A Godzilla Universe in the Age of Marvel: the History and Future of the King of the Monsters

For decades now, Godzilla has been getting bigger. I mean this literally – each time the world’s most famous city-destroying monster returns to the silver screen, he grows in size. In the original, 1954 classic, the walking bomb metaphor was 50 meters high as he laid waste to Tokyo. In the latest live-action installment, 2016’s Shin Godzilla, he’s clocking in at around 118 meters, more than twice his original height.

No pun intended: the Godzilla series has always been about scale. And increasing the scale of these colossal monster movies means more monsters to fight against. Toho (the Japanese studio responsible for Godzilla) has a deep bench of trademarked giants, each more game than the next to jump in and tangle with and/or help out the big G. But what if Toho took a cue from the biggest behemoth of them all: Marvel?

Not quite like this. Although I’d be down for this, too.

According to Bloody Disgusting, Toho are rethinking their long term Godzilla plans, now plotting a “shared universe” that is “much like a Marvel movie.” Initial plans for a direct sequel to Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s 2016 hit reboot Shin Godzilla seem to have been either scrapped or remixed into this new strategy, one in which each monster will be able to seamlessly interact with one another in the same cinematic universe.

Now, hang on. Just as The A.V. Club pointed out, the Godzilla series has done this before. The original Avengers of the Godzilla world was 1964’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. Ghidorah, the undisputable Thanos of the Godzillaverse, was so powerful that he could only be stopped by a superteam made up of monsters who had each been introduced in their own solo films: Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra. They even had a Whedon-esque difficulty getting over their differences before finally working together to beat the big bad.

Godzilla, Rodan (flying), and Mothra (bottom right, in her larval stage) battle with King Ghidorah. Photo from the production of Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964).

An argument could be made that the early Godzilla films had so little in common with one another, apart from the recurrence of certain monsters, that they were less like an actual “shared universe” and more like some proto-version of a branded franchise. Godzilla always came back, and sometimes he was accompanied by other familiar faces, but the stories had no real impact on each other (with the exception of The Terror of Mechagodzilla, which acted as a direct sequel of sorts of Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, but still didn’t share much with it in the way of characters or events).

Now, for this next part to make sense, here is a super-brief Godzilla fan lesson: the aforementioned early period Godzilla films, released between 1954 and 1975, are known as the Showa Series of Godzilla movies. This corresponds to Japan’s emperor at the time, Emperor Showa (known outside Japan as Hirohito). After 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla was a flop, the franchise struggled to get another film made until the decision was made by series co-creator Tomoyuki Tanaka to fully reboot it and return to the original film’s darker style.

This reboot was released in 1984 as The Return of Godzilla. Although the beginning of a new period of Japanese history would not technically begin until the 1989 death of Emperor Showa, The Return of Godzilla kicked off a new Godzilla series that lasted until 1995, known as the Heisei series (after the name of the succeeding, and current, Japanese emperor).

The Heisei Series is the key here, because it’s where Godzilla really went full “shared universe,” long before the MCU was a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye. The movies have a continuous structure, including several characters that we follow through each story. There are two main through-lines: Miki Saegusa and Baby Godzilla.

The empathetic telepath Miki Saegusa, played by Megumi Odaka. Seen here in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994).

Introduced in 1989’s Godzilla vs. Biollante, Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka) is a psychic, capable of ESP (and eventually, telekinesis). Her abilities allow her to understand and, to a certain degree, communicate with Godzilla. Because of this, she’s quickly enlisted by the military to help in their anti-Godzilla operations (in the Heisei series, Godzilla is once again a mostly terrifying menace, rather than a goofy, kid-friendly hero). Miki appears in six consecutive films, by some counts the most by a single human character in a kaiju series.

In Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1991), researchers discover a huge egg on an island in the Bering Sea. It hatches to reveal Baby Godzilla, a cute, human-sized dinosaur who spooks easily. In Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, Baby has grown into Little Godzilla, and finally in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, into Godzilla Junior, a smaller, more dinosaurian version of Godzilla. In the Heisei Series’ dramatic final moments, Godzilla suffers a nuclear meltdown and dies, but the energy is absorbed by Godzilla Junior, who transforms into a new, fully-grown Godzilla.

The growth of Baby Godzilla throughout the Heisei Series films.

The Heisei series is the best current example we have of a Godzilla cinematic universe. Godzilla would return, only four years after his death, in a new iteration known as the Millennium series. But the six films of the Millennium series took a nearly opposite approach to their predecessors, intentionally ditching each other’s continuity in a series of stand-alone sequels to the original 1954 film. But if the Heisei series works as a Godzilla universe prototype, why would Toho sell themselves short and draw the Marvel comparison now?

Well, for starters, it’s probably just good business to say you’re planning something that’s modeled after the biggest film franchise of the moment. But the exact meaning of “cinematic universe,” as Marvel uses it, really refers to a series that combines aspects of the Showa and Heisei series. It will require the continuity of action and human characters that the Heisei series has, but also probably the individual-monster-film aspect of the Showa series. Fans of 1956’s Rodan were mostly likely pretty psyched when the flying monster showed up eight years later in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, and it’s that kind of crossover content that has helped make Marvel what it is.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of this recent Godzilla universe news is how Toho has been beaten to it by their own counterparts overseas. Legendary Entertainment, who licensed Godzilla from Toho in order to make 2014’s Godzilla (the one with Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), have already announced plans for an American-made “MonsterVerse” that would see Godzilla, King Kong, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah meet.

The post-credits scene for 2017’s Kong: Skull Island showed cave paintings of Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah, a teaser for the upcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters, set to be released in 2019 (although it was just pushed back from March to May). The director, Michael Dougherty, just shared this new image on his twitter, referencing one of King Ghidorah’s monikers, Monster Zero. Additionally, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins are both set to recur after appearing in the 2014 Godzilla film. The last announced film in this series is Godzilla vs. Kong, planned for 2020.

Legendary’s Godzilla (2014).

Due to their arrangement with Legendary, Toho has to wait until 2021 until they can begin work on their answer to the MonsterVerse. A quick, personal side note: as a kid who grew up obsessed with watching whatever badly dubbed Godzilla VHS I could get my hands on, these parallel big-budget Godzilla universes represent a ridiculous embarrassment of riches. I’m already feeling a bit of Star Wars fatigue, but something about the very nature of kaiju movies makes me feel like there can never really be too many. But in any case, the main question that remains is this: what will become of Shin Godzilla?

In 2016, Toho returned with their first Godzilla movie in twelve years, the shocking and often terrific Shin Godzilla. The presence of Hideaki Anno in the co-director’s chair (the creator of the influential and bonkers anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion) is clearly felt. For his many over-indulgences and faults, Anno is an absolute master when it comes to awe-inspiring horror. Shin Godzilla restores the reputation of Godzilla as a nearly-unstoppable harbinger of death, while also bringing Anno’s knack for the unsettling into the mix.

Godzilla’s appearance in Shin Godzilla (2016).

Shin Godzilla will be hard for Toho to ignore on just about every level. Financially, it was a massive hit, the highest grossing live action film of 2016 in Japan (coming in second overall to the animated sensation Your Name), the most successful Godzilla outing since the 1960s. Critically, it was extremely successful as well, taking the Japanese Academy Awards by storm, winning Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Lighting, Art Direction, Sound Recording, and Film Editing.

As it always is with that level of success, talk of a sequel was not far behind. But the recent comments by Toho’s Keiji Ota explained: “Shin Godzilla was a huge hit, but instead of thinking of doing the obvious idea of making a Shin Godzilla 2, instead think about a world that can be used for a long time. I’d rather make a World of Godzilla.”

Will Shin Godzilla be treated as the first film in this new series? Or will it be ditched altogether for a new Godzilla? Hideaki Anno’s interest in Godzilla clearly had more to do with pushing the boundaries than with was making a conventional monster flick, and so at the very least, it seems like certain aspects of his film will be conveniently forgotten. Godzilla-humanoid-tail-people, anyone?

The final shot of Shin Godzilla: a closeup of Godzilla’s tail, revealing a twisted mass of bones, including what appear to be humanoid Godzilla creatures.

These are questions we may not have answered for some time. In the meanwhile, however, there is definitely no lack of Godzilla material. Legendary’s franchise stomps along, with movies releasing in 2019 and 2020. Toho is also producing a trilogy of Godzilla animated films with Netflix, the first of which, Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, has already been released. Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is a surprisingly fresh film, taking advantage of the animated format in order to tell the story of a far-flung science fiction future in which Godzilla has forced humanity to flee the planet Earth. The film’s conceptual strength is somewhat undercut by its weird, video-gamey CG animation, but it’s a welcome entry in an often repetitive franchise.

I would never have been able to tell you, even five years ago, that we’d be in the midst of a bona fide Godzilla renaissance in 2018. But brace yourself, eight-year-old me, because it’s true: if all goes according to plan, we should see five new Godzilla feature films in the next three years (two Legendary, two animated, and presumably, 2021’s Toho Godzilla universe kickoff).

Netflix’s CG animated Godzilla movie Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017).

And it makes sense, really. We’re at an interesting time in cinema history: we’ve come out on the other side of our obsession with the “dark, gritty reboot,” and pure, huge, spectacle-focused theatrical experiences are now the cultural touchstones. Bright, joke-laden movies churned out by the Disney monolith dominate the landscape. Plus, we’re seeing the rebirth of horror as a box-office power, with films like Get Out and A Quiet Place making huge profits. Throw those ingredients together, and what do you get? Godzilla, the monster whose scale can only be fully appreciated at the multiplex, at once a horrifying emblem of destruction and a screen icon that you can’t help but root for. Whether or not these future installments will successfully tap into Godzilla’s legacy in order to take advantage of this moment, only time will tell. But I’ll be there, every huge, lumbering step of the way.


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