Say what you will about Marvel movies: when Captain America and Iron Man came to blows in Captain America: Civil War, at least the filmmakers played it as a tragedy, not a gladiator match. The use of “v.” instead of “vs.” in the title Batman v. Superman made it sound more like a Supreme Court case than a cage fight, but however lofty its pretensions, the film’s main attraction was the promise of seeing the two pummel each other as violently as a PG-13 rating would allow (at least until the R-rated director’s cut made it to home video). Now there is Godzilla vs. Kong, which has been advertised with all the dignity of a UFC championship bout. “Who would win in a fight between King Kong and Godzilla?” may be perennial fodder for interesting enough discussions on the grade school playground, but it is not exactly a compelling premise for a full-length movie.
At this point you might counsel me to just turn my brain off and enjoy it, and perhaps it is a tad quixotic to ask for “dignity” from a movie about giant monster brawls. Then again, most of my desire to see Godzilla vs. Kong in the first place stemmed from the lingering goodwill inspired by the stately grandeur of its predecessor, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. I don’t know that there has been a better big-budget blockbuster since that film’s release in 2014 – and there has certainly not been a better monster movie, though whatever its foibles, I found much to like about the goofy splendor of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. All this to say: as far as I was concerned, going into Godzilla vs. Kong’s titular grudge match, Godzilla was two for two, whereas this iteration of Kong had only the tedious Kong: Skull Island to his name.
The film’s runtime is divided – a bit clumsily but roughly equally – between a Godzilla-centric plot and a Kong-centric plot. The Godzilla plot is a sort of half-baked corporate espionage thriller, centering on Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown, reprising her King of the Monsters role) and her attempts to clear the atomic lizard’s name by exposing shady goings-on at Apex Cybernetics, whose facilities he has been attacking. On the Kong side of things is Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), who has been studying Kong for a decade in a Truman Show-style dome but is shocked to learn, halfway through the film, that he speaks American Sign Language; Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a deaf orphan who takes over as Kong’s human liaison, making the beast a surrogate father instead of a frustrated romantic; and Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), a scientist whose pet theory – that the Earth is hollow and, Russian-nesting-doll-like, contains a smaller Earth inside – has, for some reason, not caught on with the scientific community. The trio is escorting Kong to this Hollow Earth, as Lind dubs it, at the behest of Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), head of Apex Cybernetics, who is seeking the sort of glowing blue power source you always find in these kinds of movies. This may sound like a lot to keep track of, but you needn’t worry: within the first ten minutes, you could probably accurately predict every major turn the story will take, including the way its parallel plots will finally intersect.
The sprawling cast of actors – many of them overqualified for this material, and none bringing the gravitas with which Ken Watanabe anchored the previous two Godzilla films – is rounded out by Brian Tyree Henry as a podcasting conspiracy theorist whose shtick gets very stale in the first five minutes of the picture and then molders for the rest of its runtime; Julian Dennison as a friend of Madison’s who gets roped into the shenanigans so that he can point out the improbability of everything that transpires in a sensible deadpan; Eiza González as Maia Simmons, daughter of Walter, who we know is not to be trusted because she derisively refers to Kong as “the monkey”; and Kyle Chandler, reprising his King of the Monsters role as The Quintessential Movie Dad. (“That podcast is filling your head with garbage,” he blusters at Madison. “You should be in school!”)
Of course, no one really goes to a Godzilla movie for the plot or the human characters, and it is hard to blame Godzilla vs. Kong for being exactly what it says on the tin. The main selling point is the prospect of the two monsters fighting, and the fights are lucidly, creatively choreographed. The first brawl takes place at sea, which puts Kong at a disadvantage: he bounds from battleship to battleship and clings to an aircraft carrier like it is a scrap of driftwood while Godzilla prowls the sea beneath, dragging a piece of wreckage like the shark from Jaws. The second melee, set against the neon-drenched backdrop of Hong Kong, is more visually extravagant but less imaginatively staged: there is a lot of snarling, growling, chest pounding, and so on. Director Adam Wingard often hinges his monster fights on important tasks the human characters have to accomplish, a quirk that Edwards avoided, to his credit, in Godzilla: when the monster is taller than a skyscraper, the humans really ought to be inconsequential, even if they continue shooting missiles at it. Moreover, for all their simple pleasures, the battles in Godzilla vs. Kong never offer a single moment as palpably satisfying as Godzilla’s coup de grace. With regards to the one possible exception: I hate to say the words, but Avengers: Endgame did it better.
Of the several undercooked plotlines jostling for screentime, the most intriguing revolves around the villains of the film. King Kong has always been a figure of pathos, but the decision to scrub this franchise of any hint of romance robs him of the opportunity to come to life as a character. What is a beast without a beauty to play off of? Meanwhile, the filmmakers have no idea what to do with Godzilla, so he is reduced to a mere plot device, stopping in whenever something needs to be smashed. A trip through a wormhole continues this series’ tradition of 2001 references, but Kong’s journey to the center of the earth never really makes good on its Jules-Verne-by-way-of-Kubrick promise: the Hollow Earth is just Skull Island with a bit of anti-gravity.
This leaves us with Apex Cybernetics and the creation of Mechagodzilla, which – far more than the Godzilla/Kong rivalry – develops the core themes of this series in intriguing ways. Godzilla framed its titular character as a sort of godlike figure, deserving of Old Testament-style fear and reverence. King of the Monsters layered on the Christological overtones, sending Godzilla to the underworld and back (“He died for us”) and pitting him against Ghidorah, a satanic dragon straight out of Dante’s Inferno. These themes were embodied most pointedly in Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa, a faintly priestlike figure whose humility and quasi-religious devotion to Godzilla permeated both films.
Serizawa sacrificed himself to revive Godzilla in King of the Monsters, but Godzilla vs. Kong introduces his son, Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri). Like another pop culture character named Ren, this Serizawa seems to have dedicated his life to repudiating his father’s beliefs. If Godzilla is a Christ figure, Mechagodzilla is an Antichrist, a false idol, and it is Ren who puppeteers it from his seat in the skull of Ghidorah – a sad, upside-down parody of his father’s face-to-face meeting with Godzilla. The first Serizawa was a spokesman for human humility before nature’s overwhelming power; the second Serizawa is the mouthpiece of human arrogance. (Godzilla and Kong both abide in ancient cities; the headquarters of Apex Cybernetics is an enormous, futuristic pyramid that looks like it could have been lifted from the set of Blade Runner. In Godzilla vs. Kong’s subtler, more thematically weighted reference to 2001, one shot frames it exactly like one of Kubrick’s black monoliths.) When Mechagodzilla inevitably goes haywire, taking on a mind of its own without explanation, I suppose it is simply because that is what robots with red eyes always do in the movies – but I prefer to think it is possessed by Ghidorah, advancing King of the Monsters’ riffing on the Revelation of John.
In the end, what Godzilla vs. Kong misses is – to pilfer a phrase from Watchmen – “an almost religious sense of awe.” Either of the two preceding Godzilla films would have been better suited for a Holy Week release. For all of their kids-playing-with-toys silliness, in their best moments, they painted on a huge canvas and evoked a sense of genuine wonder, a magnificence that transcended kitsch to remind us of our smallness. Godzilla vs. Kong has a few very cool action figures to play with, but the sandbox has shrunk.