“There’s a world down there, Cate…and it’s not ours.”
In 1933, King Kong was presented to the world as a beast living on the fictional Skull Island who became enchanted by the young Fay Wray. Since Kong’s debut and subsequent fall from The Empire State Building, movie and television audiences have been taken by the possibility of monsters living amongst us. Whether it’s the Loch Ness monster or Japan’s own Godzilla, these creatures have created a genre in filmmaking that’s exponentially increased in popularity in recent years.
Apple TV+ is getting into the Monsterverse game with their newest television series, “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters,” premiering Friday, Nov. 17. Created by Chris Black and developed by Matt Fraction, the show continues the events of several monster movies of recent memory, like 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island” and 2021’s “Godzilla vs. Kong.” Unlike Disney+’s method of television content that needs to be consumed to understand the movies and characters involved in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” stands on its own, apart from its cinematic predecessors.
Much of “Monarch” occurs in 2015 after G-Day. This historical event pitted the prehistoric behemoth Godzilla against other monsters, obliterating the San Francisco Bay Area. In the aftermath and separation from her presumed deceased father, former teacher Cate (Anna Sawai) flies to Japan to tie up loose ends and discovers she has a brother she didn’t know about named Kentaro (Ren Watabe). Along with American May (Kiersey Clemons), the siblings set out on a global journey to uncover their father’s legacy and learn more about the shadowy organization called Monarch.
Monarch is a company tasked with protecting citizens from monsters living beneath the Earth’s surface. But there is something strange about its operations, which Cate equates to “a secret organization like the CIA, but for Godzilla.” As Cate, Kentaro and May continue their journey, they seek help from army colonel Lee Shaw (Kurt Russell), a stubborn and knowledgeable man with a past linking him to their father and Monarch.
“Monarch” begs the question: Who are the real monsters? There are consistent time jumps during the eight episodes available for review between 2015 and the 1950s, an early time when Cate and Kentaro’s grandmother Keiko (Mari Yamamoto) teamed up with Bill Randa (Anders Holm) and a younger Lee Shaw (played by Kurt Russell’s real son, Wyatt Russell). This trio mirrors the 2015 bunch, as both groups discover more about monsters during different periods. It’s an exciting take on the characters of the Monsterverse, which first introduced Randa in “Kong: Skull Island,” played by John Goodman, who shortly reprises the older version of the role in this series.
The series is well orchestrated and has moments of pure edge-of-your-seat action, but the concept might have fared better in a movie format rather than a ten-episode series. There are too many filler episodes, and sequences that feel like fever dreams and hallucinations rather than concrete storytelling providing context to the monstrous surroundings. The two siblings have very little chemistry, and it’s difficult to pinpoint who the audience should be rooting for. Humanity is not without its flaws, and the monsters aren’t harming anyone when not provoked. But maybe that’s the question we’ve been trying to answer since Fay Wray met King Kong in 1933.
The show is far from the theme of “twas beauty that killed the beast” as it thrusts monsters into a disaster series rather than finding the story’s heart. It tries and fails with familial tension and backstory in every episode, succumbing to flashbacks that create more confusion. For every new fact found on the 2015 core group’s mission, more doors open to reveal troubling details that don’t offer more than typical episode cliffhangers.
There are hints of generational divides and the core group quickly learns that no one can be trusted, not even each other. Monarch seeks to study monsters and see what they can learn about humanity and its future based on their existence. Figuring out what everyone is hiding and why becomes the target theme of an overarching, action-packed fiasco.
The casting choice of Kurt and Wyatt Russell playing the same character at different times in his life is magical, not only because the father-son duo look strikingly similar, but because they know how to treat the enigmatic character with care and control. Lee Shaw can be studied for hours without truly scratching the bravado surface, and the show is better for having the Russell boys in it. Besides them, there are simply too many moving pieces, characters and obstacles thrown in to keep track of.
But this Monsterverse would be nothing without its, um, monsters. Godzilla isn’t the only creature of colossal size and danger, as other monsters are introduced and reintroduced throughout the series. Yet they don’t see enough screen time, and the emphasis on human relationships is not as interesting as the show aims for them to be.
“Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” capitalizes on the success of the Godzilla and King Kong movies and breathes life into its backstory. Though the initial incarnation of Godzilla in the 1950s came from Japan’s perspective of the atom bomb, the monstrous character has evolved over time. The series is a worthy endeavor that will hopefully keep the Monsterverse in business for quite some time. However, it doesn’t add strength to the vulnerability of its characters, nor does it peel away the layers of what makes Godzilla, King Kong, or any other monster captivating.
“Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” premieres Friday, Nov. 17, on Apple TV+.