be totally awesome. Going back to Ronny Yu’s fun Freddy vs. Jason or Paul W.S. Anderson’s infamously regrettable Alien vs. Predator, both films cast one side as a Good Guy (usually the most humanoid creature) vs a less humanoid bad guy and both films essentially end in a draw as well. Humans use Freddy to stop Jason, but we get a final teaser where Jason is still alive and humans use the Predator to kill the Queen Alien, but we get a final teaser of a Pred-Alien. Let’s not forget the granddaddy of this disappointment: Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice similarly has Batman nearly killing Superman and then teaming up to fight Doomsday. In Captain America: Civil War, Cap and Iron Man fight until they get tired and end up teaming up to deal with Thanos in Infinity War (though that movie has a lot more substance behind the fight).
I don’t see an obvious solution to breaking this mold. It’s the constraints of making a Verses movie. GvK sidesteps this a little by picking a side. Godzilla vs. Kong evens out the sequel count by essentially being a sequel to Skull Island, casting Kong as the hero and Godzilla as a confused villain, far from the world-dominating beast he was at the end of King of Monsters. Also what happened to the other Titans between movies? After bowing to Godzilla did he just kill them?
If that weren’t enough, Godzilla vs. Kong also has to deal with a second constraint brought in by these dueling license movies: What to do with the human? While not Verses movies, this is a problem that has befuddled any movie where the main characters are CGI creations from the Transformers films to Sonic the Hedgehog. Wingard manages this as well as can be (mercifully sparing us from the “estranged fathers trying to see their children” subplot), keeping the human stuff moving at an efficient clip, only there to run them through the reveals of the story. In a subplot that is right out of a Michael Bay film, Godzilla-obsessed Mollie Bobby Brown teams up with a conspiracy podcaster (Bryan Tyler Henry) and a comic-relief side-kick (Julian Dennison, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and stumble their way through the entire global Monarch conspiracy just in time to explain why the titans are fighting when it’s time for them to fight.
The problem is that like Transformers, like Sonic and The Smurfs and Tom and Jerry, these movies where the humans are supporting cast are, at their core, animated movies. Or at least should be. No studio is going to greenlight a massive Kong or Transformers adult animated film because animation still has a stigma around it as being for kids. Despite Pixar proving this wrong for decades and animated Godzilla movies like the successful anime Planet of the Monsters trilogy, a studio is not going to get behind a fully animated Godzilla vs. Kong movie. Even though, ironically enough, these movies are essentially just big cartoons masquerading as adult fair anyway. Everyone watches a Transformers film and assumes they’re watching Mark Walberg in front of a green screen studio all day.
Like with the Verses films there are two large reasons for that, one the story issue and two the publicity issue. From the story side, it’s hard to get an audience to connect and relate to a giant monster. And the less humanoid the less they will connect with them. The non-human characters have to be either cute or as human as possible. It’s one of the things the Caesar Planet of the Apes trilogy does so well and is so bold about – forcing it’s ape CGI hero to the center of the story and getting their audience to care about him. We do care about Caesar in those movies, just as they care about Kong in his movies, but the less humanoid we start to get, the more an audience is not going to relate to them. Writing a totally human-free King Kong script starring a hero that cannot talk is a tall order – though Godzilla vs. Kong has a clever side-step solution to that too.
From the business side, our story has to be saddled with human subplots so that beautiful Hollywood actors can parade around world promoting the film. 9 times out of 10 if you tell someone about a movie you saw they will still ask you who the big stars are in it, and refuse to see it if they don’t recognize those names. Godzilla, King Kong, The Predator and Optimus Prime can’t sit down with Jimmy Fallon or be probed with awkward questions by hack Channel 4 News reporters, but Alexander Skarsgard and Rebecca Hall can. As movies move toward motion-capture performances, studios still need these actors to sell the product, which is also why ever since Shrek studios have promoted the hell out of the actors behind the voices of animated movies. As Hollywood struggles to be colder and more mechanical, the audience still strives for human connection.
One movie that does this really well, one that I didn’t appreciate until I delved into all these tropes more, is Guillermo Del Toro’s robots vs. Kaiju film Pacific Rim. On the surface it seems kind of silly and inefficient to put 2 driver’s in the head of the film’s giant Yager robots and connect them together with their memories – but it brilliantly weaves the human stories into the giant monster fights in a way that blows apart these usual story knots. And speaking of Pacific Rim, I knew I’d seen the third act reveal in Godzilla vs. Kong, the same alien mind-control story is straight out of the studio sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising.
Godzilla vs. Kong is an entertaining piece of pulp that navigates these issues better than most. It does all the tropes, but in a way that keeps them from dragging down the momentum of the film. It’s a completely wacky, silly movie, but it’s enjoyable.