‘Monarch: Legacy of Monsters’ Review: Kurt and Wyatt Russell Anchor Apple TV+’s Refreshingly Human-Scale Godzilla Series

As suggested by its name, Legendary’s Monsterverse has, historically, been first and foremost about the monsters. Sure, the films have always had human casts to fight the creatures or flee from them or deliver reams of exposition about them. But Godzilla is the point of Godzilla, not Bryan Cranston or Aaron Taylor-Johnson; the Godzilla vs. Kong battle is the centerpiece of Godzilla vs. Kong, not whatever Millie Bobby Brown or Alexander Skarsgård’s characters were trying to accomplish.

What makes for a delicious two-hour spectacle on a 70-foot IMAX screen doesn’t necessarily make for an engaging 10-episode drama on a 40-inch TV, though, and therein lies the challenge of Apple TV+’s Monarch: Legacy of Monsters. The bad news for monster nerds is that the Titans (Godzilla and Kong, among others) are less the star of the show this time around. The good news is that perhaps for the first time from this franchise, the human drama — anchored by a touching shared performance from father-son duo Kurt and Wyatt Russell — proves compelling enough to justify a story on a (slightly) more personal scale.

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Legacy of Monsters does not require any existing familiarity with the other Monsterverse movies, though having that context certainly doesn’t hurt. In 2015, a year out from “G-Day” — the face-off between Godzilla and the insectoid MUTOs that leveled much of San Francisco, as seen in the 2014 movie — Bay Area schoolteacher Cate (Anna Sawai) heads to Tokyo in search of answers about her recently deceased father, Hiroshi (Takehiro Hira). The first surprise she uncovers, in the hourlong pilot directed by Matt Shakman, is that Hiroshi had a secret second family complete with an adult son, Kentaro (Ren Watabe). The second is that Hiroshi was somehow involved with Monarch — a top-secret organization “like the CIA, but for Godzilla,” as a character puts it in one of the series’ just-winky-enough lines.

Objectively, the latter is the much bigger deal. Monarch is positioned within this reality as the only force that might be equipped to stop the next G-Day — or to inadvertently make it worse. It’s so important that Legacy of Monsters doubles as a Monarch origin story, regularly jumping back in time to relay the organization’s founding shortly after World War II by scientists Keiko (Mari Yamamoto), Billy (Anders Holm, playing a younger version of John Goodman’s character from Kong: Skull Island) and soldier Lee (Wyatt Russell).

Yet creators Chris Black and Matt Fraction smartly prioritize Cate and Kentaro’s feelings about Hiroshi over Hiroshi’s work with Monarch. It would be a stretch to call this an intimate interpersonal drama; the plot is paced to zip us toward lizards the size of skyscrapers, not to reflect quietly on the foibles of the human heart. But chasing monsters is more enjoyable when it’s done alongside characters we can relate to. The siblings are driven by the burning need to find out what became of the father they never truly knew, not by some abstract idea of saving the world. Likewise, while the flashbacks to Monarch’s early days include spirited debates about the global and historical implications of the group’s work — when one attempt to blow up a Titan fails, Keiko astutely notes that the U.S. will only respond by building bigger and bigger bombs —  their emotional spine lays in the bittersweet love triangle that develops between the founders.

The double casting for Lee is undoubtedly gimmicky (and the show itself pokes fun at the fact that 72-year Kurt Russell looks awfully young for a man who should be in his 90s), but it’s also inspired — there’s a real poignancy to seeing Wyatt’s earnest take on the character harden into Kurt’s more jaded and regretful one over time.

Other characters may not get the same benefit, but Legacy of Monsters grants them little grace notes as well — a romantic backstory, a quiet moment with a family member. Such shrewd choices ground the narrative in a believable emotional tenor even as the plot grows big enough to swallow the world whole: What started for Cate as a simple family matter expands to include Kentaro, his hacker ex May (Kiersey Clemons) and Lee; attracts the attention of a relentless Monarch representative (Joe Tippett’s Tim) and his intimidating partner (Elisa Lasowski); and sends them all to locations as far-flung as Alaska and Algeria.

Naturally, they encounter the occasional Titan along the way, and flashbacks to Cate’s G-Day experiences and Keiko’s field research also help fill the giant-CG-creature quota. The beasts can’t help but lose something of themselves in the transition from film to TV — the most lavish home setup won’t replicate the awe of seeing the Titans at movie-screen scale. Still, no expense has been spared in making Godzilla and his CG kin look as good as they possibly can at a more modest size. They move around the screen with credible heft, even if their roars don’t shake the seat anymore.

If the monsters are big, the series’ narrative ambitions are not. Where other genre shows, like HBO’s The Last of Us, might deploy a landscape torn apart by primal forces to get to deeper truths about humankind, this one is driven primarily by the idea that it might be kind of cool if monsters were real and we could track them. But there’s something to be said for a series that nails the sweet spot between fleet and flimsy — that takes itself seriously enough to project earnestness, but not so seriously it forgets we’re here for fun.

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