Navigating the Godzilla Franchise

Getting into Godzilla movies can be tough. The franchise began almost 70 years ago, and it’s still going strong after more than 30 films. On top of that, it’s been rebooted so many times even fans sometimes have trouble keeping all the timelines and continuities straight, so it’s hands down one of the most confusing series in all of genre cinema.

But it’s not impossible to navigate. There is a clear structure to it, and once you understand that structure, it actually becomes fairly easy to figure out where any given movie falls in the overall franchise. So to that end, I’d like to take you through all the ins and outs of this classic series, and as we go along, I’ll also give you a few recommendations to help you get started in your Godzilla fandom.

The Four Eras

Godzilla and Minya

Let’s start with the overarching structure of the franchise. Like all long-running Japanese kaiju series (we’ll get to the American films in a bit), Godzilla movies are divided into eras. I wish I could say each era is its own distinct timeline, but it’s not quite that simple. These eras are mainly just chronological divisions, and there’s no real correlation between them and the franchise’s numerous timelines. Some timelines cross over multiple eras, and some of the eras have more than one timeline.

So what are these different eras? There are four of them, and all but one are named after the Japanese emperor who reigned when the movies were released. First, we have the Showa era, which ran from the original Godzilla film, Godzilla (heavily edited and released in the United States as Godzilla, King of the Monsters), to Terror of Mechagodzilla in 1975.

After that, the franchise took a nearly decade-long break, and it came back in 1984 with The Return of Godzilla (heavily edited and released in the United States as Godzilla 1985). This was the start of the Heisei era, and this era ended in 1995 with Godzilla vs. Destoroyah

Next, there came the Millennium era (as you might’ve guessed, this is the one that wasn’t named after a Japanese emperor), which started in 1999 with Godzilla 2000 and ran until Godzilla: Finals Wars in 2004. After that, the franchise went on hiatus once again, and this time the break lasted 12 years. The next Japanese Godzilla film, Shin Godzilla, came out in 2016, and this was the start of the Reiwa era, which is currently still ongoing.

On top of all that, there are also the American Godzilla movies, but these don’t really fall into the “era” structure. They’re pretty much their own thing, and since there aren’t that many of them (there are only four so far), they don’t need a complicated system to organize them the way the Japanese films do.

The Showa Era

Godzilla standing tall

That’s the basic structure of the franchise, so now let’s take a look at each era in a bit more depth, starting with the Showa era. Here are the movies it includes:

Godzilla (AKA Godzilla, King of the Monsters)
Godzilla Raids Again (AKA Gigantis, the Fire Monster)
King Kong vs. Godzilla
Mothra vs. Godzilla (AKA Godzilla vs. The Thing)
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster
Invasion of Astro-Monster (AKA Godzilla vs. Monster Zero)
Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (AKA Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster)
Son of Godzilla
Destroy All Monsters
All Monsters Attack (AKA Godzilla’s Revenge)
Godzilla vs. Hedorah (AKA Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster)
Godzilla vs. Gigan (AKA Godzilla on Monster Island)
Godzilla vs. Megalon
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla
Terror of Mechagodzilla

This is the longest era in terms of both time (a bit over 20 years) and the number of films (15), so as you might expect, it’s also the most diverse. It has some of the best Godzilla movies ever made as well as some of the absolute worst, and it also spans the tonal gamut from super serious to completely ridiculous.

For example, the original film is a very somber metaphor for the horrors of nuclear warfare, Godzilla vs. Hedorah is basically the cinematic version of an acid trip, and All Monsters Attack is an unabashed kids movie. There’s simply no such thing as a stereotypical Showa Godzilla movie, so more than any other era, this one really proves that the whole “era” system is about chronology more than anything else.

As far as continuity goes, the Showa era is a complete mess. Some of the movies, like Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again, are definitely continuous, but most of them have no clear connection to any of the others. At best, the characters usually know about monsters that have been introduced in previous films, but that’s about it. For the most part, the characters are completely different from movie to movie (often with the same actors playing different people!), and the storylines have nothing to do with one another, so the Showa era is made up of a few distinct mini-timelines plus a whole bunch of more-or-less standalone films.

Probably the most interesting thing about these movies is the evolution of Godzilla himself. In the original film, he’s clearly a bad guy. He’s a force of nature that the human characters have to figure out how to defeat, and he stays that way for a few more films. But then in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, he begins to change.

In that movie, Mothra convinces him and Rodan to help her defend earth from the villainous King Ghidorah, and in subsequent films, he slowly makes the turn into a full-on good guy. So by the time the Showa era ended with Terror of Mechagodzilla, he had done a complete 180, becoming humanity’s only hope against evil monsters like Gigan and Mechagodzilla.

So which Showa Godzilla movies would I recommend the most? Obviously, you need to watch the original Godzilla. That’s an absolute must, and in my opinion, it’s the best film in the entire franchise. On top of that one, I’d also recommend Mothra vs. Godzilla; Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster; and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla

The Hesiei Era

Godzilla looking menacing

Next, let’s talk about arguably the best era in the Godzilla franchise, the Heisei era. While its best movies may not be quite as good as the best Showa films, it’s at least much more consistent than any other era. Here are the movies it includes:

The Return of Godzilla (AKA Godzilla 1985)
Godzilla vs. Biollante
Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah
Godzilla vs. Mothra
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II
Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla
Godzilla vs. Destoroyah

In terms of both continuity and tone, the Heisei era is hands down the easiest era to navigate. These seven films comprise a single timeline, and they all have a very similar tone. The first one, The Return of Godzilla, is a direct sequel to the original film from 1954, and it brings the franchise back to its dark, realistic (well, as realistic as a kaiju movie can be, at least) roots by stripping Godzilla of his heroic status and making him a deadly force of nature once again. After that, the other movies of this era all follow suit, so they continue this same timeline and feature a more-or-less dark and realistic tone as well.

That being said, these films do slowly turn Godzilla into an anti-hero, so by the time Godzilla vs. Destoroyah comes around, he’s pretty much a good guy again. However, unlike the Showa films, he’s only a hero by default in this era. See, in these movies, Godzilla never consciously tries to defend humanity the way he does in some of the Showa films. Instead, he just goes up against monsters that pose much bigger threats to the human race than he does, so while he’s often the lesser of two evils, he’s still a destructive force that the world needs to keep an eye on.

So which Heisei Godzilla movies would I recommend? Like I said, this era is by far the most consistent, so if you’re a fan of giant monsters, you can probably watch just about any of them and you’ll have a good time (except Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla…that one is terrible). But if you want the cream of the Heisei crop, I’d suggest checking out Godzilla vs. Biollante, Godzilla vs. Mothra, and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah.

The Millennium Era

Godzilla fighting Orga

Now we come to arguably the worst era of the Godzilla franchise. To be fair, the Reiwa era might actually take that crown, but since it’s still ongoing, it’s tough to evaluate it as a whole. So of the three eras that are done, the Millennium era is definitely the worst. Here are the films that make it up:

Godzilla 2000
Godzilla vs. Megaguirus
Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack
Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla
Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.
Godzilla: Final Wars

After the much-welcome simplicity of the Heisei era, the Millennium era is somewhat of a return to the utter chaos of the Showa films. Except for Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and its sequel Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S., none of these movies have anything to do with one another. Instead, they’re all either standalone films or direct sequels to the 1954 original, and that’s both a blessing and a curse.

It allows these movies to reinvent the Godzilla mythology in new and interesting ways without being beholden to the previous films, but it also gives the filmmakers behind these stories an excuse to be lazy and just rehash monsters and plot points we’ve seen multiple times before. The Millennium era has both kinds of movies, but unfortunately, the second type is far more common. Of the six films in this series, four of them feature monsters we’ve seen in numerous other movies, and one of them, Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S., even reuses the exact ending of Mothra vs. Godzilla.

So on the whole, this era is pretty forgettable, but there is one bright spot in it: Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. This is one of the best films in the entire franchise, and it puts a really unique spin on all three of its titular kaiju (but especially Godzilla and Ghidorah). It’s an absolute must-watch for any giant monster fan, so if you want to dip your toes into Godzilla’s Millennium era, this is definitely the movie to watch.

The Reiwa Era

Godzilla shooting atomic breath from his dorsal plates

Next, we come to the Reiwa era, the one we’re currently in. It began with the 2016 gem Shin Godzilla, and it also includes a standalone trilogy of animated films: Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, Godzilla: City of the Edge of Battle, and Godzilla: The Planet Eater.

Like I said before, this is arguably the worst era so far in the franchise, and that’s entirely due to the animated trilogy. They’re three of the most boring Godzilla movies ever made, and the third one is especially bad. While they have some cool monster action, it’s nowhere near enough to outweigh their poor characters and lackluster stories, so unless you’re a hardcore completist, I would recommend staying as far away from these films as possible.

Instead, if you want to watch something from the Reiwa era, check out Shin Godzilla. It’s a complete reboot of the character, so unlike a lot of the other one-offs, it’s not even connected to the original film. Instead, it retells the story of humanity’s first encounter with Godzilla, and it reimagines his mythology in some really creative ways. To be honest, I don’t think all of the movie’s new ideas entirely work, but most of them do, and I at least have to applaud the filmmakers for taking some bold swings and trying something different. This is one of the best movies in the entire franchise, so as bad as the animated trilogy is, I still have high hopes for the future of the Reiwa era.

The American Films

Godzilla walking out to sea

Last but not least, we have the American Godzilla films, and we can break these down into two main categories. First, there’s the much-maligned 1998 film Godzilla, which most hardcore fans have pretty much disowned. To be fair, I think it’s a fun enough kaiju romp, but even I have to admit that it’s not a real Godzilla movie.

The film just strayed too far from the traditional Godzilla mythology, so it ended up creating an entirely new kaiju that has next to nothing in common with the true king of the monsters. For example, this creature has no atomic breath, it’s easily harmed by normal military weapons, and it runs away from its attackers rather than towards them. That’s nothing like the real Godzilla, so this movie is part of the franchise in name only.

In contrast, when Legendary Pictures tried their hand at the character almost two decades later, they absolutely nailed him. Their MonsterVerse films use state-of-the-art CGI to craft a Godzilla that’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and I love it. Sure, I’m still a huge fan of the old suitmation movies, but seeing Godzilla move and fight like a real animal is nothing short of breathtaking. It’s everything I wanted the 1998 film to be, so if you want to check out the American take on Godzilla, don’t bother with that first movie. Watch Godzilla (2014), Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Godzilla vs. Kong instead, and if you like great kaiju action, you won’t be disappointed.

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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.

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