Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla vs. Kong, directed by Adam Wingard, may not hit HBO Max or U.S. theaters until this Wednesday, but it already opened in 38 markets overseas this past weekend, setting box office records for pandemic-era releases — “the biggest debut for a Hollywood film in China since 2019,” swoons the Los Angeles Times. So no matter which of the titular Titans triumphs in the actual movie, the only Titan that seems to matter to the American movie business — the flailing, repetitive, play-it-safe studio system — can, at long last, Covid-induced theater closures be damned, count itself a winner for once.
The timing is almost uncanny. No matter when it actually ends — it could be an Antarctic winter — the end of the pandemic was always destined to be a Hot Girl Summer, and by necessity a Summer Movie Season, because that is what happens when people feel cooped up for too long, and when studios have been sitting on their billion-dollar investments for just as long. People miss their public pleasures, like checking their texts during movies and coughing indoors without being suspected of biological warfare.
So Godzilla vs. Kong is arriving just in time for a movie called Godzilla vs. Kong. What better time for a blockbuster to knock us sideways with seat-rattling, city-crumbling displays of studio money than at the precise moment that theaters are slowly reopening, vaccines being eked out, spring waiting just backstage for its curtain call? On that front, Godzilla vs. Kong is the win its makers need it to be. It is very much one of those “You Need to See This in a Theater”movies that critics are always carping about, even if this is almost never the kind of movie they have in mind. Certainly it’s the kind of movie that comes to mind for most people. The movie is loud, full of butt-jiggling roars and whatnot. The mo-cap special effects, which make even Godzilla look like it has a soul in there somewhere, look really expensive. Also: Godzilla fights King Kong! And it really does play out in that order, the one attacking the other. The Kong of this movie is, to a point, maybe more interested in minding his own business. He is just interesting enough for the prospect of that movie — picture King Kong in a “Can I Live?” T-shirt, chilling, bothering no one — to tantalize.
But there are conflicts, to say nothing of Mecha, to engineer, and franchises to sustain, and studio investors whose coffers need replenishing — so here we are. The plot of Godzilla vs. Kong matters far less than the basic fact that it’d be a much better movie if it stuck, firmly, to its title. We don’t really need to invent labyrinthine, feebly anti-corporate, cloyingly emotional reasons for Godzilla to beat Kong’s ass (or vice versa). We don’t really need to keep cutting back to the human cast, which is headlined by Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, with some extra personality by way of Shun Oguri, Eiza González, Julian Dennison — an ensemble so large in number yet miniscule in substance that even some of the most charismatic among their ranks, such as Hall, Henry, or Bichir, can’t quite justify the numbing nothingness of their roles. “There is a sense that the less that humans meddle with stuff, the better, is a general theme,” Hall recently told the press — a statement that the Godzilla vs. Kong makes it impossible for anyone to disagree with, even if it is funny to see Eleven from Stranger Things getting chased through CGI hellscapes by scrapped dino concepts from Jurassic Park’s cutting room.
It simply cannot be avoided that Godzilla vs. King Kong is better off when it lets go of its baggage. Kong: funny guy! When he rips a beast’s head off and slurps up oodles of its psychotically green blood: that’s the good shit. When he’s chained to an aircraft carrier — fighting Godzilla with his hands effectively tied — that, too, is the good shit, all the more so for reminding us (contra the unforgivable grimness of 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters) that there is such a thing as daylight, and that Godzilla and Kong, who are not vampires, look perfectly fine destroying military warships when the sun is out.
Whereas when Kong is using sign language to emotionally signal to a deaf Māori child named Jia, played by Kaylee Hottle, it seems fair to wonder why we’re here — why we’re traipsing through infantilizing tropes of Indigenous mysticism for the sake of a King Kong movie, beyond getting to score points for representation. They, like the warm and fuzzies the film tries to dredge up, are not earned. But they’re interesting to keep track of. The facile emotional turns of so much recent franchise fare have been a little strange to behold at a distance, if not altogether inexplicable. You cannot — the logic must go — make your money back on a film that’s “just” about Godzilla and King Kong cat-fighting on a global scale, because you lose the people who care about neither, who want to be pulled in by a “good story” with a few familiar faces. No matter how ill-used those faces or mind-numbing the story; no matter how rigidly unsatisfying the formula; no matter the fact that when your movie is called Godzilla vs. Kong, you’ve already made every other Verzus battle irrelevant.
Wingard, who directed Dan Stevens in The Guest and is at minimum capable of making a satisfying genre flick with a good soundtrack, told Screencrush in 2017 that it was important to zero in on the emotions — to make people feel the things that he felt while revisiting the Fifties originals he loved as a kid. The word for that is nostalgia, but in the interview, Wingard twists it into something more encompassing. “I really want you to take those characters seriously,” he said way-back-when. “I want you to be emotionally invested, not just in the human characters, but actually in the monsters. If I had my way, I want people to really be teary-eyed at the end of the movie.” Godzilla vs. Kong is, by those standards, an indisputable win for Wingard. But only if yawns account for some of those tears.