Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is grown-up, character-driven television wrapped in a monster-movie shell. There’s a chance that the film franchise the series is connected to—Legendary’s MonsterVerse, which started with 2014’s Godzilla remake and worked its way to Godzilla vs. Kong three films later in 2021—will alienate the audience who would most appreciate it. The MonsterVerse has only gotten dumber since 2104, with titanic beasties showing up to wreck skyscrapers and wrestle bigger, badder monsters. But here’s the good news: this 10-part series has more in common with Lost than Godzilla vs. Kong, and if that sounds interesting to you there’s no need to catch up on the movies first. You can climb onboard here—in defiance of the big bets the Titans of Industry have placed on interlocking multimedia releases—and when you’re finished, feel free to jump right back off.
Monarch is a mystery spread out across two time frames and three generations. In the 1950s, Lt. Lee Shaw (Wyatt Russell), Dr. Keiko Mira (Mari Yamamoto), and Dr. Billy Randa (Anders Holm, and John Goodman’s character from Kong: Skull Island if that matters to you) investigate the first evidence that our planet is home to a secret race of giant, radioactive monsters. In the 2010s, twentysomethings Cate (Anna Sawai), her brother Kentaro (Ren Watabe), and May (Kiersey Clemons) are swept up in a global conspiracy in the aftermath of a Godzilla attack, and turn to the retired Col. Lee Shaw (now played by Wyatt’s father, Kurt Russell) for help. The real mystery, however, is about what happened in the intervening decades, which Cate and Kentaro’s father Hiroshi spent working for the shady Monarch organization, from whom he was hiding secrets of his own.
Showrunner Chris Black, who developed the series along with celebrated comics writer Matt Fraction, uses Monarch’s non-linear structure to create an interesting sense of negative temporal space. The opening episode gives us the beginning of the 2010s storyline but the climax of its 1950s counterpart, then filling in the backstories of both groups of characters over the course of the season. Characters are developed both forward and backward, which gives the audience new information to digest while also whetting the appetite for whatever pieces of the puzzle are still missing. These missing pieces are personified in Hiroshi (Takehiro Hira), the link between the two storylines who exists only in fuzzy memories and half-redacted documents. Though Hiroshi’s work has global implications, the heart of our story is on Cate and Kentaro’s desire to learn more about the man himself, the father who, it turns out, neither of them really knew.
The other show’s other bridge is Lee Shaw, portrayed at different ages by father and son Kurt Russell and Wyatt Russell in a bit of brilliant stunt casting. In the 1950s, Wyatt plays Shaw as a gruff but benign soldier who learns to loosen up in the company of the brave and brilliant Dr. Keiko Mira and excitable Dr. Billy Randa. This trio’s chemistry is terrific, instantly convincing as old friends with a tangled history, which we get to see filled in over the course of the series. Kurt’s older Shaw is vibrant, charming, a stew of warm memories and regrets, a strong application of the actor’s particular star power. And yet, he doesn’t overpower his young co-stars, who do not immediately impress but get more to chew on as the season progresses. As their histories unfold and their secrets are revealed, their conflicts and relationships become as genuine as anything you’ll see in a drama that does not involve giant monsters.
And what about those giant monsters? Though viewers hoping for a lot of Titan screen time may be disappointed, the kaiju action is very deliberately portioned such that the monsters retain their mystery and menace. The Titans (such as Godzilla or Kong, but more often new or less famous monsters) are depicted as forces of nature, walking/swimming/flying disasters for the characters to survive and never the stars of the show. They’re nearly always viewed from the perspective of the tiny, vulnerable people beneath them rather than in glamor or hero shots, and there’s just enough of them in each episode. As someone who spent the bulk of Godzilla vs. Kong and all of King of the Monsters jeering at the dull human protagonists to get off the screen and make way for the apes and lizards, I felt no such impulse here. It’s the first work in this franchise since 2014’s Godzilla that I’d endorse as actually good, rather than just a good time.