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Apple’s new Godzilla series crushes its biggest challenge

Apple TV Plus’ Monarch: Legacy of Monsters series kicks off with a surprisingly compelling set of new perspectives that make a familiar story feel fresh.

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A woman in a blue shirt, black pants, and a black jacket standing in the rain in front of a school bus as she looks up in dismay at something towering above her.
Anna Sawai as Cate in Monarch: Legacy of Monsters.
Image: Apple TV Plus

Though some of Legendary Pictures’ recent Godzilla-focused projects have been gorgeous sights, they’ve also been so narratively wobbly that it was hard to imagine Apple getting in on the MonsterVerse action with a new live-action series, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters from executive producers Chris Black and Matt Fraction. After multiple movies in which titanic beasts had to fight their human co-stars for precious screen time, the idea of a time-jumping show digging into the military’s secret history involving kaiju didn’t exactly spark excitement.

But as improbable as it sounds, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters’ focus on individual people spurred to action by the emergence of Godzilla and his fellow Titans is exactly what makes the show a surprise delight — one that feels like it has potential to be both a proper hit for Apple TV Plus and a strong step forward for the MonsterVerse franchise as a whole.

Set in both the 1950s, closer to the events of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Skull Island, and in the much more recent past, a year after Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla reboot, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters tells the story of how the eponymous organization first came to be. In typical Godzilla movie fashion, humanity as a whole is largely unaware of the existence of massive unidentified terrestrial organisms (MUTOs) as Monarch first opens in the past on an island full of strange animals that, by all accounts, shouldn’t exist.

Image: Apple TV Plus

There are a select few, like researchers Bill Randa (portrayed by both Anders Holm and John Goodman) and Dr. Keiko Mura (Mari Yamamoto), and army lieutenant Lee Shaw (portrayed by Wyatt and Kurt Russell), who know what went down on Skull Island and how the world needs to be prepared for other, similar events going forward. But for all the bravery and scientific know-how that guides Legacy of Monsters’ human explorers as they set out to locate and study MUTOs, they are — for the most part — just as inexperienced in dealing with the creatures as ordinary civilians are.

Western Godzilla-related projects have often struggled to make their human characters feel like compelling, integral pieces to their stories rather than distractions from the action that studios know audiences show up to see. The human drama in action / disaster kaiju films like Godzilla vs. Kong is always meant to be relatable, but it can be hard to buy into while a city is being leveled by a radioactive monster. Because Legacy of Monsters is a series, though, its human characters have enough time and space to become genuinely interesting figures whose connections to the MUTOs and to one another you actually want to understand — especially as the show begins to jump through time.

Along with chronicling Monarch’s evolution as an organization, Legacy of Monsters also zooms in on pivotal moments featured in previous films, but from the perspectives of new characters like Cate (Anna Sawai), a young Japanese-American woman who survived Godzilla’s attack on San Francisco in 2014. Though the concept of large-scale traumatic memory is central to Godzilla stories, it hasn’t always felt as strong in some of Warner Bros.’ MonsterVerse films.

Image: Apple TV Plus

But through Cate and other younger characters from the present, like Kentaro (Ren Watabe) and May (Kiersey Clemons), Legacy of Monsters does an excellent job of unpacking some of the different ways people might find themselves trying to cope with the trauma of surviving kaiju encounters

Based just on the first episode that was screened at this year’s New York Comic Con, it’s a little hard to gauge just how dazzling Monarch: Legacy of Monsters’ depictions of said monsters actually are. The handful of creatures that appear in the premiere are perfectly terrifying when it’s just them crashing through the jungle by themselves. But as soon as the monsters are on-screen with humans at the same time, the effectiveness of the show’s visual effects falters considerably, and you’re reminded that many of these scenes were shot on a sound stage.

That’s not quite enough to make Monarch: Legacy of Monsters seem like a misfire, though, especially given how strong the show’s narrative and its cast’s performances are. But it does make one wonder just how big, bad, and epic a treatment Monarch: Legacy of Monsters will end up giving the G-man himself once the show hits Apple TV Plus on November 17th.