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How Legendary’s Godzilla Films Honor Their Monsters’ Legacies

Godzilla is arguably the most famous movie monster of all time. He’s an international star who’s been around for almost seventy years and he’s not showing any signs of slowing down. So when Legendary decided to take a crack at a second American reboot, they had a tough road ahead of them. For their version to be successful, they needed to give it their own unique twist and set it apart from previous incarnations, but they still had to capture the spirit of Godzilla and his ample stable of enemies and allies.

In my opinion, they totally nailed it. Unlike Sony’s failed attempt in the 1990s, both Godzilla and Godzilla: King of the Monsters tell new and exciting stories that stay true to the monsters we’ve known and loved for decades. These films update Godzilla, Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan for a new generation, but they still retain the core traits that have anchored these kaiju in the minds and hearts of fans all across the world. They creatively honor the legacies of their main monsters in some really cool and unexpected ways, so let’s talk about each of these classic behemoths and look at how Legendary’s Godzilla movies pay tribute to them and their roles in the Godzilla mythos.

Godzilla

Godzilla walking out to sea

Let’s start with the big one. In my experience, when most people think of Godzilla movies, two things come to mind: bad dubbing and cheesy rubber suits. At best, non-fans might enjoy these films in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 kind of way, but they don’t consider them serious works of art.

However, if you know Godzilla’s history, you know that’s only half the picture. Sure, a bunch of his movies are just big cheese fests (especially from the late 1960s and 1970s), and the dubbed versions of his films do sometimes look pretty hilarious, but at his core, Godzilla is about more than just dumb fun. In his original film, he was a metaphor for the dangers of nuclear weapons, and the story was very somber and serious. He brought an important message with his destruction, and Toho’s subsequent Godzilla movies often followed suit.

Sometimes they stuck with the theme of nuclear weapons, but as the series progressed, the films often tackled other subjects too. For example, Godzilla vs. Hedorah was all about the dangers of pollution, and Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. highlighted the importance of respecting the dead and letting them lie in peace.

This is an essential part of Godzilla’s legacy, and Legendary’s 2014 Godzilla honors it in a great way. While the movie isn’t about nuclear weapons, pollution, or any other topic that Toho’s films ever addressed, it does have an important message for us. In Dr. Serizawa’s famous “let them fight” mini-monologue, he says: “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around,” and that’s essentially what the movie is about.

When the MUTOs show up and wreak havoc, humanity is helpless to stop them. Nothing the military does works against these behemoths, and Serizawa suggests that their only hope is to let nature take its course. He believes Godzilla is nature’s way of restoring the balance the MUTOs have thrown out of whack, and all the human race can do is watch and hope he’s right.

None of the Japanese Godzilla movies ever dealt with this theme, but it’s clearly faithful to the spirit of those films. Despite all our technological advances and scientific knowledge, we would still do well to heed Dr. Serizawa’s admonition and foster a healthy sense of humility in the face of mother nature’s immense and often uncontrollable power, so this is a worthy continuation of Godzilla’s legacy of being more than just cheesy kaiju fun.

Ghidorah

Ghidorah standing triumphantly on a volcano

Ever since his introduction in 1964’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Ghidorah has always been Godzilla’s archnemesis. Godzilla has fought him more often than any other kaiju, and he’s usually needed a bit of help from his friends to emerge victorious, especially in the Showa era. To take just a few examples, in Ghidorah’s first movie it took the combined might of Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan to defeat him, and in Destroy All Monsters he faced off against every kaiju on earth all at once.

In the Heisei and Millennium eras, the dynamic between these two monsters underwent a few changes as Toho experimented a bit with some of its classic characters, but the studio reaffirmed Ghidorah’s place at the top of the kaiju food chain in its 2004 cinematic homage to the Godzilla franchise, Godzilla: Final Wars. In that movie, Godzilla went around the world fighting every monster on earth, and at the end of it all, Ghidorah was basically the “boss” he had to face after he had defeated all the other kaiju.

With that background, it’s not tough to see how Godzilla: King of the Monsters honors Ghidorah’s place in the Godzilla mythos. In this film, Ghidorah and Godzilla are mortal enemies, and in the prehistoric days when the titans ruled the land, they had a deadly rivalry for the status of top kaiju.

Their battle was somehow cut short all those eons ago, but after Ghidorah is broken out of his icy prison, these two behemoths rekindle their age old enmity and duke it out once more for the right to rule the other monsters. They fight multiple times throughout the movie, and just like in the original films, Godzilla can’t defeat Ghidorah on his own. Only after he gets some energy boosts from the humans and Mothra is he finally able to kill his ancient enemy and take his rightful place as king of the monsters.

This is obviously quite different from the way the Toho movies framed the Godzilla-Ghidorah dynamic, but it’s still very much in the same spirit. Godzilla: King of the Monsters retains the fact of their archrivalry while reimagining the details of that relationship, and it’s all the better for it. The movie puts a creative twist on this beloved Godzilla trope, so it manages to craft an entirely new story while still giving us fans exactly what we want.

Mothra

A girl reaching out to touch Mothra in her larval stage

From Ghidorah, the ultimate kaiju villain, we now turn to Mothra, the consummate kaiju hero. She has a relatively small role in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but the movie pays tribute to her legacy and her history with just as much love and respect as it does Ghidorah’s.

In this version of the mythos, she and Godzilla share a symbiotic relationship, and although the exact nature of that relationship is never really explained, it comes to the fore at two key points in the narrative. First, after Godzilla gets hit by the oxygen destroyer and everybody thinks he’s dead, Mothra finds the spot where he’s lying at the bottom of the ocean, and the two monsters call out to each other. This allows the human characters to find Godzilla and help him recover his strength by detonating a nuclear bomb right by his resting place. Then, in the film’s final battle, Mothra joins Godzilla to fight by his side, and she ultimately sacrifices herself and gives him her life energy so he can kill Ghidorah once and for all.

At first glance, that may not seem quite like the Mothra we know and love from the Toho movies. While she’s always been the kaiju embodiment of goodness and self-sacrifice, this film takes her connection to Godzilla in a completely new and unprecedented direction. Sure, they’ve often been allies, but they were never anything more than that. There was never any sort of symbiosis between them, so that’s clearly a departure from the way these characters have traditionally been portrayed.

However, I would suggest that this change doesn’t come entirely out of the blue. It’s still a creative tribute to their shared legacy, but we need to change our perspective a bit to see how. Instead of looking at it literally, we have to consider it on a meta level, and when we do that, we’ll find that it’s actually a great metaphor for Mothra and Godzilla’s cinematic history as a whole.

No other monster has appeared in the Godzilla franchise more times than Mothra, and whenever these two are in a movie, they’re always a real treat to watch. Whether they’re fighting with or against each other, people just love seeing them share the screen, and their symbiotic relationship in Godzilla: King of the Monsters reflects that chemistry in a really cool and unexpected way. They work closely together in this film just like they’ve worked really well together throughout their almost sixty-year history, so as unconventional as it may be, the movie’s radical reimagining of their relationship is actually a very fitting and very creative homage to their shared cinematic legacy.

Rodan

Rodan seen from the window of a fighter plane

If Mothra’s role in Godzilla: King of the Monsters is relatively small, then Rodan’s is just one step up from a glorified cameo. Sure, he looks great and does some cool stuff, but he doesn’t have much personality or backstory. He’s basically just a follower who serves whichever titan happens to be the alpha at the time, and his loyalty changes multiple times throughout the film. When he first appears, he flies right up to Ghidorah and tries to fight him, but when he realizes that he can’t win, he joins the three-headed beast and essentially becomes his minion. Then, when Godzilla finally kills Ghidorah and takes his rightful place as the top kaiju, Rodan switches sides again and bows down to this newly crowned king.

At first glance, it’s easy to think that Rodan gets the short end of the stick here. He just does whatever he’s told, and he never really gets a chance to stand on his own two feet. However, if you know his cinematic history, this is actually par for the course with him. He always played second fiddle to the real headliners like Godzilla and Ghidorah, and he could be good, bad, or neutral depending on what role the movie needed him to fill. For example, since Godzilla needed a sidekick to help fight Ghidorah in Invasion of Astro-Monster, Toho called on Rodan to play the part, and when they needed a convenient plot device to boost Godzilla’s power a bit in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, they used Rodan for that as well.

To use a baseball analogy, he’s always been kind of a “utility monster” who can fit anywhere on the narrative field, and that’s exactly what he does in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. When the movie needs him to be Ghidorah’s lackey and fight Mothra, he does that, and when it needs him to switch sides and acknowledge Godzilla as king of the monsters, he does that too. He pretty much plays the same role in this movie that he always played in the Toho films, so his second-tier, flip-flopper status here is actually a fitting way to honor his legacy and his decades-old relationship with Godzilla.

Creatively Honoring the Godzilla Mythos

Like I said in the intro, there’s a ton more we could say about all four of these classic monsters, but even with the little bit that we did look at, one thing is crystal clear: Legendary did a great job with these movies. Godzilla and Godzilla: King of the Monsters reimagine their four main kaiju and their relationships with one another in ways that are both familiar and fresh, so they pay fitting tribute to the monsters’ shared cinematic legacies while still thrilling fans with new and exciting stories that we haven’t seen before.

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JP Nunez

Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today. He blogs at Embrace Your Fears.

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