I went into Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, the new Apple TV+ series spinning off of Legendary’s MonsterVerse franchise, with a mix of excitement and hesitation. While I am a huge mark for anything Godzilla-related, up to and including the MonsterVerse, I’m also someone who prefers my kaiju films with less squishy humans and more monster action and Legacy of Monsters appeared to be very much not that.
Plus, thus far, Monarch itself has proven to be one of the least interesting aspects of the MonsterVerse, a secret government organization that seemingly only exists to watch giant monsters fight since they can’t do much of anything else. Could a show entirely about them even work? Shockingly enough, the answer is yes. Despite some growing pains, these first five episodes, comprising the first half of the show’s first season, firmly establish Legacy of Monsters as a fun yet gripping series full of adventure and mystery that utilizes the Godzilla world while still having its own distinct identity.
Please note, this review only pertains to the first five episodes as those were the only episodes provided to me at the time of this writing.
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters Plot
Set one year after the events of Godzilla (2014), our story begins with Cate Randa, played by Anne Sawai, arriving in Japan to settle the affairs of her recently deceased father Hiroshi, who mysteriously disappeared and was declared dead shortly after Godzilla attacked San Francisco; an event now referred to in-universe as “G-Day.”
While there, she meets her previously unknown half-brother Kentaro, played by Ren Watabe, and the pair discover that their father had a huge amount of files related to the secret organization Monarch. The pair are able to begin decrypting the files with the help of Kentaro’s ex-girlfriend May, played by Kiersey Clemons; but not before Monarch finds out and starts sending agents after them to prevent the organization’s secrets from being exposed.
Now, with the help of Army veteran and former Monarch agent Lee Shaw, played by Kurt Russell, the group must travel the globe to uncover Hiroshi’s secrets and possibly Hiroshi himself, all while keeping one step ahead of Monarch and avoiding the ever-growing threat of the monstrous Titans. Intercut with this are a number of different prequel stories including how May and Kentaro first met, a few insights into Hiroshi’s relationships with both Cate and Kentaro, and a look at Cate’s personal life prior to G-Day. However, the most prominent one takes place over the course of the 1950s.
Here, a young Lee Shaw, played by Kurt Russell’s son Wyatt in a fun bit of stunt casting, forms the early version of Monarch alongside Cate and Kentaro’s grandparents: Dr. Keiko Mira, played by Mari Yamamoto, and Bill Randa, who you may remember as John Goodman’s character from Kong: Skull Island and who’s played here by Anders Holm.
In this storyline, our scientific trio explores wild jungles across the globe, while taking military and government bureaucracy head-on in their attempts to learn more about the mysterious Titans and how they work; potentially discovering hidden secrets about the nature of our world and even the secret origin of the King of the Monsters himself.
If I had to sum up my thoughts on Monarch: Legacy of Monsters in a single sentence, it would be “This is what Godzilla (2014) should have been.” Unlike that film, which forced the audience completely away from the monster action to facilitate its human drama, which wasn’t even that engaging, Legacy of Monsters integrates the human and Titan storylines directly. This gives the audience a welcome dose of monster spectacle while providing a unique, on-the-ground perspective to the carnage.
Though, to be clear, if you’re expecting each episode to be a bite-sized chunk of the kind of large-scale action seen in Godzilla: King of the Monsters or Godzilla vs. Kong, you’ll need to temper your expectations. Legacy of Monsters is a human story first and foremost; and as such, the episodes largely focus on the conflict between the humans with about one or two major monster moments each.
This might also be a result of the show’s budget straining against its own premise. The VFX artists did a phenomenal job replicating Godzilla’s look from the films and all the other monsters look great too; but the briefness of the monster scenes thus far give the distinct impression that they literally can’t afford to have the Titans onscreen for too long; though this does become less of a problem as the series goes on. Episode 4 in particular has some spectacular extended monster action.
Thankfully, the human stuff is legitimately compelling this time around; easily the best it’s been in the MonsterVerse since Kong: Skull Island. Each timeline’s main trio has compelling dynamics between the characters and I consistently wanted to see how the mystery unfolded in each. It was always exciting to see more from each timeline to the point when the 1950s story was largely dropped after Episode 3, it was actually kind of disappointing.
Kurt Russell as the older Lee Shaw was definitely a major highlight for me, He injects a huge amount of fun into the proceedings and you can clearly tell Russell is having the time of his life getting to more or less be in a monster movie, as well as bouncing off the younger actors; who start off feeling like not much more than angst machines; but become a lot more well-rounded and compelling over the course of the show.
What surprised me most about Legacy of Monsters is how invested I became in the character relationships. I didn’t think I would get that invested in Cate, May, and Kentaro but they have a great rapport and surprisingly fleshed out personalities and backstories even this early on. There’s an excellent subplot with Cate’s backstory in Episode 5 that provides a much greater context to the consequences of Titan attacks than anything in the MonsterVerse; even managing to make me angry with Godzilla, which anyone who knows me will know is incredibly difficult to do.
Beyond wanting a slightly better balance between the human and Titan stuff, my main critique of Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is that answers to its mysteries are given at an often frustratingly slow rate. I understand that you’re not supposed to have much closure yet since this is only the first half of the season, but sometimes it feels like the show is dangling a carrot on a stick and proceeding to throw said carrot down a well. This is perhaps best illustrated by a scene in which one of the characters takes a potential source of answers and literally burns it. Hopefully, this becomes less of an issue in the second half.
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters may not contain the same level of kaiju spectacle fans of the MonsterVerse have become accustomed to and it’s difficult to say this early on whether or not any of its ongoing storylines will stick the landing; but for now, color me impressed. For the first time since Kong: Skull Island, the MonsterVerse has delivered a story where the monster stuff and the human stuff manages to be equally compelling. The human stuff might even be more compelling.
The ensemble cast all do a great job, the ongoing mysteries across both storylines are consistently compelling, and the VFX work done to bring the Titans to TV is truly remarkable; even if I would have personally preferred to see more of them. I don’t know for certain if this series will end well, but I for one can’t wait to watch more to find out.