Among entertainment series based on extra-powerful intellectual property, one called MonsterVerse from Legendary Pictures is a latecomer and a lightweight. Starting with “Godzilla” in 2014, it spawned four films, unexceptional beyond their special effects (and mediocre box office performers, by franchise standards), and a Netflix animated series. Not really a rampage.
But modesty can possibly have its virtues. Against the backdrop of Marvel’s recent multiversal inability to tell a coherent story, Legendary Television’s new series “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” (premiering Friday on Apple TV+) may feel like a breakthrough, or at least a welcome reprieve . Putting impressive visual effects in service of a relatively simple and earthy story, it has just enough nostalgic charm to evoke a more innocent era – say the mid-70s to the mid-90s – of adventure cinema. (A gratuitous reference to “Goonies” indicates that this is what the show’s creators, Chris Black and Matt Fraction, were going for.)
The casting of Kurt Russell, now 72 and making his first on-screen appearance in a scripted television show in more than 40 years, reinforces that nostalgia. Russell is as bright and alert as ever, if moving a little slower than usual, as Lee Shaw, an army officer attached to a spooky monster-hunting organization called Monarch.
Russell shares the role with his son Wyatt – Kurt Russell plays Shaw as a supposedly exhausted renegade comfortably trapped in the show’s present, 2015, while Wyatt Russell plays young Shaw, who pursues the titans (the term for Godzilla and his planet). -menacing compatriots) in the 1950s. The resemblance is stronger, in every way, than the usual double casting. Across the eight of ten episodes available for review, the series doesn’t take the time to reunite the two Russells, but a quick scene involving a grainy home movie provides a touching juxtaposition.
The series’ two timeline tracks carry nearly equal weight, increasing visual variety and opportunities for cliffhangers and reversals at the expense of character development and emotional involvement. In the past, Shaw is attached to two scientists: the excitable Bill Randa (Anders Holm in a younger version of the role played by John Goodman in “Kong: Skull Island”) and the formidable Keiko Miura (Mari Yamamoto). These three flirt, hunt down titans, and lay the groundwork for Monarch in scenes that dance in and out of the films’ established narrative; Godzilla is once again drawn into a close encounter with a nuclear bomb on Bikini Atoll in 1954, and an expedition to Kazakhstan predicts later developments.
Much of the fun of “Monarch” is in these flashback scenes, which are shot with a retro Hollywood glow and benefit greatly from Yamamoto’s physical presence and sexy charisma. The modern story, set just after Godzilla’s destruction of San Francisco in the first film, starts off well but settles into a rut that is more formulaic, in terms of adventure story, and more melodramatic, in terms of dynamics. family.
This piece stars Cate (Anna Sawai) and Kentaro (Ren Watanabe), half-siblings and adult grandchildren of monster hunters Keiko and Bill – their father, also a titan hunter, maintained separate families in America and in Japan. The show opens with their discovery of each other, and there is a certain comedy and poignancy in their mutual disdain and distrust.
As they team up with young hacker May (Kiersey Clemons) and the elder Shaw to search for their father, the series makes a mistake: it continues to play the young characters on the same angry notes , alienation and cynicism for too long. It’s not that their behavior isn’t believable – and the writers may have been trying to reflect the unfortunate zeitgeist – but they are too humorless, as written, to be very interesting , and the young actors, with the occasional exception of Clemons, are not able to overcome this. When Kurt Russell is on screen with them, his spirit gives you something to hold onto; when it’s not, it can be quite difficult.
When you manage to arouse feelings for characters, it can be difficult to decide where to place them, especially in modern history. The MonsterVerse – with its origins in the pacifist, anti-imperialist ideas of the original Godzilla films and the pastoral, anti-capitalist ideas of “King Kong” – must achieve a more delicate thematic balance than other fantasy adventure franchises: Society in its center is dark but not entirely bad; governments are harsh but not unhappy or dictatorial; the monsters are terrifying and destructive, but just want to be left alone.
Throughout most of “Monarch,” these contradictions are not balanced in a way that makes for consistently satisfying narrative and emotional meaning, perhaps due to the requirement to maintain suspense throughout 10 episodes. You can, however, put aside the nagging questions when Yamamoto, Holm, and Wyatt Russell perform classic movie matinee moves in flashbacks, and whenever the truly impressive monsters raise their scaly heads at any moment.