The Human Characters in ‘Godzilla x Kong’—and the Rest of the MonsterVerse—Are Good, Actually

Dan McFadden/Courtesy of Legendary Pictures

Godzilla and King Kong have tag-teamed their way to another rescue of the worldwide box office, establishing giant-ape dominance over a rival empire (that’d be the new Ghostbusters movie, another 2024 sequel that arbitrarily includes the word “empire” in its title to make it sound more epic.) To read the reviews of Godzilla x Kong, you’d think the two titans accomplished this with little to no help from the puny humans scampering around, in diminishing numbers, underfoot. “These humans are pretty boring, more anemic than they were in the last movie,” raves Alissa Wilkinson at the New York Times. “There’s little for an actor to do in these movies but spout pseudoscience or quips,” cheers A.A. Dowd. “The human half of these movies has been their glaring weakness since the 2014 Godzilla,” applauds Alison Willmore at Vulture.

And in terms of cold hard cash plunked down at the nation’s movie theaters, perpetually imperiled despite the lack of Titans stomping above, these critics are correct. It seems unlikely that anyone paid money to see Godzilla x Kong in expectation of delighting in the presence of Rebecca Hall, Dan Stevens, or Brian Tyree Henry. It seems downright possible that many of these moviegoers did not even know these actors’ names, or if any of them also appeared in the film’s predecessor, Godzilla vs. Kong. (Rebecca Hall, who did appear in both films, sports a completely different haircut in this one, as if to throw viewers off the trail.) As Willmore points out, this has been considered a problem throughout the 10-year run of the MonsterVerse—the Warner Bros. series of American kaiju pictures in which Godzilla, Kong, and a number of other giant monsters wreak havoc on a human race that they often appear to regard as a mild nuisance at best.

Five movies over the course of a decade have certainly allowed the series to rack up an impressive roster of stars and character actors alike: Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Shea Whigham, John Goodman, Millie Bobby Brown, Alexander Skarsgård, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Zhang Ziyi, Charles Dance, plus the aforementioned Hall, Stevens, and Henry. I won’t try to make the case that all of these performers have been well-served by this material. Sally Hawkins is killed so murkily in Godzilla: King of the Monsters that it took me 20 minutes to realize she had died; Zhang Ziyi played twins in that same movie, only to be unceremoniously cut out of Godzilla vs. Kong, a movie where Lance Reddick has about two lines. Anyone truly searching for MonsterVerse entries where the humans get equal or greater weight might do better turning to TV; Monarch: Legacy of Monsters wove a reasonably involving love triangle across its first 10-episode season, and the little-discussed Netflix animated series Skull Island has the most consistently likable and involving human storyline of the whole franchise.

But as far as franchise movies utilizing overqualified, live-action, movie-level actors go, the MonsterVerse has made better use of its humans than most are admitting. The worst offender is probably still the first and most acclaimed entry, the beautifully made 2014 Godzilla, which inspired critic David Ehrlich to make a case for it as a “post-human” blockbuster. That one uses Cranston and Binoche as the human-scale hooks early on, and never really follows up on their commitment. It’s not that Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are disengaged from the material so much as the material dwarfs them by design, as monsters with a comparably small amount of screen time nevertheless loom large—literally—over the proceedings.

Subsequent entries, however, have some major human highlights, starting with John C. Reilly in Kong: Skull Island, where he plays a World War II pilot who has spent several decades marooned on the titular location before he’s rediscovered by a band of visiting humans. In a cast stacked with past and future Marvel players (Jackson, Hiddleston, Larson), Reilly is doing a cracked version of Captain America, a soldier who probably wishes he had been frozen in time rather than killing it on an island. Instead of waking up with a well-preserved sense of resolve, he’s spent the intervening years learning the ways of Kong and losing his mind. Reilly is so good at playing the tragedy and comedy of his situation simultaneously that he puts the canned quips of so many lesser-tier superheroes to shame; he should teach a seminar over at Disney on how to toss off a self-referential joke in a way that sounds both natural and hilarious, as he does when imparting lore about the island’s “Skullcrawlers” (a nasty species he names because, naturally, it sounds cool).

Bradly Whitford continues the comic-relief tradition in King of the Monsters (albeit with less poignance), which also features strong performances from Vera Farmiga as a grieving mother driven to monster-unleashing madness and Ken Watanabe as a scientist for Monarch (the monster-tracking organization that serves as a connective thread throughout these five movies and two TV shows) who feels improbable but genuine protective instincts toward Godzilla. The human stuff in these movies cannot be so bad, so forgettable, if it gave us Watanabe, in the 2014 Godzilla, speaking the instantly immortal line, “Let them fight”?

Yet Godzilla x Kong does, at times, feel like an admission of defeat in this area: The human cast is much reduced from Godzilla vs. Kong, and there are multiple wordless sequences following Kong through his adventures in the Hollow Earth, the deep-underground lost world where he makes a lonely home for himself, searching for more of his kind. That Kong has bonded with Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a hearing-impaired native from his surface-Earth stomping ground of Skull Island, seems to provide little solace. The girl can still communicate with the big ape through sign language, as established in Godzilla vs. Kong, but she’s growing up and—as the last of her tribe—dealing with her own sense of displacement, cutely and cornily parallel to Kong’s.

I cannot claim that Jia’s story amounts to a whole lot in Godzilla x Kong. The turmoil it generates within her adoptive mother Ilene (Hall) turns out to be largely illusory and Kong seems more interested in bonding with the diminutive ape he discovers in a hidden community deeper into the Hollow Earth. Meanwhile, Monarch can monitor Godzilla all they want, but he pays humans little heed, “saving” humanity by beating the holy hell out of other monsters before curling up within the Colosseum in Rome for a little nap. Even his frenemy Kong is too humanoid for his liking; Godzilla only really listens to Mothra, described here in deeply satisfying terms as “Queen of the Monsters.” She also has goddess-like properties, suggesting that for the world’s most famous Titan, God and country are the same thing.

So yes, a major pleasure of Godzilla x Kong is that it, too, is largely unconcerned with the quartet of humans running around and explaining the plot, a duty performed by humans in Godzilla movies for more than half a century. Yet these humans are entirely necessary for these movies to work as more traditional Universal-style monster pictures, where we must be made aware of how these monstrous figures resemble humanity – and the places where they dramatically depart from that familiar person-shaped framework. I’m not sure I buy these MonsterVerse movies as “post-human” so much as form following function: Just as we see moments of soulfully lonely bachelor, weary old man, and powerhouse professional wrestler in Kong, and just as we read flashes of genuine malevolence or crankiness in the unknowable visage of Godzilla, we must, too, catch glimpses of humanity in the tinier beings essentially at their mercy, rather than a full portrait. Focusing on them with genuine attention and depth (as in the recent and wonderful Toho film Godzilla Minus One) shifts the story into another realm—one where the humans get the nuance and the monsters are more purely horrific.

In that sense, this series has a keen understanding of how to use its human actors, and in what measure: The quick-hit character actors that bring personality to the margins of Kong: Skull Island, even if their individual characteristics remain a mystery; the Roland Emmerich-style funny-crackpot-who’s-actually-right played by Brian Tyree Henry in the most recent two movies, updating an archetype just enough to place the movie in the 2020s; the ’80s kids-on-an-adventure determination of Millie Bobby Brown in King of the Monsters and Godzilla vs. Kong; the Insta-ready faux-period gravitas of Brie Larson in Kong: Skull Island, conveying both moral seriousness and practical lostness. The MonsterVerse doesn’t bother with the tired humans-are-the-real-monsters construction; instead, it uses humans as imperfect vehicles for attempting to understand the monsters that are unavoidable yet emotionally elusive. No wonder Monarch, the massive company at the center of the series, can’t harness its infrastructure to actually stop Godzilla from wrecking shit.

The movies’ quick-brushstroke strategies don’t always pay off; without the two kids that balanced him out in Godzilla vs. Kong, for example, Henry veers too far into the Emmerich zone for his own good in GxK, hamming and yammering without landing a lot of laughs. Yet the movies themselves never go Full Emmerich—shoehorning cornball, faux-uplifting story arcs into the monster action, forever chasing the retro-disaster kitsch of Independence Day—nor do they, for that matter, fall into the smarmy trap of the worst superhero movies, expressing humanity via the deadening rhythm of punch-up quips. There are a few of those, sure, but Dan Stevens (to pick an example from GxK) isn’t funny because of wisecracks; he’s funny because of the heedless daredevil enthusiasm he brings to his role as boutique dentist to the Giant Monster All-Stars. His knowledge of his place on the cosmic scale of monster mashing becomes endearing, and the movie understands that humanity’s collective necessity can feel, well, a bit negotiable, in film and in life. Maybe you look at the MonsterVerse and see a bunch of famous faces failing to draw attention from the carny-barker spectacle of monster smackdowns. I see supporting actors, exhibiting charismatic humility in the face of their awesome co-stars.

Originally Appeared on GQ