Movies about giant monsters have a legacy of being talkier than expected, and I’m usually willing to go along with them because there’s a purpose behind the long segments of bureaucratic nonsense in films like “Shin Godzilla” or even the forced POV of a movie like “Monsters.” And it’s understandable, even with the open wallets of a company like Apple TV+, why a TV creator couldn’t produce the non-stop spectacle of something like “Godzilla vs. Kong” in an episodic structure. So I was curious to see how the MonsterVerse would translate to the streaming world with the knowledge that the human characters would have to be just as interesting as the titans or else the show would sag under the weight of faulty writing. I’m deeply sorry to report that the first half of the new season of “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” doesn’t overcome this potential pitfall. On the contrary, it dives right in, giving viewers too few reasons to care outside of the bursts of action that come when impossible creatures too rarely appear.
The best special effect in “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” is purely genetic as creators Chris Black and Matt Fraction had the brilliant idea to cast Kurt Russell and his son Wyatt Russell as the same character, the younger actor playing the iconic one in flashbacks. Both Russells are great, underrated performers, and it’s fun to see them play variations on each other, with Wyatt leaning into the charm his father displayed in the ‘80s in a way he doesn’t often get to do. And it’s not mere stunt casting in that both performers actually put in the work to capture a young version of a potential hero and what time and tragedy would do to that figure. It feels like they collaborated to echo each other’s choices. There are a couple of fun performances in the woefully underwritten ensemble, but this is the Russells' show. Only a legend like Kurt Russell could steal a program from Godzilla.
“Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” takes place in two timelines. The current material is tied to the end of 2014’s “Godzilla,” wherein the big lizard and a strike team decimated San Francisco, leading to a survivor of that attack named Cate (Anna Sawai) traveling to Japan in search of information about her missing father, only to discover he had an entirely different family there. In Japan, Cate meets her half-brother Kentaro (the charismatic Ren Watabe, the non-Russell stand-out of the show), and the two set out to find their mysterious dad. Kentaro brings along a tech junkie cohort named May (Kiersey Clemons), and the trio ends up looping in a legend named Lee Shaw (Kurt Russell), a former soldier who may know where all this chaos started.
Cue the flashbacks to the 1950s, wherein a young Shaw (Wyatt Russell) is assigned to work with a woman named Keiko (Mari Yamamoto) and a researcher named Bill Randa (Anders Holm), who will grow up to be the same character played by John Goodman in “Kong: Skull Island.” That Holm will turn into Goodman in less than three decades is a little less believable than the Wyatt-Kurt connection, but the “Workaholics” star is just likable enough to make it forgivable.
The flashbacks end up centering the military response to Godzilla, playing with some of the themes of these titans since its inception regarding man’s interference with the natural world and human firepower unleashing massive destruction. But it’s all woefully underdeveloped in terms of theme and character, too often forcing people to repeat things we know or will learn in subsequent movies, given the action of this one takes place before two other blockbusters most fans will have already seen.
Every human aspect of “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” is underdeveloped, as if the writers never came up with enough plot to get from episode to episode, leading to drawn-out dialogue scenes that are virtually impossible to care about. After a snow-covered titan attacks the 2010s crew, that half of the narrative springs to life a bit thanks to what feels like a few actual stakes, but that’s almost halfway into a season. Audiences are bizarrely patient with TV in ways they refuse to be with film, willing to watch ten-episode seasons in a weekend, but I’ve always struggled with suggesting a viewer has to watch four hours of something in today’s crowded entertainment landscape to justify a positive review.
At least through the five episodes that I could muster by launch day, there’s just not enough of the final word in this show’s title to keep people engaged. Yes, Kurt Russell’s charm is a monster of its own, and I think his son is one of the more intriguing actors of his generation, a guy I always want to see in better parts. Ultimately, that’s what’s so shocking about my shrugging response to this show—it seems built for me, a guy who has seen every Toho Godzilla movie, liked most of the recent MonsterVerse movies, and can’t get enough of the Russell clan. If I’m only barely interested enough to finish out the first season, how will this be powerful enough to hook anyone else?
Five episodes were screened for review. "Monarch: Legacy of Monsters" premieres today, November 17th.