Monarch: Legacy of Monsters Eps 1-5 Review — I Want to Believe

For a Godzilla-based TV show that only has a few minutes of Godzilla allocated in the budget, the challenge is one that has bedeviled many directors over the years. How do you make the adventures of the humans interesting when everyone comes to see the monsters?

For Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, there’s an additional challenge. How does one craft a compelling mystery in a narrative where the audience already knows the main secret that the characters don’t? In this case, it’s that a covert organization called Monarch has been monitoring giant monsters since World War II and generating the plots of the four feature films in Legendary Entertainment‘s “Monsterverse” so far.

Human Touch

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, in its first five episodes, manages to hold the viewer’s interest by creating a personal narrative. Cate (Anna Sawai), a schoolteacher who survived Godzilla’s arrival in San Francisco (as seen in the Gareth Edwards film), had her father Hiroshi disappear (and presumably die) soon after. Traveling to Tokyo to straighten out his affairs, she encounters an entire second family she never knew about…and who never knew about her. It’s a set-up that satisfies the first rule of good genre entertainment: establish character stakes that would work in any kind of story.

The fact that her father came into possession of files tossed into the Skull Island-adjacent ocean by John Goodman’s William Randa during the events of Kong: Skull Island only ups the stakes. We may not have any doubt about the existence of Monarch, but can understand the desire Cate and newly found half-brother Kentaro (Ren Watabe) have to find their father, and possibly kick his ass for being a secret bigamist. Add the government on their trail while they endeavor to do so, and much fleeing ensues.

Time Keeps on Slipping

Cate and Kentaro’s storyline plays out in 2015, shortly after the events of the first Legendary Godzilla movie. Meanwhile, flashbacks to the ’40s and ’50s unveil the events surrounding the creation of Monarch, which involves young “Billy” Randa (Anders Holm, who looks nothing like John Goodman did 20 years ago), brilliant scientist Dr Keiko Mira (Mari Yamamoto), and skeptical, typical military guy Lee (Wyatt Russell).

The flashbacks get to skip back and forward in a manner designed to get to the good parts, i.e. the monsters, who vary greatly in size and shape. So far, they’re all new creatures and not Toho designs, save the big G himself, who also looms large — as if he could do otherwise — in Cate’s PTSD flashbacks.

(Timeline-wise, Mothra, Rodan, and Ghidorah haven’t really made themselves known to the world at large yet.)

The Truth Is Out There

It’s hard for longtime fans not to think of The X-Files when it comes to Monarch. As in that long-running show, we and the lead characters already know the big secret about the government trying to conceal creatures. What we don’t know is the how and the why, and when you toss in a missing family member, it turns out that’s enough.

The X-Files dragged out its details for too long with its main characters; in contrast, the problem with the Monsterverse movies has been their willingness to completely switch out the cast every time. Millie Bobby Brown and Ken Watanabe managed to make it into two — not the same two — but the human stories mostly don’t connect. Monarch introduces us to all-new characters again, but since more seasons are planned if this one works, we can assume it’s safer to get attached than usual.

The show may have a limited budget for fully believable CG kaiju, but it’s not afraid to spend money everywhere else. Shot all over the world and looking like it, this feels like a James Bond movie in scope, save one or two setpieces pretty obviously shot on a volume. Giant, expensive CG sets loom as impressive backdrops and exist to crumble to bits when danger arises. A sequence in post-evacuation San Francisco, on the other hand, feels like the world’s largest Halloween Horror Nights maze.

Directorial diversity keeps the show from becoming too homogenized: Matt Shakman keeps the first two episodes fairly action based, while Julian Holmes’ fourth episode expertly conceals exposition dumps inside Blade Runner-esque near-death memories and hallucinations.

Forever Young

It’s no secret that Kurt Russell plays the older version of Wyatt Russell’s character, and father and son are clearly having a blast doing impressions of each other and meeting in the middle. If the math seems off, you’re not wrong — characters in 2015 note that Lee should be around 90 by now, and the unusually spry elder Russell, looking great for his actual 72 years, simply says something about “good genes.” It’s not clear if that’s just something we’re meant to accept like 80-something Tobin Bell playing 52 in Saw X, or if there’ll be some kind of kaiju magic revealed later. In a world of giant lizards that eat radiation, though, it’s hardly asking too much to just buy into Kurt’s eternal youth.

Seems unfair, next to Russell, to expect the two leads to carry equal weight. The deck is further stacked against them by making them such pills. Kentaro is a well-off but sad and pretentious artist, and Cate spends several episodes trying not to be involved in the story whatsoever. Her backstory reveals some major skeletons, while her half-brother gets a little more vindication. But in both cases the daddy issues are overbearing, and not necessarily likable.

To counter them, Kiersey Clemons’ May brings some exuberance along. Playing the sort of movie hacker that made Angelina Jolie a budding star, i.e. a preposterously beautiful and cool one. As Kentaro’s ex, she once again (after The Flash) manages to convincingly portray attraction to someone who does not deserve her. Not to mention she’s one of the three non-Russell leads who at least seems to comprehend the stakes at every turn.

As for other cast members, let’s just say Cobra Kai fans will enjoy one or two supporting characters who show up.

Ground Level

Years ago, Quentin Tarantino pitched the idea of a Godzilla movie about what society looks like on the ground when a giant, god-like monster could come back at any moment. Monarch approaches this concept, with a Tokyo filled with signposted Godzilla escape routes, and cab drivers who insist the San Francisco attack was faked (“They did it with CGI,” one says, which on a meta level is true!).

The Titan trutherism and Cate’s background as a teacher who couldn’t save all her students suggest that this Godzilla’s writers want to turn the nuclear metaphor into one for school shooting trauma — our most modern recurring tragedy. As some probably coincidental parallels with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer keep reminding us in flashback, though, some days you just can’t get rid of The Bomb.

Do we care what secrets Monarch may unearth? Not especially. But it’s to the show’s credit that we do care what happens to the characters, and what the hell the missing Hiroshi was thinking. That, the grand scale, and the fact that the direction is occasionally allowed to get weird is enough of a hook so far. I’m almost afraid to see how the mystery threads resolve — whatever happens is guaranteed to look cool, but there seem only so many possible outcomes.

Grade so far: 4/5

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters’ first two episodes debut on Apple TV+ on November 17.