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The Monster Universe of ‘Godzilla,’ Explained

‘King of the Monsters,’ out Friday, is a kaiju-filled flick that may or may not be building up to a showdown between the title character and King Kong

Warner Bros. Pictures/Ringer illustration

Warner Bros. hasn’t smashed any big box office records so far this year à la Avengers: Endgame, but that doesn’t mean 2019 has been a total loss. The studio has had a strong year bolstered by its two biggest releases, Shazam! and Detective Pikachu, which have established themselves as important building blocks for the revamped DC Extended Universe and a budding Poké-verse, respectively. And with cinematic universes all the rage in Hollywood these days, Warners is aiming to go three-for-three with its other big cinematic universe this weekend.

Godzilla is pretty hard to miss—literally, he’s a lizard the size of a skyscraper—and yet with all the recent focus on cuddly Pokémon, superheroes, and DTF Disney characters, the MonsterVerse has quietly fallen off the radar. (If your first reaction to this revelation is “Wait, what the hell is a MonsterVerse?” well, exactly.) Even though it is a full-fledged cinematic universe—and even though its first two installments, 2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, were fairly well-received—it hasn’t garnered the same hype as anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But with Friday’s release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters promising multiple kaiju—the Japanese term for giant monster—and tween superstar Millie Bobby Brown doing her best screaming Eleven impression (minus telekinesis, presumably), the MonsterVerse is primed for some time in the spotlight.

Still, it might feel a bit abrupt. So ahead of King of the Monsters, here’s a refresher on where things stand in the MonsterVerse, a recap of which kaiju will be making their franchise debuts, and a breakdown of where all kaiju-related things are headed in 2020 and beyond.

How Did We Get Here?

The latest American update of Godzilla—a creature that has spanned 35 films since its initial appearance in 1954 via the Japanese film company Toho—was Gareth Edwards’s 2014 film. The promotion for Godzilla was notably misleading—even if it did provide one of the better trailers of this century. It presented Godzilla as a destructive and ostensibly insidious force of nature, with humanity’s best hope of stopping the creature being [squints] Walter White.

But Bryan Cranston’s character—spoiler alert—dies fairly early in the film, ceding the floor to the movie’s actual protagonists, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. (Which now seems doubly strange since the actors went on to play super-powered twins in Avengers: Age of Ultron a year later.) And while Godzilla was, in fact, a large lizard who generally treated cities like a destructive child with a Lego set, he was actually saving mankind from other kaiju. By the end of Godzilla, after the creature spewed his atomic breath down the throat of the final enemy kaiju, Godzilla was hailed as humanity’s savior and “king of the monsters.”

All GIFs via Warner Bros. Pictures

But whereas Godzilla takes place in the present, Skull Island is set up as a MonsterVerse prequel, bringing the action to an undiscovered island in 1973. With the tail end of the Vietnam War as the movie’s backdrop, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts provides an answer to the eternal question: What would Apocalypse Now look like if Colonel Kurtz was replaced with a gigantic ape? Like Godzilla, King Kong isn’t necessarily against humanity, though he does swat a few helicopters like they’re mosquitoes; he just seems to want to be left alone. Indeed, he saves some of the film’s principal characters from other threats on the island. (Similar to the Skull Island presented in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the landscape is a living nightmare crawling with giant ants and lizards, which can swallow John Goodman.) Kong’s also quite fond of calamari.

But Skull Island’s direct link to the MonsterVerse isn’t formally unveiled until the film’s post-credits scene, in which two surviving characters (Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson) are detained by the secretive government agency Monarch, and it’s revealed that Kong isn’t the only gigantic creature roaming the earth. Some archival footage of cave paintings depict several kaiju—including Godzilla—suggesting the scope of the universe and serving as a tasty prelude to the kaiju-on-kaiju warfare of King of the Monsters.

Who Are the New Creatures in King of the Monsters?

Godzilla remains the preeminent attraction of King of the Monsters, but he’s joined by a trio of famous creatures from Toho’s history who could challenge the throne. While other kaiju should appear in King of the Monsters—a character in the latest trailer says there are “17 and counting”—these are the three MonsterVerse newcomers whom we can expect to see the most of.

Rodan

Reminiscent of: A pteranodon
First Appearance: Rodan (1956)
Codename: The One Born of Fire
Allegiances: Unclear

After being the subject of his own stand-alone movie in the ’50s, Rodan was inserted into future Godzilla-centric movies, notably in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. That Ghidorah film pitted the eponymous monster against Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan—which appears to be the most obvious inspiration for King of the Monsters.

However, given that Rodan emerges from an active volcano and, per the King of the Monsters trailers, absolutely decimates the nearby populace like Drogon attacking King’s Landing, it’s unclear if this iteration of Rodan will be on the right side of kaiju history. The film’s director, Michael Dougherty, also compared Rodan to an “A-bomb,” which is probably not a good thing. Nevertheless, his first appearance in an American Godzilla flick should be a glorious spectacle of gale-force winds from his giant wings, and molten lava from, well, that active volcano.

Mothra

Reminiscent of: A moth (lol)
First Appearance: Mothra (1961)
Codename: Queen of the Monsters
Allegiances: Probably good

In her on-screen history—she’s had the second-most appearances across Toho films, behind only Godzilla—Mothra has traditionally been benevolent toward humans. Given her bioluminescent appearance and the fact that Millie Bobby Brown’s character gets close enough to Mothra’s face to touch her, she’ll likely remain an ally for mankind in King of the Monsters.

Mothra, like an actual, normal-sized moth, is also capable of transforming—so it’s likely that we’ll see the creature sport a couple different appearances across King of the Monsters. (Her final form should produce the most luminous wings, and if the movie is taking any more ideas from the Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster playbook, the silk she produces could be the key to defeating Ghidorah. My sincerest apologies for putting the notion of giant moth silk into your head; you can’t go into a monster movie and not expect things to get weird.)

Ghidorah

Reminiscent of: A dragon
First Appearance: Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
Codename: Monster Zero
Allegiances: Probably (definitely!) bad

For decades, Ghidorah has been Godzilla’s biggest adversary; the Bird to his Magic. Ghidorah is also often referred to as “King Ghidorah,” so Godzilla’s standing in the kaiju food chain is definitely up for debate. Godzilla probably needs the assistance of Mothra—and possibly Rodan—to even stand a chance against Ghidorah in King of the Monsters.

This one’s pretty easy: You should probably root for Godzilla here. He seems to tolerate humans—if not flat-out ignore them at times, but I mean, same?—and Ghidorah’s whole deal is rampant, apocalyptic destruction. Unless King of the Monsters’ marketing campaign has been as misleading as that of 2014’s Godzilla, Ghidorah will function as the film’s final boss. And we should all be hoping that he takes the L.

Wait, Is Pacific Rim Part of the MonsterVerse?

The humans in Godzilla and Skull Island have been pretty useless in the grand scheme of things; they haven’t really helped the “good guy” creatures so much as they’ve been impediments who require constant protection from hungry monsters and falling debris. But imagine if, in an effort to level the playing field, these humans built giant, Gundam-esque machines that could fight the kaiju by, for example, using a large cargo ship like a baseball bat.

That was the premise behind Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s delirious 2013 blockbuster in which kaiju emerged from the oceans and the nations of the world decided, smartly, that they needed to combine all their resources together to fight back. But while there are a lot of surface similarities between the Pacific Rim universe and the MonsterVerse—both deal with huge, mythological creatures capable of wiping out humanity—they currently exist independently of one another. That’s an important distinction, because a crossover could be possible: Both franchises were made by the same production company, Legendary Entertainment.

A crossover featuring giant robot suits, King Kong, and Godzilla would be like the Avengers on weird steroids, but so far, there have been no intimations from Legendary Entertainment that one will actually happen. The MonsterVerse has even avoided using the same creature nomenclature as the Pacific Rim franchise, eschewing the word “kaiju” in favor of calling the monsters “massive unidentified terrestrial organisms,” or MUTOs. (King of the Monsters, thankfully, appears to be transitioning to the term “titans,” which is a lot catchier.) Whether Pacific Rim and the MonsterVerse do eventually cross over remains to be seen—Pacific Rim: Uprising director Steven S. DeKnight said in an interview at New York Comic-Con in 2017 that it’s “always a possibility.” But given Uprising’s tepid box office haul, it appears any imminent plans for a third Pacific Rim film have been put on hold. For the time being, the MonsterVerse does not overlap with Pacific Rim and its giant, kaiju-punching robots. But really, Legendary should pull the trigger; the fan art alone looks incredible.

Is the Entire MonsterVerse an Elaborate Excuse to Show Godzilla and King Kong Fight Each Other?

Whether Ghidorah is straight-up killed or kept around for the franchise’s future, King of the Monsters may ultimately be remembered as the appetizer ahead of 2020’s main course: Godzilla versus King Kong. Godzilla and Kong haven’t squared up since their first (and shockingly, only) crossover film in 1962. (A Godzilla-Kong sequel was cancelled by Toho; instead, the next Godzilla film ended up being Mothra vs. Godzilla.) Obviously, given all the technological advancements between 1962 and the present, 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong will be a much different, CGI-laden spectacle.

This is the MonsterVerse equivalent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe building up to Thanos against the Avengers—though this franchise has been fast-tracked with just four films across six years. But unlike the MCU, which can mine decades of comic books material featuring myriad superheroes, the history of both Godzilla and King Kong are comparatively thin. Godzilla typically fights against the same enemies (Ghidorah has been an antagonist for decades) or a mechanical version of himself; meanwhile, the bare bones of the King Kong story line has remained the same since the creature’s debut in 1933.

But frankly, there’s no reason for the MonsterVerse to dillydally: Once the franchise was unveiled, Kong versus Godzilla became its most anticipated collision. It is one thing to slowly build the MCU knowing that all the offshoots (i.e., Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy) are worthy of their own functional franchises and potential TV series. We don’t need a spinoff called This Is Mothra—we want Godzilla and King Kong to throw down. The MonsterVerse could continue beyond Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020—whether by having its creatures go another 12 rounds through a bunch of cityscapes in a sequel, or by unveiling a surprising-yet-satisfying pivot toward a merging with the Pacific Rim universe. But the bottom line has always been about this main event. Now we’re only a year away, and with each of these entries already making a killing, there shouldn’t be any further delay. Long live the king.