An unexpected, but welcome surprise, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is a series with something for everyone, not just those tuning in to watch giant kaiju laying waste to everything around them. A time shifting, globe trotting adventure on a massive scale, this spin-off from the Legendary produced Monsterverse series of movies (the 2014 Godzilla and its sequel, Kong: Skull Island, and the Godzilla vs. Kong showdown) has a remarkable amount of emotional and character depth to go along with all of the bombast. There’s action, humour, horror, intrigue, and even a bit of romance. What’s not to love?
Series creators Chris Black (Severance, Mad Men) and Matt Fraction (Hawkeye) examine the history and future of the shadowy Monarch organization, a team that investigates Titan activity around the world. In the series’ present – set not long after the events of the 2013 Godzilla attack that destroyed San Francisco – former school teacher Cate Randa (Anna Sawai) is grieving the loss of her father, Hiroshi (Takehiro Hira). Cate travels from the States to Japan to settle part of her father’s estate, only to discover that dad had a secret double life and second family in Tokyo. Kentaro (Ren Watabe), the half-brother Cate never knew she had, is understandably just as upset as she is to discover their father’s deception. Their father was a key figure in Monarch’s research, and was the son of two of the organization’s founders. It turns out that Hiroshi was onto something big that Cate and Kentaro are keen to get to the bottom of, which causes a pair of Monarch stooges (Joe Tippett and Elisa Lasowski) to give chase. Aided by Kentaro’s tech savvy ex-girlfriend, May (Kiersey Clemons), the unlikely allies seek out the advice and guidance of Lee Shaw (Kurt Russell), a retired Monarch asset who knew their father well.
But that’s only half the story, as a great deal of Monarch: Legacy of Monsters flashes back to the 1950s, before any of the previously existing movies, where Monarch co-founders Dr. Keiko Miura (Mari Yamamoto) and Bill Randa (Anders Holm) have first confirmed the existence of Titans and get assigned Lee Shaw (played by Kurt’s own son, Wyatt Russell) as a governmentally mandated military assistant and liaison. Although they have their disagreements, it’s clear that Keiko, Bill, and Lee care deeply for one another, forming a strong friendship and working relationship capable of sustaining Monarch amid growing governmental scrutiny for years to come. Although for some of them, there might be something stronger than mere friendship at hand.
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters deftly balances the past and present threads of its storyline, weaving them together into a smartly written and realized whole. As much fun as it is to watch people running from monsters and trying to put plans for survival into action, Black, Fraction, and their team focus a lot more on the individual personalities and motivations involved. Everyone is given an arc, a unique set of skills, and specific ways that they interact with each person within their orbit. It sounds like simply Storytelling 101 stuff, but Monarch: Legacy of Monsters enriches the viewer by showing reverence to the smaller, quieter details than most series take for granted. While some of the Monsterverse films have been fair to great up to this point, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is working at a vastly more ambitious level of storytelling craft. In both the past and present sections of the series, every performer is given something interesting and thoughtful to work with, which makes any twists, turns, and shifting allegiances along the way feel reasoned and intriguing, rather than mere devices dropped out of nowhere to goose the audience and keep the plot rolling along.
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters definitely has the budget to create an experience that’s as visually stunning as any of the films before it. (You even get to see Godzilla in striking, broad daylight for a change!) But while no expense has been spared on set pieces, outstanding visual effects, and cinematography, the real thrills come from the series’ pronounced spy movie vibes. Much of the narrative revolves around deciphering who has the best interests of Cate and Kentaro in mind, and parsing the ideologies of different members within the Monarch organization. And little by little, the personal lives of these characters start to colour and shift the direction of the larger story in unexpected, but dramatically pleasing ways. Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is less about how giant creatures can impact humanity, and more about the impact humans have on the earth itself. The espionage antics in the modern sequences and backroom dealings that take place during the 1950s timeline are just as captivating as watching people running away from crumbling infrastructure.
Sawai, Watabe, and Clemons make for likeable, differently minded heroes with frequently disagreeable motivations, but it’s easy to see where all of them are coming from. Tippett brings a welcome comedic relief and occasional menace as a nerdy Monarch stooge whose allegiances aren’t entirely clear. For their part, Yamamoto, Holm, and Wyatt Russell create a well rounded dynamic that nearly steals the show from their younger cast-mates in the present timeline, helping to build a sense of emotional history that permeates throughout the series, even when none of them are on screen together. And while Wyatt Russell is absolutely spot on when it comes to approximating a younger version of his father, it’s Kurt’s performance that will keep viewers coming back for more. Action, horror, and adventure movie buffs won’t be let down by the elder Russell here, who gets far more to do than he did in his recent Fast and Furious franchise appearances and brings a lot of the charm, swagger, and cheekiness that made him such an appealing screen presence at the height of his fame. Those who wanted to see “the old Kurt Russell” one more time need look no further.
While it’s evident that Monarch: Legacy of Monsters has more than a single season of stories on its mind, and it’s hard to see where all of this will ultimately head (especially with only 8 of this seasons 10 episodes available to screen at press time), the future looks as bright as Godzilla’s breath. Monarch: Legacy of Monsters could’ve been successful (if possibly exhausting) if it was nothing more than a full season of monster attacks, but thankfully for viewers there’s a lot more going on that provides a worthy investment of their time. It’s also a plus that viewers don’t really need an advance familiarity with the films that come before it, although, admittedly, there’s even more depth to this if you’ve at least seen the 2014 Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island. There’s only little overlap when it comes to the characters, but definitely some added context. At any rate, experienced Titan fans and uninitiated newbies alike will find a great deal of enjoyment with Monarch: Legacy of Monsters.
The first two episodes Monarch: Legacy of Monsters are now streaming on Apple TV+, with new episodes premiering every Friday.
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