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Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is two shows – and only one of them works
★★ | Let them fight
There are two competing stories in Monarch: Legacy of Monsters. One of them is full of excitement and intrigue, compelling drama, and stellar performances. The other is a dull, lifeless slog that made me question why would I want to spend another minute with these characters.
You can guess which one the series chooses to focus on.
The better story is set in the 1950s. The World War is over, and the Cold War has just begun. Officer Lee Shaw (Wyatt & Kurt Russell, depending on the timeline) is tasked with protecting Japanese scientist Keiko (Mari Yamamoto), who searches for answers to unexplained radioactive phenomena. They are joined by Bill Randa (Anders Holm), who believes he may have the answer to what they seek.
Their search leads them on the trail of Godzilla, the monster born in the wake of nuclear testing, and the world of titans that has lain dormant for thousands of years.
That’s the plot, but it’s the story and the subtext that make this part of the series so special. Lee is fascinated by Keiko, and she, against better judgement, is intrigued in return. Their countries have devastated one another, the other killing countless civilians as a final act of the war. Nobody on Lee’s side trusts Keiko, and most in Japan view Lee as little more than an invader.
Their unexpected and dangerous chemistry fuels the tragic and immensely compelling drama that pits science against war, and love against loyalty. It’s a timeless story, seamlessly mixed together with alternative history and kaiju goodness.
So, naturally, it’s tossed aside after the first two episodes and treated like an afterthought, when it should be its own series.
The other half of the season is a maddening and painfully dull teen drama that holds no tension, no intrigue, and consistently grinds the show to a halt. As if aware of the dead weight, the series tries to inject Kurt Russell into the story, but has no idea what to make of him.
To his credit, Russell is great. He knows the kind of material he’s working with. His Lee Shaw is the kind of complex anti-hero I would happily follow.
But he’s not the focus, and it’s a mystery why.
Instead, that honor is squarely on the trio of Cate (Anna Sawai), Kentaro (Ren Watabe), and May (Kiersey Clemons).
Cate and Kentaro are looking for their absent father, who lived a double life without committing to either one. May is Kentaro’s former girlfriend, but also a genius hacker on the run from a plot that belongs in a different series altogether.
All three are talented, charismatic actors. The problem is they’re stuck with underwritten, painfully bland parts that give them nothing to do. Poor Anna Sawai suffers from it the most, as the series often reduces her traumatized character to tantrums that come and go without rhyme or reason. By the time professional monster hunters start to take orders from her to help propel the plot along, it feels like the series has given up on even attempting to find an organic way for them to fit in.
Watabe’s Kentaro is a frustratingly reactionary presence, whose only function is to look confused enough that someone will explain to him, and by proxy, the audience, what is going on. In the first two episodes, which are some of the best this season, Watabe shows that he, like Sawai and Clemons, is capable of so much more.
Every time I thought the series would finally muster the courage to do something interesting with these characters, it went with the most obvious, lackluster choice possible. When the story returns to the 50s, with its subtle and compelling drama, I couldn’t believe I was watching the same show.
Sadly, most of the emphasis is on the present day, and the insufferable teenage adventure. It brings to mind Godzooky, the infamously terrible sidekick to Godzilla, who was created to attract younger audiences. Godzooky died on the way to his home planet, and not a moment too soon. There’s a reason we haven’t heard from him in years.
That same misunderstanding of the material wreaks havoc in Monarch as well. For every episode that genuinely works, there are two that are so pointless, you could skip them entirely and not miss a beat.
If anything, it feels like we’re seeing two seasons worth of material crammed together into one, and neither comes off better for it. Without room to breathe, and with a baffling choice to begin the story in media res, the 50s storyline is stuck in a rigid structure. The three intersecting stories of familial drama and international espionage are similarly in free fall, each a separate continuum that is loose and structureless.
I wish this was two separate seasons. I really do. Because now, instead of one fantastic Godzilla show and one middling to decent one, we have a series that comes to life only long enough to frustrate the audience. Godzilla deserves better, or, at the very least, we do.