Monarch: Legacy of Monsters isn’t yet another show about the Windsors, though one could understand the confusion. It is, however, the latest Apple TV+ genre smash, joining the other hugely ambitious projects on the service such as Silo, For All Mankind, and Foundation. Lovers of all things scifi or adjacent have been eating good for the last couple of years courtesy of Tim Cook and his seemingly pathological need to give a lengthy free trial to anyone who walks near a Curries.
This particular show though, a prestige drama spin-off of those Godzilla films you remember enjoying but can scarcely recall any details of, is unlikely to convert many paying subscribers. That’s not to say it’s bad: it isn’t. It’s just a baffling addendum to a series of films that, by the closing credits of Godzilla vs. Kong, had answered every lingering question set up by Godzilla 2014. Namely, “how does Godzilla get around the planet so quickly?”, “what is Monarch”, and “so are these guys doing Mechagodzilla or what?”.
And once you’ve gear-shifted from the gritty, sombre, naturalistic take on Godzilla that the MonsterVerse started with to the gleeful comic book absurdity of Godzilla and Kong tag-teaming a Terminator-esque Mechagodzilla with the brain of a revenge-obsessed King Ghidorah, there isn’t really anywhere else to go. Except backwards, to fill in some of the gaps in the timeline. What gaps, you might ask? Well, wherever they can crowbar one in.
Do you ever wonder what happened to John Goodman’s character in Kong: Skull Island, in the brief moment where he just seems to disappear shortly after the bit with the bamboo spider? I imagine not, because as a citizen of the 21st century, you understand that when a film cuts away to a different scene it doesn’t constitute a mystery. This unasked question is the first thing answered by the new series in the form of a retcon in which Goodman reprises his character, Bill Randa, for the purposes of setting up the show’s mystery box. A bag full of 1970s computer tapes becomes set adrift on the ocean. Our heroes will find it decades later, exactly one year after the events of the first film in the primary of the show’s twin timelines (and the least gripping).
John Goodman, incidentally, shows up about fifteen minutes after his apparent disappearance in Kong: Skull Island, in a different scene. Because that’s how the language of film works. They only bother putting stuff in that’s necessary to advance the plot or develop the characters. When it comes to monster movies, the second of those is of lesser concern. Indeed, the chief complaint about Legendary’s MonsterVerse is that far too much time is spent on People doing Talking, and not enough time is spent on Big Lads doing Smashing.
To be fair to the MonsterVerse, it’s a pretty dumb complaint. Two straight hours of Godzilla breaking things would be mind-numbing without some kind of human scale story to pull us through. But where, say, Toho’s 2016 masterpiece Shin Godzilla creates a compelling narrative out of municipal government officials organising a civilian led response to Tokyo’s collapsed infrastructure, the morality of deploying atomic weapons, and the generational trauma that still lingers from their use, the MonsterVerse tends to lean into family psychodramas. Broken promises. Survivor guilt. If Godzilla is kicking down a bus station, the camera is most likely pointed at someone nearby who is annoyed with their parents. This, to be clear, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Legacy of Monsters explores three generations of a family cursed by its foundational association with Monarch, the shadow organisation which menaces the film series, across its two timelines: the fifties, and the mid-2010s. The earlier timeline deals with the origins of the organisation, charting how it grew from a small scale Mom & Pop research project into an enormous US govt backed black ops org with infinite resources, and stars Wyatt Russell as Lee Shaw, the military chaperone of a younger Bill Randa, and Kieko Miura, a brilliant Japanese scientist whom he will eventually marry. The latter day timeline deals with their grandchildren, Kentaro and Cate, each products of separate secret families that their bigamist father hid from each other until his apparent death.
Much of the drama of the first episode is concerned with their fraught meeting, and if it’s designed to make you empathise with the newly united siblings, it fails. Their attitude to one another doesn’t ring true. They spend the entire first episode sniping at each other, blaming each other for the entire situation, and so on. They predictably soften on each other as the series goes on, but it’s one of those jarring narrative juggling acts where the script depends on an unnaturally sustained anger to keep all the balls in the air. Throw in a third wheel in the form of Kentaro’s ex-girlfriend whose involvement in all this is highly reluctant, as she keeps reminding you, and it doesn’t make for an endearing ensemble.
Unless the characters themselves are particularly well realised, and entertaining in their own right, having to sit through their talk therapy while the VFX budget tees up another set piece is a big ask across a two hour film. Stretch that ratio across the 10 or so serialised hours that a modern streaming show demands, and factor in that there’s a lot less money for CG, and what you get is an accordion-stretched facsimile of the films where the ratios end up considerably more weighted toward the talky bits than the roary bits.
Thank god, then, for the incredible creative partnership of Wyatt Russell and his father Kurt, who each bring multitudes to the role of Lee across the two timelines. Wyatt depicts a young army officer on a journey of discovery, within and without: he starts off brash, headstrong, and more than a little prejudiced, but across the three episodes available so far his character has shown considerable growth in the direction of Kurt Russell’s older, wiser, more experienced version of Lee.
They’ve clearly done a lot of work together in building the character: it’s not just their similar looks that sell them as before and after snapshots of the same guy. It’s in their expressions, mannerisms, the way they carry themselves. It seems too deliberate to just be a product of genetics (I don’t know about you, but I don’t walk or talk like my dad, and we definitely couldn’t pass as the same bloke).
This spot of nepo-casting is Monarch’s ace in the hole. The old man doesn’t show up until the end of the second episode, and the modern timeline becomes infinitely more watchable when he does. At that point, it’s obvious what the 2015 half of the show had been missing all along: old Hollywood charisma, of the patented Russell variety. A classic leading man if there ever was one, and still with a twinkle in his eye at this ripe old age. It’s a gift that he’s clearly passed onto Wyatt, even if it is wielded by a less experienced actor from a more jaded modern age, which only works in the show’s favour. They have the same gifts, but one of them has had a lot more practice.
Keeping Kurt back for almost ninety whole minutes is a risky strat, given that his involvement was a huge marketing sell for the show (given also that it’s a bit mince until he shows up). But it’s necessary, as all that pace-killing MonsterVerse family melodrama is absolutely crucial to proceedings here, and it needed some time to play out a little before Pops showed up and turned on the razzledazzle.
It’s not the weakest proposition for a TV show: anchoring the serialised arcs is a tried and tested Monster of the Week showcase, the most basic format of the genre. But it is one of those spin-off prequels where you spend a lot of time wondering what the point of it all is. It’s ultimately filling in the details of a wider story that’s already been played out. We know where all this is heading. King Kong has long bounded off into the sunset. It’s difficult to recommend for anyone except the sort of person who feels really invested in Legendary’s off-brand ‘Zilla universe. Someone who has watched Godzilla vs Kong multiple times because they’re a big daft wean (hello).
This week’s episode, though, where a brilliant father and son creative partnership is running at full capacity, suggests that this show’s trick shot stunt casting is so watchable in and of itself that the remaining seven episodes might just go by a little too quickly, if anything.
If you’ve been saving a free trial code for Apple TV+, there are already three or four excellent binge shows that are worth blowing it on – shows which already surpass some of the better offerings on its tired rivals. Monarch: Legacy of Monsters isn’t yet one of them, but there are glimmers of something special poking through its shaky start, so it might just end up sitting proudly alongside Foundation and For All Mankind if it carries on this trajectory.
Also the jackets are really good. Strongest jacket game since Supernatural. Just watch it for the jackets.
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is currently available on Apple TV+