Back in October, we wrote about the golden rules for creating a shared cinematic universe. These were sensible guidelines built around the ideas of having a guiding vision from leadership and a quality-first effort to hook moviegoers. We didn’t want another repeat of Tom Cruise’s Dark Universe on our hands. And yet, on the verge of the third entry in Legendary’s MonsterVerse (Godzilla: King of the Monsters, slated for May 2019), the studio has flouted these rules completely…to great results!
So what does their franchise-building process look like and should more studios emulate their approach? Yes and no; from the outside looking in, the MonsterVerse comes across as a happy mad dash of creativity that’s a little light on forethought.
Legendary Entertainment was founded by Thomas Tull in 2000 and he, along with a key group of associates, have produced all of the MonsterVerse films starting with 2014’s Godzilla. Yet they don’t publicly appear to be putting forth a definitive long-term game plan for this shared cinematic universe in the same way that Kevin Feige set the tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Walter Hamada is now doing for DC Films. Further confusing the matter of leadership is Legendary’s ownership situation—in 2016, Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group acquired the studio. So it’s not immediately clear who is overseeing the building blocks of the MonsterVerse at the moment (writer Max Borenstein has been credited with both screenplays thus far). Yet with two films released to date (and two more on the docket), the series has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide.
Their success so far is made all the more confounding by the divisive Godzilla. Ask 10 different viewers what they thought of Gareth Edwards’ reboot and you’ll get 10 different answers. Some complain that Godzilla was relegated to a supporting character in his own film while the human protagonists weren’t interesting enough to carry the load. Others laud the movie for its gorgeously realized set pieces and spectacle. Either way, its 66 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes pales in comparison to other successful franchise launching pads such as 2008’s Iron Man (91 percent) and this year’s Venom (85 percent). Normally, this would suggest a shaky foundation, but momentum actually seems to be growing.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ 2017 King Kong reboot, Kong: Skull Island, out-earned Godzilla and performed better across all of Rotten Tomatoes’ metrics. The forthcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters, meanwhile, is widely considered to boast some of the best trailers of the year and fans are antsy for 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong. In a blasé sort of manner, Legendary has set up its interwoven franchise by not following the playbooks of rival studios. Aside from the introduction of Monarch, a secret government agency first seen in Godzilla that tracks these mighty beasts, the MonsterVerse has largely eschewed traditional shared cinematic universe continuity building. There isn’t one set tone and style to be followed and there aren’t entire chapters of individual films dedicated to setting up the next movie.
Godzilla was a decent thriller with lasting imagery, Kong: Skull Island was a gonzo action comedy prequel, and Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters looks like an otherworldly epic. All three boast different directors who bring different sensibilities to the big budget extravaganzas. The colorful and varied menu has proved increasingly appealing as opposed to, say, the X-Men franchise which has grown stale under Bryan Singer and Simon Kinberg, or Star Wars, with some fans lukewarm on the idea of J.J. Abrams returning for Episode IX (not us though).
So what’s the takeaway from all this? It’s hard to say. On one hand, Legendary’s MonsterVerse isn’t building itself up in the expected and accepted manner of traditional shared cinematic universe construction. On the other, that wildcard mentality seems to be working. Each filmmaker has been given considerable creative freedom and none of the entries come across as vanilla or formulaic. That free-flowing approach appears to be an effective counterweight to the rigid producer-driven model of the MCU and Star Wars and an (atomic) breath of fresh air to audiences.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters will open in theaters on May 31, 2019.