Apple TV+’s Monarch: Legacy of Monsters Tells a Fascinating, Human-Driven Story (With a Side of Godzilla)

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Apple TV+’s Monarch: Legacy of Monsters Tells a Fascinating, Human-Driven Story (With a Side of Godzilla)

Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) from Jurassic World spoke the truth. When it comes to monsters, “consumers want them bigger, louder. More teeth.” This is true not just in Dearing’s world of dinosaurs, but in the adjacent MonsterVerse, where legends such as Godzilla and King Kong reside. 

Bigger and badder is exactly what the MonsterVerse has provided ever since the Gareth Edwards-directed Godzilla film debuted in 2014. Since then, three more franchise films have been released with a growing roster of giant monsters (often referred to as titans, MUTOs, or kaiju) and surprise, surprise, the films were all progressively bigger, louder, and had more teeth. 

While I find MonsterVerse films to be fun popcorn movies, they have almost always lacked a strong human story that could establish a critical link to its over-the-top, CGI-laden action. Modern Godzilla and Kong movies have been heavy on fun but light on humanity. Monarch: Legacy of Monsters reverses this trend, skillfully managing to do what the films it’s sired from traditionally have trouble with: providing compelling stakes for its human characters with just the right amount of monster mayhem. 

We first meet main protagonist Cate Randa (Anna Sawai) as she’s arriving in Japan. A former teacher from San Francisco, her father recently died and she’s on a mission she doesn’t want. When she discovers her dad had a secret apartment in Tokyo, Cate flies to the city at the urging of her mother to investigate why. It turns out her father isn’t exactly who he seemed to be. 

We learn that Cate has a half-brother, Kentaro (Ren Watabe), an artist who has a complicated relationship with a hacker named May (Kiersey Clemons). With Cate and Kentaro suddenly made aware of the other’s existence, they start digging into their father’s mysterious past with May’s help. At times, Monarch feels more like a family drama than a series based in the MonsterVerse. “A dad with an enigmatic past inadvertently gets his children to work as a team to solve the mystery surrounding his life,” isn’t exactly an atypical tagline for a family drama. While we have all seen this kind of story before, it’s never been done with a monster twist. 

The digging of the determined twins leads the duo and May to Lee Shaw (Kurt Russell), an old friend of their father’s who they hope can provide some answers to a life led partially in secret. Shaw’s introduction is when Monarch really hits its stride, but we first meet the character when he’s played not by Kurt Russell, but by his real life son, Wyatt Russell, in a setting almost 60 years earlier. 

There are a dizzying amount of time jumps in Monarch, so viewers are first introduced to Army Lt. Lee Shaw not in the present (the series is set in 2015), but in 1952 when he’s assigned to be a security escort for Japanese scientist Dr. Keiko Mira (Mari Yamamoto). The pair quickly join forces with cryptozoologist Bill Randa, played as a young man by Anders Holm and as an older man by John Goodman, reprising his role from Kong: Skull Island.  

It’s with these characters from the past that we learn about the formation of Monarch, an organization that started with three people hoping to understand titans and live peacefully with them, and how decades of military interference and weaponization led to the secret, scientific, government-funded organization that exists in the present. While the time jumps can be a little confounding (I lost count after 10), the weaving of stories from the past with the future works, and by Episode 3, I was fully invested—helping matters is a first rate cast. 

Anna Sawai absolutely shines. Angry, disillusioned, yet fiercely determined, her take on Cate reveals a fully formed character. She’s mad at her father, frustrated with her stepbrother, and most importantly realizes how hypocritical she can be. Cate’s own failings, which are dramatically revealed mid-season, make her someone who should never pass judgment on anyone, yet she does out of frustration anyway. 

Ren Watabe is also excellent, as is Kiersey Clemons, but it’s the father/son Russell duo that are most likely to catch your eye. Wyatt Russell deftly plays a young Army officer with a bit of naivety mixed with unwavering confidence. Meanwhile, Kurt Russell does a fantastic job as a world-weary veteran who has seen it all, yet still has secrets of his own. Viewers will see plenty of Wyatt in Kurt, and vice versa. There’s even a scene where Wyatt’s face is overlayed on top of Kurt’s; it makes for a striking moment. 

While Monarch is primarily about uncovering the secrets of the Randa family, there’s also just the right amount of monster action sequences to keep any kaiju fan satiated. There are several unusual and terrifying-looking titans to be enjoyed (no two look alike), along with some up close and personal looks at Godzilla himself. However, no one should go into this series expecting to see titans battling it out and leaving a city in ruins. Monarch is closer to a prestige TV series than a popcorn film. With that in mind, I found the program’s emotional-human-turmoil-caused-by-monsters plot lines to be incredibly well-balanced. 

Monarch isn’t without a few flaws. Aside from a ton of time jumps, there’s also a lot of unnecessary globe-trotting. And when episodes steer away from the past and stay only in the present, the story can feel disconnected. Even though it has some issues, I still found the series riveting. 

Much like the original Jurassic Park (or Jaws, or Alien, etc) with this new series, audiences will find that seeing less of what terrifies really is more. Monarch: Legacy of Monsters tells the human-driven story the MonsterVerse has always needed. 

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters premieres Friday, November 17th on Apple TV+. 

Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot, and aspiring hand model. When he’s not hunting down leads from his father’s mysterious past while trying to not get stepped on by Godzilla, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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