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    Tuesday, July 23, 2024

    Review: Big MonsterVerse fun on small screen

    “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” begins by taking us back to 1973.

    And to Skull Island.

    It is there and then we are reunited with John Goodman’s Bill Randa from the enjoyable 2017 movie “Kong: Skull Island,” making film recordings of what he sees, much of which is chaos. At one point, he turns the camera on himself and addresses someone, saying he can’t change the past — he can’t make up for his mistakes — but perhaps he can leave a “legacy.”

    Soon, he is running from one of those giant spider monsters we saw in the movie. Reaching the edge of a cliff and faced with what would seem to be certain death, he tosses the bag he is carrying into the water, and he — and we — watch it float away.

    Although the series is never quite this impressively thrilling again, these opening, well-constructed minutes of “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” — which debuted with two of its 10 episodes last week on Apple TV+ — nonetheless are fairly representative of the show’s consistent quality.

    Based on the first eight installments, which Apple made available for review, this small-screen entry in Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures’ MonsterVerse is highly cinematic and steadily entertaining. And, with apologies to certain “Star Wars” and Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings for Disney+, “Monarch” feels like the rare reaching of the potential of how a streaming series can fit in with movies tied together in a shared universe.

    The show arrives after four big-screen affairs, starting with 2014’s “Godzilla.” Told in two main timelines, the present day of “Monarch” is set after the events of “Godzilla” — and thus well after what went down in “Kong: Skull Island” — but before 2019’s “Godzilla: King of Monsters.” For the record, it is the second MonsterVerse series, following Netflix’s animated “Skull Island” show.

    Cities now have marked evacuation routes and sirens set up in the event of an appearance by the giant lizard-like creature. The world lives in fear of another “G-Day,” the name given to Godzilla’s introduction to an unexpecting San Francisco in 2014.

    Cate Randa (Anna Sawai of fellow Apple TV+ series “Pachinko”), the granddaughter of Bill, was in San Francisco that day and is haunted by flashbacks of what she experienced. We meet her in 2015 as she is traveling to Tokyo to uncover mysteries connected to her late father, Hiroshi (Takehiro Hira, “Gran Turismo”), who worked for the secretive multinational organization Monarch, which has been keeping tabs on Godzilla, Kong and other “Titans” and MUTOs — monsters of myths and legends — for years.

    What she finds is that her father seemingly had a second family in Japan and that she has a half-brother in Kentaro (Ren Watabe, “461 Days of Bento”), who is as surprised to encounter her as she is to find him. Although she initially attempts to go back home, now more angry about her father’s familial secrets than curious about his work, she soon is chasing down clues — and avoiding danger — with Kentaro and his computer-wizard ex-girlfriend, May (Kiersey Clemons, “The Flash”).

    The series’ other major timeline takes place decades earlier, as a younger Bill (Anders Holm, “Workaholics”) works with another scholarly type, Keiko (Mari Yamamoto, another “Pachinko” alum), and a well-intentioned military man, Lee Shaw (Wyatt Russell, “Lodge 49,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”), to start Monarch and get a better handle on this little-understood monstrous threat to humanity.

    The latter is the stronger of the two storylines, in no small part due to a love triangle developing with Bill, Keiko and Lee. In the former, we get a bit too much of Cate, Kentaro or May each getting fed up with the situation at one point or another and threatening to walk away. Also, we wish the writers made more of the unusual dynamic between Cate and Kentaro; a couple of scenes in which they discover similar memories of their father are sweet.

    Their timeline gets a boost from the star power of one Kurt Russell, the father of Wyatt portraying the older version of Lee, who teams up with this new generation of heroes. It’s an obvious but terrific bit of casting considering the facial features shared by the Russell gents. (It makes up for the fact that there is no universe — full of mythical monsters or otherwise — in which Holm will turn into Goodman in a few years, but you can’t have it all.)

    All of the performances are solid, not spectacular, including that of Joe Tippett (“Mare of Easttown”) as Tim, a present-day Monarch operative who begins as an antagonist to Cate, Kentaro and May but whom you suspect is a pretty good dude.

    The star behind the camera is Matt Shakman, who helms the episodes that debuted last week, and whose list of directorial credits includes episodes of several prestige TV shows, including each installment of the strong MCU series “WandaVision.” His installments are “Monarch” at its most movie-like, episodes chock full of intricate shots and boasting fluid narratives.

    That said, the production values remain relatively high as Julian Holmes, Mairzee Almas and Hiromi Kamata take over for episodes three and four, five and six and seven and eight, respectively. Andy Goddard helms the two episodes being kept under wraps, and we’re looking forward to viewing them.

    That’s a credit to showrunner Chris Black (“Severance”), who co-developed the series with Matt Fraction and never allows it to stagnate in the way so many streaming series tend to do. It could have been tightened here or there, sure, but, at the very least, 10 episodes do not feel like far too many.

    Ultimately, “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” is a more consistently satisfying experience than the MonsterVerse overall.

    If nothing else, it should whet appetites for next year’s “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire,” the theatrical follow-up to the 2021 hit “Godzilla vs. Kong.”

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