In 2000, Bryan Singer’s X-Men signalled the start of modern Hollywood’s love affair with live action superhero films. There have been tiffs since – Spiderman 3 is a sore spot– but hits like The Dark Knight and Watchmen have made sure that this is a relationship, whether for better or for worse, that is going to continue for some time yet. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Green Lantern Corps bookend a stretch of 16 live action superhero films planned over the next three years.
Hollywood, though, seems to recognise the risk attached to saturation and has lined up a plan B – giant monster movies. In this, heavyweight production company Legendary Entertainment is leading the way. Legendary has been responsible for several superhero flicks, including Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Batman adaptations, but following the success of Pacific Rim, it is pretty sure about what the next long-term trend in Tinseltown should be. The company has acquired the rights to big screen beasts Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidorah and King Kong, and its so-called MonsterVerse franchise is already underway.
The MonsterVerse’s first instalment, 2014’s Godzilla, was spectacular if a little silly. The plot hinged on Godzilla stopping two other monsters from having sex. The MonsterVerse’s second instalment, Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts and released earlier this month, is even better. It is a clever homage to Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness on the one hand, and an enjoyable adrenalin rush on the other. This reimagining is equal parts fun and feisty.
When Peter Jackson remade King Kong as a one-off in 2005, it actually was a remake and largely followed the same storyline as the 1933 original: ambitious filmmaker Carl Denham takes unsuspecting actress Ann Darrow and others to an uncharted island with a great ape overlord. Denham then captures Kong, ferries him back to New York and promotes him as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” before he breaks free of his chains, scales and falls from the Empire State Building.
Kong: Skull Island offers a fresh take. Set in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, eccentric American government scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) enlists the help of former SAS captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and the Sky Devils, an elite helicopter squadron led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), as part of the expedition to the titular location. The group are accompanied by go-getting photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and are initially under the impression that they are on a mission in the name of geology.
That cover is blown when the helicopters are brought down by Kong, who is 100ft tall in this incarnation. The film also features the secret supernatural investigations body Monarch, which is what ties the MonsterVerse films together. John C. Reilly, meanwhile, delivers a dually comic and emotional performance as Hank Marlow, an American fighter pilot who has been stranded on Skull Island since the Second World War.
Like Godzilla before it, Kong: Skull Island provides some engaging human stories: Packard’s prejudice is an extension of his residual bloodlust from an unsuccessful war and Marlow struggles with the prospect of never meeting his son.
Legendary is set to follow Kong: Skull Island with its Godzilla sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, in March 2019, before a crossover gambit Godzilla vs. Kong in May 2020, which could either define or derail the genre. That Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice grossed $873.3m at the box office is down more to morbid curiosity than it is representative of legions of fans.
The fact is that giant monster movies, Legendary’s in particular, have matured and we’ve come a long way since Attack of the 50ft Woman or Night of the Lepus. That’s not to say that a 100ft gorilla is any more realistic as a proposition, but thanks to special effects, it does feel more real.
Still, it’s not enough to simply cite CGI over stop-motion and call it a success – see 1998’s Godzilla. Success comes through characterisation. So goodbye scream queens and cartoon-quality villainy; hello complex questions about humanity versus monstrosity.