Monday 15 January 2024

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, Season 1 | review by Stephen Theaker

Shortly after the events of the excellent 2014 Godzilla film, a young American woman, Cate Randa (played by Anita Sewai), and a young Japanese man, Kentaro Randa (Ren Watabe) discover that they share the same father: Hiroshi Randa (Takehiro Hira), who disappeared after Godzilla fought the two MUTOs in San Francisco. He didn't die in the fight, he just said he had important things to do and scarpered, a bigamist abandoning both his families to the vagaries of an increasingly dangerous world. Cate's search for answers brings her to Kentaro, then to Lee Shaw (Kurt Russell), a mothballed Monarch monster-hunter with his own agenda, and then brings them eye-to-eye with a monster or two. For Cate and Kentaro it's the adventure of a lifetime, but this isn't Shaw's first monster mash.

In flashbacks the young Lee Shaw is played by Kurt Russell's son Wyatt Russell, who is rather fantastic in the role. Shaw is a military man, a bit stiff, rather beholden to authority, and could have been quite a dull character in other hands, but Wyatt Russell gives him substance and dignity, even as he sees, for example, the woman he loves choosing another. Shaw plays a key part in the development of Monarch, after being assigned to the protection of a scientist, Dr Keiko Miura (grandmother to Cate and Kentaro, played by Mari Yamamoto), for whom he understandably develops strong feelings. The third to join the team is the eccentric Bill Randa, played originally by John Goodman in Kong: Skull Island, and played here as a younger man by Anders Holm, who is strikingly good in a more dramatic role than usual.

This programme is very similar in some ways to Agents of Shield, with the characters (past and present) getting involved with a secret organisation that defends the planet, then weaving their way between a series of cinematic adventures. Monarch has a clear advantage, though, in setting itself among films that have already been released. We see Cate and Kentaro and their friend May (The Flash's Kiersey Clemons) search through the destruction left by Godzilla's fight in San Francisco, while knowing, with a growing sense of dread, that the global titan break-out of Godzilla: King of the Monsters is still to come, despite Monarch's best efforts to prevent it. Agents of Shield, for all its strengths, had to play things much more carefully.

Another difference is that while Agents of Shield generally had to be content with supporting characters, Monarch gets to play with the big toys: Godzilla makes more than one appearance. We see him in the past, when the US military, against Keiko's advice, tries to nuke him at Bikini Atoll, and in the present, when Keiko's son wakes him from a nap. The effects throughout are extremely impressive, the monsters putting most films to shame. Apple TV+ doesn't do things by halves. Having said that, would I have liked more monster action? Definitely. Godzilla Minus One had plenty of it despite what I bet was a budget smaller than any given episode of this. Monarch's main concern is with the human characters, and their investigation of the portals to the hollow earth from which the monsters would pour forth, if Kong and Godzilla weren't around to stop them.

But still, I enjoyed it very much. It looks great, for one thing, and has a marvellous score by Leopold Ross. If they were two separate shows, I would have given the globetrotting flashbacks, in which we are with the characters discovering all the crazy stuff, five stars, and the 2015 story, in which we are instead with people searching for the guy who discovers all the crazy stuff, three stars, despite the presence of Kurt Russell. He and his son would apparently watch each other's scenes to pick up on elements they could incorporate in their own performances, and it really paid off. It's quite a superb joint performance. The cast is strong throughout, not just the leads, but also people like Frasier's new neighbour Jess Salgueiro as a Monarch employee, The Expanse's Dominique Tipper as an evil boss, and Christopher Heyerdahl as General Puckett, Lee's tough but fair superior officer back in the 1950s. The tone of the show is quite perfect: not as glum as Godzilla, nor as over-the-top as Godzilla v Kong; it's closest I think to Kong: Skull Island.

Here's hoping it devours the ratings, and Godzilla x Kong stomps its mark on cinemas, so that Apple give a second season the go-ahead!

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