Ed note: Since this list was initially written, we’ve added the 2014 American Godzilla, the 2016 Toho-produced Shin Godzilla, 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters and 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong to the rankings, to keep them complete.
I love Godzilla, and on some level, I bet you probably do too. To hate Godzilla is to hate the idea of the “giant monster wrecks stuff/fights other monsters” movie concept, and to hate that concept is to hate mindless fun itself. Do you hate mindless fun? If so, I pity you, and I wish I could send a guy in a bulky rubber suit to your home to give you a hug, assuming he could operate the arms sufficiently.
With anticipation surging to unprecedented levels with both another American Godzilla movie on the way, and the American arrival of Toho’s Shin Godzilla, this is the perfect time to really dig into the history of this venerable series, which first kicked off with the black and white Japanese classic Gojira in 1954. What followed were 28 Japanese sequels and one ill-fated American remake in 1998, plus two more in the last decade. They make up one of the silliest, most colorful and consistently fun film libraries ever created.
Some of these films hold up well today as legitimate action/monster pictures. Others are appreciable as camp classics. Some were terrible from the moment they were released and have only gotten worse in the years that followed. But if you’re wondering which Godzilla movies you should watch in the weeks leading up to May’s Godzilla relaunch, this list of every Godzilla film from worst to best should provide the answer.
Kicking things off, the very worst Godzilla movie ever made!
I only include the American Godzilla film starring Matthew Broderick because if I didn’t, someone would ask in the comments why it wasn’t on the list. It’s the worst in so many conceivable ways, but chief among them is that the monster simply isn’t Godzilla. He’s much smaller, weaker, doesn’t have atomic breath and generally doesn’t have anything fans loved about the original Godzilla. The film was so reviled in Japan that Toho Studios, the original creators of Godzilla, don’t recognize it and refer to the monster as a separate creature called “Zilla.” He makes a brief cameo in 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, only to get blown to bits by the real Godzilla in a fight that lasts about 15 seconds. Good riddance.
There’s a near universal consensus that Godzilla’s Revenge is far and away the worst Japanese Godzilla movie, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s at the height of the original “Showa Series” (1954-1975) child-friendly period, and as such the main character is a young latchkey kid. The monsters aren’t even “real” in this one, but simple fantasies this kid has while daydreaming between regularly scheduled beatings from the school bullies. And when he does visit Monster Island in his dreams, he mostly hangs out with the supremely annoying Minilla, Godzilla’s son, who can speak English in a dopey voice that sounds like it was lifted directly from Davey and Goliath. Even when they do watch Godzilla fight, it’s mostly just stock footage from Son of Godzilla and Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, which were already bad films on their own. He doesn’t even get “revenge” on anyone! Avoid at all costs.
Stupidly renamed Gigantis, the Fire Monster for no reason in American releases, this was the second-ever Godzilla film, the first where he fights another monster, and the only other after Gojira to be in black and white. Unfortunately, it loses practically everything that made the first film notable: Gone already is the serious tone and social commentary, and gone is most of the atmospheric cinematography and sense of scale. It feels cheaper on all levels. The enemy monster is Anguirus, who eventually becomes Godzilla’s most trusted ally, but the art of kaiju vs. kaiju battles is completely in its infancy here. They fight not like pro wrestlers (which I consider fun) but like animals jockeying and shoving one another about with little choreography, which does not make for compelling cinema.
Godzilla fights a huge lobster! Not a well-conceived plot or monster, which makes slightly more sense when one finds out the script was originally intended for a Japanese King Kong adaptation. This one is very slow, with Godzilla not even showing up until almost an hour in. His fight with Ebirah is dull, and the Godzilla suit for this one looks particularly dopey and non-threatening. When you’ve got guys in rubber suits, a fight in waist-deep water is probably a pretty bad idea from a “fast-moving action” perspective. Mothra shows up briefly, but she can’t save this one. Even the MST3k version is a bore.
Ah, just what we needed, more Minilla (also referred to as “Minya”). He’s only slightly less annoying here than in Godzilla’s Revenge, mostly due to the fact that he’s not speaking English with a voice that sounds mentally handicapped. Really though, your tolerance for Son of Godzilla will be entirely based on how much Japanese kiddie fun you can withstand. There are some chuckles to be had in observing Godzilla’s deadbeat dad demeanor, like when he allows Minilla to be hit in the face by a big rock or stomps on his son’s tail while teaching him to use his atomic breath, but you’re more likely to be taxed by the kid’s temper tantrums. It’s hardly a “real” Godzilla movie, and easily skipped.
It pains me to place this one so low, because it features two of the Godzilla series’ best monsters. It has the return of Ghidorah, the three-headed golden dragon typically considered Godzilla’s arch-enemy, and also the badass Gigan, the kaiju with scythe arms and a huge, spanning saw blade in the middle of his chest (seriously). Unfortunately though, despite the strong cast of characters, the movie is hamstrung by its own cheapness. It takes absolutely forever to get going and revolves around a bizarre plot involving a Godzilla-themed amusement park, and it also has one of the series’ most unnecessary moments as Godzilla and Anguirus actually speak to each other in garbled “monster English.” Then, once the fights eventually begin, it’s full of reused stock footage from the much better Destroy all Monsters—make a new movie!
In the Heisei series, the films often began creating villains cloned or somehow created from Godzilla’s DNA, and “SpaceGodzilla” is probably the weakest of these ideas. He’s basically Godzilla, except with some big crystals attached to his shoulders. This one also features a giant robot named M.O.G.U.E.R.A. who seems like an inferior version of the better Godzilla opponent, Mechagodzilla (keep reading), although technically he predates Mechagodzilla in other film. It’s also got the Heisei version of Minilla, here called Baby Godzilla or Godzilla Jr., which is not a mark in its favor by any means. Overall, it’s just one of the more forgettable Godzilla entries, especially next to some of the other Heisei series movies. Inexplicably, “SpaceGodzilla” seems to have a small but dedicated fan base, but who knows why.
These rankings are pretty subjective, and I’m sure plenty of people would have this film higher or lower on the list. This is the height of cartoonish ridiculousness in the Showa series, and honestly, Godzilla is practically a supporting character in this one. The bomb-spitting villain Megalon is goofy as hell, and Gigan makes a welcome return. The real “star” of the film is Jet Jaguar, a size-changing robotic superhero who was essentially ripping off the popular character of Ultraman. It’s incredibly silly, horrendous and simultaneously hilarious, which is only amplified by its appearance in a classic episode of MST3k. Highlight: The most ridiculous offensive maneuver in Godzilla history. So stupid, they had to show it twice.
Possibly the weirdest Godzilla flick of them all, and certainly the ickiest. The villain this time is Hedorah/the smog monster, a living blob of toxic ooze. Godzilla, meanwhile, might as well be Captain Planet, because this is one of the only Godzilla films that ever tried to have an overt environmental message rather than a subtextual one. Of course, it’s difficult to even notice that message because this movie will have you assuming someone slipped a powerful narcotic into your beverage. Like an acid-fueled freakout, it’s filled with hallucinogenic nightmares, including a scene where all the revelers in a dance club transform into fish people like it’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It would seem this was made during some sort of brief counterculture experimentation in Japan. It’s capped off by the strangest Godzilla moment ever, when the King of the Monsters is able to FLY AWAY by using his atomic breath to scoot himself gently across the sky. Really, it has to be seen to be believed.
This was the first film of Toho’s second run of Godzilla movies, the “Heisei series” (1984-1995), which updated Godzilla with much better special effects and more serious plots. This being the first film, it’s essentially a straight retelling of the original Gojira theme, except set against the backdrop of the Cold War. It’s serious—dour, even—and has some pretty neat effects for the time, especially in its miniature sets, but it’s just not as fun to watch as Godzilla’s battles with other kaiju in the Heisei films that were to come. It ends with Godzilla being dropped into a volcano, but you know that can’t keep the King of the Monsters down.
This was the second film of the third and final Japanese series to date, the so-called “Millennium series” (1999-2004) of Godzilla movies. The practical effects are better than ever, but it also suffers from some really shoddy-looking CGI, which was a very bad choice in a film series totally committed to using a guy in a suit as Godzilla. The enemy kaiju, Megaguirus, is a flying, moth-like creature that’s a bit too close in execution to both Mothra and the earlier monster, Battra, and it comes one movie after another flying enemy. It lacks creativity, and I expect most fans would cite this as the worst of the Millennium series films.
This film served as the introduction for Godzilla’s greatest foe, the three-headed Ghidorah. It also introduced the concept of a group of kaiju brawling simultaneously, as Godzilla and Rodan (a giant pterodactyl) join forces with the larva of Mothra to take down the threat of Ghidorah. It’s classic stuff, but very cheap-looking and doesn’t stand up as well to the passage of time as some of the other Showa series films. It’s the first of the monsters from outer space to appear in the series, but Ghidorah would go on to much more compelling appearances in the future.
We’re in a forgettable middle ground of Godzilla movies now, where they don’t particularly offend or stand out. This was the Heisei series’ attempt at reviving Mothra, but it’s mainly notable for the introduction of the enemy kaiju, Battra, which is essentially a vindictive version of Mothra come to punish the human race for infringing on “the Earth’s natural order.” He does this by blowing stuff up with purple lasers. Mothra, meanwhile, can’t seem to decide if she wants to fight for or against Godzilla in this flick, which makes it a little confusing. I think you know who wins out in the end.
This one is truly iconic, the “Batman vs. Superman” of the giant monster world. Kong, blown up to Godzilla’s size, is practically unrecognizable compared to the original American version of the giant ape. He feeds off electricity for no discernible reason and plays the hero role. This being the third film in the series, Godzilla is still in full villain mode and has yet to make his anti-hero transition. They have an absurd, drawn-out battle that ends in both crashing off a cliff and into the ocean, after which Kong swims away. A very persistent urban legend has maintained that there was a Japanese cut of the ending where “Godzilla wins,” but this was never the case. Regardless, the movie doesn’t truly reveal a victor, making it all the more surprising that there was never a sequel.
After a series of masterfully constructed trailers that emphasized the beauty and grandiosity of the kaiju, overlayed with portentous dialog from the leads, audiences could be forgiven if they went into Michael Dougherty’s King of the Monsters expecting a certain degree of dignity and gravitas. Alas, this is not that film—the 2019 KOTM has more of a Michael Bay sensibility, feeling more or less like last year’s cheesy-fun The Meg, except with kaiju. The human drama is ridiculous in the extreme—not automatically a bad thing, more an expected thing, in a Godzilla sequel—but it becomes infuriating when it fails to progress the plot (what little there is) in a way that makes any kind of sense. Indeed, any time a human character is on screen in KOTM, you typically find yourself dumbfounded by the things coming out of their mouths. On the other hand, the film also contains some of the most gorgeously rendered giant monster battling in the history of the big screen, so that certainly helps. In the same vein as Final Wars, but without quite as much action, this is an entry where spectacle and destruction are really the only features of note.
Not as aggressively dumb as the preceding Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but also lacking any real attempt at a bigger message or any kind of profundity, Godzilla vs. Kong knows exactly what it is and delivers what it promises in its title—no more, and no less. Generations have been waiting for this rematch, and the fight scenes between the two “alpha” Titans are certainly worth the price of admission, as the two great beasts smash each other’s faces through skyscrapers with absolutely no concern for the thousands of innocent bystanders who are most assuredly trodden underfoot. We admit that we’re particularly glad to say that an actual winner is crowned in that fated 1v1, and the right choice was made. The human drama of Godzilla vs. Kong, on the other hand, is like a starvation ration of plot being shared by three times as many performers as should be necessary to handle it. Why more human characters keep getting added to the Legendary MonsterVerse, when it doesn’t know what to do with the ones it already has (and killed the only interesting ones), we can’t say. But they don’t do Godzilla vs. Kong any favors. Still, this is a serviceable popcorn muncher.
This is one of the films that is perfectly fine on its own, but looks worse in context of the full series and the films that surround it. It immediately followed 2002’s Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla as a direct sequel, but doesn’t have any of the same characters. Likewise, it doesn’t have much new to say or do, except for the inclusion of Mothra, who feels pretty played out in the series by this point. There’s some fun but uninspired destruction. Most of the Mechagodzilla movies are of nearly the same quality, so we’re just going to blow through them now. Prepare to be perplexed.
I realize these names are becoming confusing, but the easiest way to understand this is to recognize that this is the Mechagodzilla movie of the Heisei series. It’s also the first to reimagine the robot as a hero rather than a villain, constructed by the United Nations to fight against the rampaging Godzilla. It has some great action, including multiple upgrades and an array of creative weapons for Mechagodzilla, but it’s also hard to get around how much less threatening this version of the monster looks than the classic Mechagodzilla of the 1970s. I really hate that stupid look on his face—he looks like a big, hulking robot simpleton. But still, very entertaining.
The rebooted American Godzilla by Gareth Edwards struggles between two aspirations, to channel the gravitas and meaning of the 1954 original and also satisfy a popcorn-crunching audience of American action movie fans who just want to see some stuff get blowed up real good. At its best, it gives in to the pulpy ridiculousness of being a film about giant monsters, simply stepping back for a second to let the beautifully rendered creatures become the stars. At its worst, it bogs down in endless human drama that is devoid of meaning, following the wrong protagonists (why kill Bryan Cranston? Why?) as they struggle to rescue nameless children and the audience wonders why it should care. A number of awesome moments in the final 30 moments help propel this launch of Legendary’s MonsterVerse up the list, and the film particularly benefits from its sense of scale and awe toward Godzilla in particular, but just as often it frustrates by teasing the audience with expected confrontations that don’t actually happen. It’s a mixed bag, but one that has grown in our esteem in the years since it was first released. Of the modern American Godzilla films, it easily pays the most respect to Godzilla as a character and a force of nature.
The first Mechagodzilla film of the Millennium series features one of the stranger Godzilla plots. Once again, the robot has been built by the government to defend against Godzilla, but this film ignores all others that came before it since the original Gojira. The robot has been constructed by using the bones of the first-ever Godzilla killed in the end of the original film, and somehow these bones retain their memory or “soul.” This results in the robot going haywire and attempting to destroy the city while simultaneously battling Godzilla. It’s armed with the very cool “absolute zero cannon,” which can freeze entire sections of the city. One can argue that this film is really more about the human characters than Godzilla himself, which holds it back from a higher ranking.
This is the second-ever film to feature Mechagodzilla and is a direct sequel to the first one. An excellent entry into the Showa series, it really lets Godzilla be an ass-kicker. Where he needed help to beat Mechagodzilla in the first film, here he solos two monsters simultaneously, also taking on the new aquatic kaiju, Titanosaurus. He has one of his best entrances in the series: we see him for the first time when he suddenly blasts Titanosaurus from off-screen, then gets a smash-cut and the Godzilla theme. He comes in like he’s Batman clearing house on a bunch of goons, and that’s exactly what he does.
The first film of the Millennium series is a pretty action-packed flick. I absolutely love the design of the Godzilla suit in this movie—it looks sharper and meaner than ever, and the effects have gotten even better than the Heisei series. The enemy kaiju is one of Godzilla’s weirder opponents, starting off as a UFO before stealing some of Godzilla’s DNA (that trope again) and morphing into a giant monster called Orga. This guy is so big that he tries to swallow Godzilla whole at one point, but that’s a bad idea when your target can breathe atomic blasts. Regardless, this film went a long way toward repairing the damage to the character that the 1998 American Godzilla had wrought. Every film from this point on is a series classic.
The final Millennium series film is one of the most divisive among fans, thanks to its completely over-the-top visual aesthetic and gimmicky storyline. Invading aliens turn loose what amounts to Godzilla’s entire rogue’s gallery, and he just marches around throughout, beating down monsters like Anguirus, Ebirah and Gigan. It’s a film notable for having just as many human action sequences as kaiju ones, which some fans find distasteful. I, on the other hand, feel like it’s more entertaining to watch martial arts sequences than yet another scene of scientists discussing Godzilla, as has been the case for 27 films at this point. It all culminates in a surprise final boss battle that pays tribute to the classics of the series. It’s over-the-top fun, which is pretty much what I want from Godzilla.
This brand new film from Toho, which is receiving a limited, subtitled release in the U.S., will hopefully be the start of an entire new Japanese Godzilla series, and if the early box office results are any indication, it’s shaping up to be a big hit in its native country. It was hard to know what to expect from yet another remake/reimagining of Big G’s first contact with the human race, but this film actually pulls off a tough task in fine style. It’s very dialog and politics-heavy, but these scenes are thankfully shot in a dynamically paced way, with quick edits that keep you engaged in endless discussion of how to deal with the threat of Godzilla. Most notable, though, is that Godzilla doesn’t look quite the same, especially when the audience first sees him. Rather, the iconic monster is in a completely different, more aquatically based form at first, before rapidly (and terrifyingly) evolving into something more akin to the Godzilla we know and love. His capabilities in this new movie are more fearsome than ever, and his wild, unpredictable nature is great fun to watch. Like any of the Japanese series, there are certainly lulls, but his on-screen destruction is some of the best of the entire series, and the ending opens up some very interesting, unique new pathways the series could take from here.
This is by far the most difficult film to rank on a list. It would be cliché to award the original Godzilla film the #1 spot simply out of deference, but we all know that without this one there would be no others. Viewing it today, it’s easy to admire the film’s unexpected gravitas and poetic moments. It’s the most thoughtful Godzilla picture by far, and the cinematography wonderfully emphasizes Godzilla’s size and power as a destructive force of nature. Still, it’s not as purely entertaining as some of the sillier follow-ups, and I would bet that most Godzilla fans watch other entries in the series more often than they re-view Gojira. It’s the most important Godzilla movie without a doubt … but not the “best.”
The direct follow-up to Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster broke some serious new ground for the series by fully fusing it with science fiction and space travel for the first time. The plot has a pretty cool concept, as a new planet is discovered, and its resident aliens request the help of Godzilla and Rodan in fighting their tormentor, Ghidorah. The aliens, however, turn out to be evil (aren’t they always?), and mind-control Godzilla, Rodan and Ghidorah before unleashing them on Earth. It’s great Showa series fun with a better-than-average plot, and it remains the only time Godzilla has been to another planet. Also: The most out-of-character Godzilla moment ever. Really, what were they thinking?
This film was originally intended to be the final movie of the Showa series, and it received a larger budget to match. That extra money meant monsters—lots of monsters! A true battle royal, it features Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, Anguirus, Gorosaurus, Kumonga, Manda, Varan and Ghidorah. It takes a while to get going and features all the monsters separately in small cameos, but then ends in the scenario every kid dreamed of: A big brawl with all the monsters present. They ultimately team up to take out Ghidorah, always considered the biggest threat. Just classic stuff, a movie that would have been a fitting send-off to the original series—it’s shameful that this was followed by Godzilla’s Revenge.
One of the all-time classic pairings of two monsters, Mothra vs. Godzilla was the moment many kids became Godzilla fans for life. Still serious, before the Showa series transitioned into children’s entertainment, it features Godzilla as an unsympathetic monster who is completely impervious to earthly weapons. Mothra, on the other hand, is a perfect hero and protector of the Earth. For being a giant moth, she puts up a pretty great fight against Godzilla. In typical Mothra fashion she’s eventually bested, but her larvae are able to save the day. Each adult Mothra has a pretty short shelf life, as it turns out.
This is a truly unique Godzilla film from the Heisei series. The first movie to feature an enemy grown from Godzilla’s DNA, Biollante is a giant Venus flytrap-like monster that can hunt down people individually with its vines/tentacles. He is a legitimately terrifying spectacle, and the film is so dark and serious that it almost seems like Godzilla has been crossed with a horror flick. It’s so different from other Godzilla movies that it immediately stands out, and Biollante is memorable as one of Godzilla’s most vicious-looking opponents. It was a much-needed breath of fresh air at the time, and it’s still an underrated entry in the series.
The first-ever appearance of Mechagodzilla in the Showa series is still the best. I have such fond memories of this film, and it embodies the earlier Godzilla movies to me. Mechagodzilla is presented as an absolutely devastating opponent with abilities that outclass Godzilla in every way, and he beats Godzilla to within an inch of his life. My favorite bit though, is the inclusion of a Godzilla ally named “King Caesar,” some kind of bizarre lion-dog hybrid who needs to be woken from a long slumber by singing Japanese adult contemporary music. Then, after all that build-up, he immediately gets WRECKED by Mechagodzilla, which I’ve always found hilarious. And the aliens controlling Mechagodzilla are secretly ape people, for some reason! Seriously, this one is as nutty as it is entertaining.
This is easily the most emotionally affecting Godzilla movie ever made, and also one of the best. Godzilla immediately looks different—why is he glowing red, like he’s filled with molten lava? Well, it turns out that as a downside of being powered by nuclear radiation, Godzilla’s heart is a reactor that is literally beginning to melt down. This makes him stronger than ever, which is absolutely necessary against the demonic Destoroyah, easily one of the most powerful Godzilla enemies. “Godzilla Junior”—no longer Minilla—is also heavily involved, and finally he’s become a capable monster in his own right who resembles his father. In the end, after Destoroyah is defeated, Godzilla melts down and his powers pass to Godzilla Junior, making this the only real “death of Godzilla” besides the original Gojira. As the black-and-white footage of the series rolls, you almost want to shed a tear.
Ridiculous title, awesome movie. Godzilla is once again reimagined and redesigned as the bad guy, while Mothra, Ghidorah and Baragon are surprisingly reimagined as “Earth Guardians” who must defend Japan. Godzilla’s vendetta against Japan is much more personal this time, and he’s at the absolute height of his powers. Even combined, the military, Mothra, Baragon and Ghidorah stand little chance against this incarnation of the King of the Monsters. He is the biggest ass-kicker here that he’s ever been, and he has lots of opportunities to turn loose his destructive potential. There’s even a good human story wedged into this iteration. There’s really nothing you can even suggest to improve it.
This movie is absolutely ludicrous, in the best possible way. The Heisei series rebirth of Ghidorah once and for all establishes an origin story for Godzilla—turns out he’s a “Godzillasaurus” dinosaur that was mutated by atomic radiation. It also introduces another alien-fueled plot that involves time travel and gives us an origin story for Ghidorah, as well. But really, it’s just the perfect combination of absurd human plot and ramped-up kaiju fighting action. After being initially defeated by Godzilla, Ghidorah is rebuilt into the cyborg “Mecha-King Ghidorah,” and that monster design is the high point of the series as far as I’m concerned. It’s the coolest monster Godzilla ever fights, in his finest cinematic outing to date.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.