After over a decade of dominating the media landscape on both the big and small screens, it’s finally starting to look like shared cinematic universes are on their way out. Marvel Studios forever changed the game with 2012’s The Avengers, creating a blueprint for interconnected movie franchises that could seemingly break a billion dollars at the box office with relative ease.
Many Hollywood studios attempted to follow suit throughout the 2010s, yet most have failed. Universal tried to launch a Dark Universe populated by their famous movie monsters but was dead on arrival with 2017’s The Mummy reboot. Sony has made multiple passes now at their own Spider-Man universe – even including a jab at a franchise made up only of Spider-Man villains (aka the Sinister Six) – but mixed quality and profit from the various films have stalled things time and time again.
Perhaps the most famous example of a bundled cinematic universe would be the DCEU, which continued to chug along in a confusing and disjointed fashion after more or less imploding with the failure of 2017’s superhero team-up Justice League. So it’s all the more miraculous that the MonsterVerse, which has pit Godzilla against King Kong and other favorite giant monsters on the big screen, is still standing tall amongst the rubble of its fellow wannabe multimedia franchises. And it’s still not slowing down – if anything, it’s only ramping up.
Maybe it’s an advantage that the MonsterVerse often falls into a “purposefully dumb” kind of entertainment category, or maybe it’s the way it’s shown impressive restraint with the quantity of its content over the past decade. Beginning in 2014 with Gareth Edwards’ modern take on everyone’s favorite giant lizard, Godzilla, the MonsterVerse saw even more success with their prequel follow-up, Kong: Skull Island. After stumbling a bit at the box office with Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the franchise made a significant COVID comeback with the long-awaited Godzilla vs. Kong, which has helped ensure the universe’s continuation.
Developed by Chris Black and Matt Fraction, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters marks the first live-action television series for the expanding franchise, following Netflix’s animated Skull Island show. It’s an impressive feat when a massive franchise like this is able to really stick with its established lore and world-building across different stories, characters, and filmmakers, and Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is a genuine treat in that regard for those who have become true fans of the MonsterVerse over the years.
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters takes place between the events of Godzilla and King of the Monsters, in a world that’s still struggling to come to terms with the shocking revelation that kaiju are very real – and very dangerous. It’s fun to explore the ways different parts of the globe have reacted differently to Godzilla’s 2014 battle with the MUTOs in San Francisco, from your very common case of PTSD from survivors to conspiracy theorists running amok in the aftermath to new defense technologies and underground bunkers being established in numerous countries.
This more ground-level approach to the world of monsters and its characters is a nice change of pace from the movies’ usual focus on enormous spectacle. The plot of the show follows two siblings, Cate (Anna Sawai) and Kentaro (Ren Watabe), who are brought together for the first time following the mysterious disappearance of their father. The two discover their family’s connection to the secretive organization known as Monarch, who study and monitor Titans like Godzilla, and embark on a globe-trotting adventure to uncover the truth about their father, Monarch itself, and maybe even the Titans.
Many complaints have been lobbed at the MonsterVerse franchise for the supposed failures of its human drama, and Monarch: Legacy of Monsters finally seems to rectify that. The backstories and relationships between all of the human characters are the real driving force of the series, and thanks to solid writing and performances, they’re the most engaging aspect of it. That’s not to say that there’s no kaiju action to enjoy though. In fact, there’s even more than you would expect! However, those wanting this TV show to be another epic King of the Monsters-style kaiju showdown will have to look elsewhere.
Cate and Kentaro are joined by a computer whiz named May (Kiersey Clemons) and eventually, a retired Army officer named Lee Shaw (Kurt Russell) who’s more connected to Monarch’s secrets and the Titans than anyone might suspect. Clemons and Russell steal the show from opposite ends, with Clemons drawing viewers in with her reserved exterior and complex motivations while Russell is clearly having a blast playing the classic hotshot soldier with a heart of gold, albeit one that’s been a bit aged up.
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters hops back and forth through different timelines, both with its core cast and a secondary one set decades in the past during the 1950s with a younger Lee Shaw (played by Wyatt Russell) and two companions, a prominent researcher named Keiko (Mari Yamamoto) and an explorer known as Bill Randa (Anders Holm), a name that some MonsterVerse fans may recognize. The B-plot set in the past does help fill in some interesting gaps in the franchise’s overarching lore, but you may often find yourself waiting for the show to jump back to the “present” to keep your attention.
Despite being a little smaller in scale, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters still tries to capture the films’ sense of grandeur and world-changing discovery. And for the most part, it succeeds. Like other Apple TV+ original series, the money and high-scale production quality are clearly felt on the screen – the monsters and locations look great and the effects are far more impressive than your average television/streaming endeavor. Director Matt Shakman (WandaVision) helms the first pair of episodes and delivers the exact kind of character-driven drama that should surround an extraordinary story like that of Godzilla and company, while also establishing the show’s intriguing central mysteries.
Some cheesy, overly-dramatized dialogue (Sawai gets the worst of it) and too many instances of “No way they survived that” occasionally threaten to bring Monarch: Legacy of Monsters down, though it always manages to right itself before falling too far off the tracks. If you’ve enjoyed the MonsterVerse thus far, this series should be a delight to tide you over until the next Godzilla and King Kong team-up (titled Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire) goes down in theaters. Marvel Studios may have shown everyone how to properly handle a movie universe but has since floundered with its uneven expansion to television. Maybe the MonsterVerse will be the one to actually get it right.