A Monstrous Return: The Unexpected Success of Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

A Monstrous Return: The Unexpected Success of Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire.

I am a shameless fan of Legendary’s Monsterverse

Just ask any of my students, who, throughout the day, have no less than ten meticulously painted kaiju models glaring down at them from the bookshelves in my classroom. I have turned up to theaters for all five films of the series, watched both television shows, admittedly spent too much time reading the tie-in media of nebulous canonicity (i.e., comic books, novelizations, etc.), and even pre-registered for the upcoming mobile game—at this point, it’s a problem.

But, putting personal affections for this incredibly niche genre of giant monster battles aside, I’m here to tell you that Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is doing well at the box office… like, really well. Of course, my inner fanboy is so happy he could turn a cartwheel, because it means we’ll be getting more kaiju smackdown flicks; however, as a Christian writer and teacher, I am wholly fascinated by the film’s success. What is it about this movie that is capturing audiences, despite middling reviews? And what hath the plights of giant monsters to do with the human condition?

What is it about this movie that is capturing audiences, despite middling reviews?

Back in 2014, I remember dragging some friends to see Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla at an IMAX theater in Lisle, Illinois. That film was everything I, as a fan of Toho’s traditional Godzilla character, wanted it to be: a serious return to form with a big Hollywood budget behind it that lent the character some much-needed gravitas and washed the taste of that abysmal 1998 affair out of my mouth. It brought a fresh perspective to the Godzilla mythos, updating the template to fit within a truly modern framework, lacing the narrative with “ripped from the headlinesenvironmentalist themes and dealing with the consequences of meddling in nuclear affairs, alluding to the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

In many ways, the film channeled the atomic age anxieties of the 1954 original into a twenty-first century package that made the series relevant again for American audiences. In the wake of 2014, Godzilla was no longer that funny-looking big lizard on those Japanese fever dream posters hanging in your weird uncle’s basement; he reemerged as a cinematic titan whose stories dared to explore contemporary ecological crises and existential dilemmas.

With the release of Kong: Skull Island in 2017, Legendary doubled down on reinventing classic giant monster movie icons and introduced a newer, younger version of King Kong and his mythic habitat. Set in 1973, the film took more than a few visual cues from Apocalypse Now (1979), while maintaining a kind of thematic continuity with Godzilla by examining the loss and rediscovery of monsters and myth in a world charging forward in pursuit of technological progress. Discussing this idea, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts remarked:

I’m obsessed with myth. I think the ‘70s was a split in modern technology when we started going down the path of our reliance on computers. There’s something to be said for letting go of that, and to be confronted with the natural world, and it felt relatable and realistic.

The film also retained a loose connection to 2014’s Godzilla in the form of Monarch, the monster-studying organization in pursuit of Godzilla, here portrayed as the group responsible for organizing the expedition to Skull Island. A surprisingly effective post-credits stinger made plain Legendary’s intent to bring Godzilla and Kong together by directly teasing the next film in the fledgling Monsterverse.

Director Mike Dougherty described the film as “putting the God back in Godzilla” by bringing “a mythological, almost biblical, backdrop to these creatures.”

The series began to expand in scope with 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, incorporating other classic Toho-owned movie monsters Ghidorah, Rodan, and Mothra. By picking up on certain plot threads from Kong: Skull Island, the film also built out the series’ unique internal mythology, further developing the idea of the Hollow Earth (think Journey to the Center of the Earth, but with kaiju instead of dinosaurs). In the Monsterverse, the Hollow Earth is a subterranean realm beneath the surface of our planet where the giant monsters reside. The monsters, formally dubbed “Titans” by Monarch, are revealed to be the “first gods,” and the source referents for many of the creatures and deities found in mythological tales across the world. Interestingly, the film positions Godzilla as a Christ figure and is replete with Christian imagery—a cross figures very prominently into one important shot, for example. Director Mike Dougherty described the film as “putting the God back in Godzilla” by bringing “a mythological, almost biblical, backdrop to these creatures.”

In many ways, 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong acted as the culmination of the themes and ideas that the Monsterverse had been building towards since 2014. According to the director, Adam Wingard, the film was designed to be “the ultimate version of these movies.” Drawing heavily on the established mythologies of each character, the storyline dealt with the ancient enmity that exists between Godzilla and Kong, setting the stage for a battle that felt both inevitable and monumental. The Hollow Earth was further explored as the birthplace of these colossal creatures, and Kong’s personal journey paralleled that of a rampaging Godzilla, who had inexplicably started to attack human cities. The finale saw the monsters set aside their differences to confront a reimagined version of Mechagodzilla, a kind of perfect apogee of mankind’s hubris in its attempt to create a weapon capable of destroying the Titans, but one that threatened to spiral out of control.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Godzilla vs. Kong debuted to solid critical reviews and audience scores, quickly becoming one of the highest grossing films of the pandemic era, and received a simultaneous release on HBO Max, where it was also a streaming hit. Though a potential finale for the Monsterverse, the film’s success on both theatrical and streaming fronts hinted that audiences were not quite ready to bid farewell to either monster. And what might have been an ending turned into a beautiful new beginning for both Godzilla and Kong.

As opening day approached, 2024’s Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (the “x,” by the way, is silent), Wingard’s second film in the Monsterverse and a direct sequel to Godzilla vs. Kong, was projected to nab about $50 million at the domestic box office. It was a safe estimation, the kind of debut would have been a decent enough haul for the kind of reliable B-movie thrills that the series is known to offer. Compound that with the fact that critical reviews were branding it a mostly mediocre Monsterverse entry, and one would be forgiven for expecting the film to do just fair.

What happened, however, was unexpected. The film closed out Easter weekend having stomped up a whopping $80 million, surpassing projections by a good $30 million. On top of that, Forbes reported that audience scores for the film were “as high as MCU all-timers.” At the time of this writing, the film sits at $360 million worldwide and has been in theaters for less than two weeks. It is on track to surpass the $470 million haul of Godzilla vs. Kong, despite having a smaller budget. In short, Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is a bit of an unprecedented success for Monsterverse films, and modern mid-tier blockbusters in general.

Audiences do not have “Godzilla fatigue” or “action movie fatigue. It’s bad movie fatigue…”

Godzilla has developed a solid track record in the last year of performing well against box office expectations. Godzilla Minus One (2023) took in over $100 million against a production budget of less than $15 million, and won Best Visual Effects at the 96th Academy Awards, making it the first Godzilla film to take home an Oscar. Coupled with Apple’s Monarch: Legacy of Monsters streaming series, the character is experiencing something of a renaissance. Considering the numerous articles written these days about “franchise fatigue,” one could safely assume that Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire would experience, if anything, a dip in audience turnout; however, the opposite has occurred, suggesting that Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian might be onto something when he says that audiences do not have “Godzilla fatigue” or “action movie fatigue. It’s bad movie fatigue. Or movies that just don’t push the envelope enough for audiences to get on board.”

So, in what ways does Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire push the envelope enough to garner some of the best audience scores in recent memory? The plot kicks off a few years after the conclusion of the previous entry. Kong resides in the Hollow Earth, experiencing what we might call depression as he tries to carve out a new life for himself in a place where he is very much alone against the world. Monarch is busy mapping the vast expanse of uncharted terrain beneath the earth’s crust, while Godzilla bides his time on the surface. In the wake of the destruction of his ancient underwater temple/homestead in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, he takes up refuge inside the Roman Colosseum when he isn’t going to battle with the numerous other Titans to keep them in check. It works well enough as a set-up for a story that really could have ended with the previous film, providing the characters with a simple rhythm and status quo that ties in nicely with the established mythos.

Things go awry, however, when Kong inadvertently opens a sinkhole to another subterranean realm—yes, a hollow earth inside the Hollow Earth. His exploration of this undiscovered territory brings him into contact with Suko, a miniature version of Kong’s species that riffs on the classic 1933 film, Son of Kong. Suko leads him to the lair of the nefarious Skar King, an unpredictable and preening dark mirror version of Kong who rules a sort of “lost tribe” of Kong’s species with an iron fist. The opening of the hidden realm leads an unknown group of Iwi, a tribalistic people first encountered on Skull Island with a mysterious connection to Kong’s species, to send out a psychic distress call—just roll with it—that alerts Godzilla and pulls a team of Monarch investigators into the fold. What follows is a deepening and expanding of the Monsterverse mythos that explores the origins of Kong’s species as mankind’s protectors, Godzilla’s war with the lost tribe of Kongs (Great Apes, they are now called), and the Iwi civilization as potentially being the oldest in human history, predating even the Mesopotamians.

But to focus on the mythology exclusively is to disregard the human characters, like Jia (Kaylee Hottle), the deaf Iwi girl who forms a unique connection with Kong, and her relationship with Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), her adoptive mother. Both are returning characters from Godzilla vs. Kong, and their personal struggles as they sort out their idiosyncratic mother-daughter relationship forms the emotional through-line of the film, and nicely parallels the unconventional father-son dynamic that develops between Kong and Suko. 

Unsurprisingly, critics have compared the film to last year’s Godzilla Minus One, a serious feature that is tonally quite different from Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. While such comparisons are inevitable, one wonders if many critics simply miss the point of Wingard’s film entirely. In fact, IMAX released a fascinating “Director on Director” video featuring Wingard and Godzilla Minus One director, Takashi Yamazaki, wherein the two discuss the history of Godzilla films, their inspirations, and how their respective films represent two ends of the tonal spectrum that have characterized Godzilla films for the past seventy years. There is nothing in the way of competition here, just two films doing wildly different things with an iconic character that is nearly a century old at this point.

And it seems a number of those who have seen both films think so, as well. Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire has proven to be quite the hit with general audiences. One of my coworkers, after seeing the film opening weekend, remarked that he felt Wingard and company generated no small amount of pathos between Jia and Dr. Andrews, in stark contrast to the conclusions of a number of professional critics. And yet another coworker commented on the simplicity and straightforwardness of the narrative being refreshing after the heaviness of Godzilla Minus One.

Audiences will, in fact, turn up for simple flicks with the oft-maligned “black and white” moral principles at their core… It turns out, people actually like their heroes, and like to see them win.

There is something to be said for a movie that is content being exactly what it is. Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is one such picture. It tells an uncomplicated story with clearly defined arcs that sees goodness triumph over evil. Kong, strong and decent, vanquishes the sleazy and cruel Skar King, while Dr. Andrews learns that being a good parent involves giving Jia the freedom to make her own choices. In this way, the film is more akin to classic adventure stories than anything else.

We live in an age increasingly disillusioned by moral ambiguity and complexity in storytelling. That is not to say that such stories do not have their place, or that they cannot be tremendously powerful. But deconstructions of genres can only happen so many times before the whole thing starts to look a little cynical or disingenuous. As evidenced by the rise of superhero movies in the last decade or so, audiences will, in fact, turn up for simple flicks with the oft-maligned “black-and-white” moral principles at their core. Transgress too far in the other direction, and backlash like that experienced in the wake of Star Wars: The Last Jedi is sure to be felt. It turns out, people actually like their heroes, and like to see them win.

Simple tales of heroism, where good and evil are clearly demarcated, and where heroes overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to restore balance or vanquish evil, have an enduring appeal. This kind of narrative is deeply ingrained in human culture, and taps into a deep, almost archetypal vein of storytelling that transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries—the same kind of mythic storytelling that persuaded C. S. Lewis of the gospel’s transformative power. The film’s success both domestically and abroad underscores the universal appeal of the central theme at play throughout the series: the humility of humanity in the face of forces far beyond its control.

In the digital age, defined by its technological advancements and the ever-forward march towards an integrated future, films like Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire rekindle a sense of wonder and cautionary reverence towards the untamed and the unknown. They harken back to a time when uncomplicated stories were more than a means of simple entertainment, but also parables and warnings about the hubris of mankind. These kinds of stories nudge us to confront the existential threats of our time, from climate change and environmental degradation, to alienation from the natural world and each other, and unchecked technological progress.

As I reflect on my own unabashed enthusiasm for these movies, I consider their capacity to stir the imagination, to make one ponder their place in their universe, and whether these films—with their Hollow Earths and ancient gods—can provoke one to consider that maybe, just maybe, there is more to life than the cynicism and detachment so prevalent in today’s culture.

If so, that’s a crack in the door of thinking that the Holy Spirit can work with.

And that makes these movies worth seeing. Just make sure you see them on the biggest screen possible.

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