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Legacy of Monsters review – casting Kurt Russell was utterly inspired

November 17th, 2023

Photograph: Apple

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters brings to TV the kaiju, giant monsters who have rampaged across cinema screens to great financial – if not always critical – success since Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla reincarnated the most famous of them all. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has WandaVision, Jessica Jones, Loki, Ms Marvel, She-Hulk and many more, so why shouldn’t the titans of Legendary Pictures’ Monsterverse have a crack at televisual colonisation? Lo, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters was born.

The 10-episode series runs along a split timeline, with a trio of young characters in each, united by a rare piece of brilliantly successful stunt casting. One strand is set in 2015, a year after Godzilla laid waste to San Francisco, which is still full of ruins and temporary housing. In it, the world is getting to grips with the fact that giant lizards are real. We meet the first of our modern-day trio, Cate (Anna Sawai of Pachinko and Giri/Haji), in Tokyo. She is a schoolteacher who was on the Golden Gate Bridge when Godzilla took against it in his final setpiece the year before. Tokyo now has decontamination processes for international visitors (in case monsters are caused by parasites), clearly marked escape routes, evacuation protocols, drills and public information films playing in the background. In addition to the beast’s historical role – as a symbol of nuclear horrors, capitalist evil, cold war paranoia and climate crisis – it now takes on the post-pandemic mantle of representing the violence that dwells in the human heart and the yearning for a convulsion to upend reality.

Cate is visiting an apartment in Tokyo that her father owned, a fact she discovered only after his death. It turns out to contain a second family of his, equally unknown to her. She and her half-brother, Kentaro (Ren Watabe), set out to discover more about their father, a workaholic who was away from both families most of the time, which makes you wonder why he bothered with either except as a plot device to spark an investigation. And what does that investigation reveal? That he had ties to a secret organisation known as Monarch. The pair enlist Kentaro’s resentful ex-girlfriend, May, the statutory genius hipster-hacker, to help them when their search of Daddy’s office reveals a stash of cassette tapes that only someone familiar with ancient technology can decode.

Park that. Let’s head back to the 1950s now, where the secondary timeline’s trio comprises army lieutenant Lee Shaw (Wyatt Russell) and two cryptozoologists he is protecting, Keiko (Mari Yamamoto) and Bill Randa (Anders Holm), as they follow radiation trails through the Manila jungle in search of a monstery ground zero. They are the founders-to-be of Monarch. What is Monarch? “It’s like the CIA, but for Godzilla,” one character explains later. Or, if you prefer a more detached take: it’s like Shield, but for the Monsterverse. Beyond that, however, it is not clear what the organisation now does. It seems to have gone underground, but whether this is because it is working for the good of humanity or for the bad should be made clearer more quickly than it is in the episodes available for review.

Still, the past is fun – lots of Indiana Jones-type derring-do, plus the discovery of a nursery full of squishy glowing eggs from which pincered baby nightmares will soon be skittering, plus oilskin bags flung into oceans. There is also Shaw’s unrequited love for Keiko, who has eyes only for Bill, when she can tear them away from her Geiger counter and monster-sampling kit.

The present, alas, is not such fun. Clearly trying to avoid the weakness common to monster films by placing more weight on the human characters, the show has succeeded only in giving them more time rather than more personality or complexity that might make up for the dearth of kaiju action.

It does, however, have Kurt Russell – Wyatt’s dad. They have similar faces, proven by a fadeout from a photo of one into the living other. Kurt is the present-day Lieutenant Shaw, and the actor has lost none of his old-school movie star charisma. Once he arrives, the modern-day scenes get a sorely needed lift as he sells the bejesus out of every line. If you can’t banish the sense that the story isn’t adding up to much, or that things shouldn’t feel this slow in a show that dashes in and out of eras and countries, sports kaiju and has a bountiful stock of myth, legend and IP to draw on, it won’t be for the lack of trying on the part of Russell Sr.

• Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is on Apple TV+

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