Monarch: Legacy of Monsters review - Kurt and Wyatt Russell carry fun but flawed series
Another chapter in the MonsterVerse...
This review is based on Monarch: Legacy of Monsters episodes 1-5.
It’s safe to say Warner Bros’ self-titled MonsterVerse has struggled to find balance so far.
2014’s Godzilla was a tense, patient slow burn that got under the skin but featured frustratingly little of its titular character.
The 2019 sequel, King of the Monsters, took things to the other extreme, offering nothing besides CGI-heavy shaky-cam madness and frantic, unsophisticated storytelling, with its human characters forgettable at best and downright irritating at worst.
And two years later, Godzilla vs Kong… well, was actually pretty well-received by critics and audiences, but one suspects this may have been the euphoria of witnessing one of the first blockbusters in a post-Covid era talking (hot take: it’s a bad film).
So, could Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, the new Apple TV+ series starring both Kurt Russell and his son Wyatt, finally be the MonsterVerse project that would make Thanos proud, proving perfectly balanced, as all things should be?
Well, by offering a blend of massive monsters doing massive damage and human-focused storylines that actually, for the most part at least, feel like they’ve been given more than five minutes’ consideration in the writers’ room, it’s certainly a lot closer to achieving the coveted B-word.
Many Godzilla fans have been happy to look past the shallow characters in the movies, as they’re more interested in seeing two kaiju going claw-to-claw as chaos ensues around them - and it’s safe to say they will be happy again here.
Barely an episode passes without some form of titan fightin’, with the series using frequent flashbacks and dodgy decision-making from characters to scratch that itch for mayhem.
Legacy of Monsters does a great job of establishing the overwhelming scale of these beasts, with grounded camerawork helping to put the viewer in the shoes of the everyday humans whose lives are at risk as supernatural beings create destruction all around them.
One particular shot in San Francisco is especially memorable, as Anna Sawai’s Cate comes face-to-scaled-face with Monster Zero-One on 'G-Day', the wittily-titled name for the time Godzilla made his mark on the West Coast city.
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The inventiveness of the titans’ designs is refreshing, too, with tendril-mouthed beasts and insect-like behemoths cropping up left, right and centre - offering pulse-racing action that, some questionable CGI and shoddy green screen work aside, is impressive for a small screen outing.
Yet, in a 10-episode series such as this, it is important that the human characters are given as much attention as the kaiju. Spending hours upon hours with them is a big ask, so it’s essential that they’re properly fleshed-out, and that their presence is engaging.
And, on the topic of balance, the show’s script certainly achieves this - in that one half of its storytelling is fun and adventurous, and the other half is very much not.
Splitting its narrative across two different time periods - one of which follows scientist Keiko (Mari Yamamoto), explorer Bill (Anders Holm) and soldier Lee (Wyatt Russell) in the 1950s as they work to establish Monarch in a post-nuclear world; the other tracing the modern day quest of Cate, Kentaro (Ren Watabe), May (Kiersey Clemons) and an older Lee (Kurt Russell) as they try to find answers around the now shady organisation the army veteran helped to create.
Legacy of Monsters undoubtedly nails the former more than the latter.
Through the first gang, Monarch develops a trio that have a believable chemistry and consistently fun back-and-forth, with the comedic talents of Holm perfectly complementing the dramatic chops of Yamamoto, and Wyatt Russell bringing things home with his effortless charm.
You actively appreciate being with these characters and joining them on their Indiana Jones-esque escapades, with their star power helping to gloss over any moments of on-the-nose dialogue or inconsistencies in the narrative.
It’s a shame, then, that the other storyline is far less captivating - and that both episodes 4 and 5 are entirely focused on Cate, Kentaro and co. Sure, Kurt Russell does his best to try and lighten the mood, playing a more carefree version of Lee and clearly enjoying himself in the process.
Yet, the other three in this less-than-fantastic four are largely saddled with one-dimensional caricatures, whose personalities and decision-making are frustratingly inconsistent. One moment they’ll prove a united front building close ties with one another, the next they’ll be at each other's throats - all for seemingly no reason at all.
In Cate, there is at least an attempt to flesh out the MonsterVerse and ground it in some form of reality, with the character fighting through PTSD caused by her first-hand experience of G-Day.
On the big screen, filmmakers have largely brushed over what it would mean to live in this universe full of giant titans roaming the earth, and Monarch deserves credit for trying to make up for this misstep.
May and Kentaro, though, are given far shorter thrift. Clemons, a clearly talented performer who has shone in the likes of 2018’s Hearts Beat Loud, is tasked with playing the archetypal hipster hacker, offering little else besides a thirst for whiskey and a tendency to violently tap away on keyboards in the way only Hollywood knows how.
And Watabe is stuck with a character who’s so devoid of personality or levity that his presence risks dragging every scene he’s in into eye-rolling melodrama.
Since this reviewer was only given access to the first five episodes, there’s a hope that the second half of the season gives these two a little more to do, or, preferably, turns its attention back to the more dynamic trio of the 1950s.
If it does, its legacy could be a very positive one - if not, Monarch will likely end up a claw-shaped footnote in MonsterVerse lore.
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