Godzilla and King Kong Are Legends First, Monsters Second

Godzilla, announcing his arrival.
Godzilla, announcing his arrival.
Screenshot: Legendary

There was plenty to like about how Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island and Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters spent ample time playing to the visual majesties of their respective kaiju. But both movies suffered dearly whenever their focuses turned toward the human characters, whose relatively insignificant dramas were meant to somehow ground the otherwise ridiculous stories.

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Humans have never really been the explicit reason that audiences go to see kaiju films. They want to see them demolish cities or duke it out with one another, like they will in Adam Wingard’s upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong, a movie whose basic premise makes it sound like a handful of scenes cut from King of the Monsters. And yet, there’s still a palpable hype around Godzilla vs. Kong that feels as if it almost exists in defiance of the very real possibility that the movie’s story might not really be all that novel or thought-provoking. Godzilla vs. Kong might not really need to be either of those things, though, because a major chunk of these movies’ appeal is actually something viewers bring to the story.

Because Godzilla and King Kong are legacy movie monsters who’ve survived decades of reinvention and reinterpretation by different creative teams, both characters carry a kind of living canon with them that transcends the specific details of any singular stories they appear in. Much in the same way that there is no one “true” Dracula, a person’s definitive Godzilla and King Kong are matters of taste rather than strict rules reinforced by the franchises around them.

Elements of Godzilla’s identity, like the creature’s destructive atomic breath and the fact that he’s considerably difficult to destroy, echo his origins as a metaphor for nuclear war’s devastation. Despite Godzilla being gradually reframed as an Earth-protecting antihero in subsequent films that introduced other, more consistently malicious kaiju—like Gigan, Biollante, and King Ghidorah—he’s never lost his status as a being who’s more than capable of falling back into his old heel ways. We as audiences understand the implicit possibility of Godzilla changing his mind and deciding to turn on humanity, regardless of whether the movie in question ever actually veers in that direction because his reputation proceeds his literal monstrosity.

The conflicting elements of Godzilla’s identity that we now associate as being core parts of his character first began taking shape during the Godzilla franchise’s Shōwa era. Films like Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster and Son of Godzilla introduced more heroic takes on the character whose cheesy fights against other monsters both endeared him to audiences and underlined the sheer scale of his power. Some of the fights from movies like Ebirah, Horror of the Deep can seem ridiculous when looked at with modern eyes because they’re literally people wailing on one another in rubber suits. At the same time, though, these fights worked as important reminders of what Godzilla—and by extension, nuclear power here in the real world—were capable of, and why the kaiju’s choice to defend humanity was worthy of the world’s reverence and respect.

Godzilla and King Kong having a disagreement back in 1962.
Godzilla and King Kong having a disagreement back in 1962.
Image: Toho
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Because Toho’s Godzilla movies have largely embraced the concept of the monster’s duality as a destroyer and defender, the franchise has been able to mine that complexity to create challenging, nuanced films that don’t necessarily have to straddle the hero/villain divide. For example, Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla fully leaned into the horrors of Godzilla’s existence. Viewers are able to sympathize with the creature’s pain that’s caused by his gruesome, bloody metamorphosis, which is a metaphor for the damage nuclear radiation can do to flesh. Even as the movie focuses on a kaiju terrorizing and tearing through modern-day Tokyo, Shin Godzilla never lets you forget that Godzilla’s in agony and just trying to survive.

The lack of that kind of nuance—and that there haven’t been anywhere near as many Godzilla movies produced by American studios—is part of why Hollywood only imported the character in the late ‘90s and why Roland Emmerich’s TriStar film was a box office disaster. Legendary Entertainment and Warner Bros. seem to have learned not to make the same mistakes and instead take cues from Toho with 2014's Godzilla and 2019's Godzilla: King of the Monsters. By framing the kaiju as creatures counteracting humanity’s destruction of the Earth and embracing Godzilla as a complex set of ideas, King of the Monsters established itself as trying to do more with its titular dinosaur, which in turn factors into at least some of the buzz around Godzilla vs. King Kong.

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But the story’s a bit different when you look back at King Kong’s path to his 21st-century rematch with the irradiated scalie. The ideas at work within King Kong’s mythos are markedly different than those surrounding Godzilla, but he’s enjoyed a similar pop-cultural infamy that’s made it possible for many to both love the character and divorce him from his deeply troubling origins that simply wouldn’t play with more modern moviegoers.

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It’s impossible to speak honestly about what King Kong embodies without unpacking how Merian C. Cooper’s (who co-created 1933's Kong along with Edgar Wallace) lifelong obsession with gorillas was deeply informed by the racist, colonialist ideas at the time about Africa as a continent and Africans as a people. Into Kong, both Cooper and Wallace poured a potent blend of the fascination, fetishization, and fear rooted in many in the prevailing ideas about Africa being a wild, untamed place rich with wonders for any white Westerners bold enough journey into the jungle.

Before Kong eventually climbs his way to the top of the Empire State Building in King Kong, the movie first establishes the important role Ann (Fay Wray) plays in the larger story being told about how white women, in particular, are seen as valued objects of desire in Western pop culture. Though Ann herself is scarcely able to wield this power much to her own advantage, King Kong draws attention to its presence through the way that others interact with her. She’s repeatedly referred to as a “golden woman” because of the color of her hair and the belief that she would make the perfect sacrifice for Kong. The story is as much about a massive gorilla wrecking New York City as it is about a bunch of white men working themselves up into a frenzy over their own fever dreams about dehumanized, godlike beings they envision as sharing their own insatiable appetites for white women.

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What’s interesting, but perhaps unsurprising, about this facet of King Kong’s lore is that it hasn’t been erased so much as softened and slightly recontextualized in stories inspired by the original film. You can see traces of Kong obviously in princess-snatching Others™ like Donkey Kong and Bowser, and more subtly like in the Avengers: Age of Ultron’s Hulk who needed Black Widow to coax him to a calm state.

Both John Guillermin and Peter Jackson’s respective King Kong remakes, and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s 2017 reboot, have all different amounts of this same energy in their stories. Godzilla vs. Kong appears poised to do something similar, albeit with Kong’s connection to humanity being a young orphaned girl named Jia (Kaylee Hottle). Even though she isn’t a white woman, the bond she’s been shown to share with Kong fits squarely within the character’s history of forging relationships with people typically thought of as being powerless, and it’s not hard to see the throughlines from the character’s first appearance to his upcoming one. Kong hasn’t had nearly as many film adaptations as Godzilla but the classic imagery of the giant gorilla and his exploits are known far and wide.

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However, one of the perks that’s come with Kong’s legend status in our collective consciousness is the public’s willingness to simply look past the ugliness woven into his history, or perhaps ignorance of it altogether. This, one imagines, is part of how imagery or stories—like Annie Leibovitz’s April 2008 Vogue cover—somehow make it through the editorial process with no one in a position of power ever stopping to point out how overtly racist they are. Leibovitz’s photo of LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen was not a direct comparison to King Kong the film, but rather a World War I recruitment poster in which a Kong-like gorilla clutches a terrified white woman in one arm while holding a bloodied club in the other. But it’s equal parts fascinating and stomach-turning to look back and see the degree to which people were unwilling to even question why the photo was offensive—especially after it was pointed out as such—something that likely would not have been the case were it not for Leibovitz’s own stardom and King Kong’s being a cultural icon.

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Brief as Leibovitz and King Kong’s shared existence in their specific artistic space was, in that moment they became two pieces of the same “problematic fave” capable of skirting important, valid critique simply because people like them in all of their historic messiness. These are all things that become more difficult to ignore the more you actually sit and pay attention to what King Kong was and what’s sprung up in the movie’s wake. Again, though, because there is no one definitive Kong, the degree to which these ideas become part of the conversation around the character depends on audiences’ (and creators’) willingness to talk about them.

This is why thinking about Godzilla vs. Kong as just another movie about monsters trying to kill one another is a bit reductive. It is very much that and will be consumed as such by many, but it’s also more. Kaiju like Godzilla and King Kong are living ideas and legends we’ve given form as monsters for the sake of spectacle and entertainment, but the act of watching these movies is far from a passive one. These monsters carry thorny, complicated legacies that make them stronger the more we acknowledge and challenge them, similar to the way Godzilla and Kong are going to wrestle with each other the next time we see them.

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Godzilla vs. King Kong debuts on March 31.

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io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.

DISCUSSION

This really reminds me how my biggest problem with King of the Monsters was that uses the atomic bomb as a heroic moment to save Godzilla, when the bomb really feels like it can only be used as tragedy in this franchise. It felt weirdly dissonant from the concept/inception of Godzilla.