Before any big title fight, there is anticipation in the air; crowds buzzing with excitement, gamblers rapidly placing bets as the odds shift back and forth, and analysts debating the merits and flaws of both combatants. It’s one of the joys of combat sports – the buildup. The hype. It’s a feeling that films don’t quite capture. Sure, there is intense excitement before a new blockbuster debuts but it doesn’t have the same gleeful banter between opposing fans, the heated debate over who will emerge as the winner, and the chest-thumping tribalism of rooting on a favorite fighter.
Hollywood has tried to capture this feeling before in the buildup to other “versus” films, where different franchise mainstays squared off against one another, but it never really captured the vibe of actual anticipation for a big fight. With Godzilla VS. Kong, however, the hype has been there. Whether it’s due to the fact that both King Kong and Godzilla are baked into the cultural consciousness after decades of film appearances, or that the movie is premiering simultaneously in theaters and on the HBO Max streaming service has caused interest to be higher among casual fans, people on social media seem genuinely invested in the film, and the actual outcome of the titular brawl between these two movie monster titans. Trending hashtags, memes, and lengthy posts of people declaring themselves on one side over the other have been steady since the first trailers for the film appeared online. So, has all the anticipation been worth it? Was the hype justified?
To begin to talk about Godzilla VS. Kong, we have to set the scene for where the two titans are at as the story begins. It’s been three years since Godzilla vanquished Ghidora and he’s been mostly dormant. Kong is still on Skull Island, which has now been closed off as a sort of “nature preserve” for the now much older (and bigger) King Kong. Kong realizes he’s being held there though and is growing increasingly agitated at that fact. Before long, Godzilla has suddenly re-emerged and randomly attacks a robotics company research facility on the coast of Florida. The research facility, in response, is looking for a power source for a Godzilla deterrent which they then believe they have found in what is possibly the geographical point of origin for all the titan species. They task a team with taking Kong to the origin point under the guise of finding him a more suitable habitat, when in reality they hope the giant ape will lead them to the power source and the means to establish mankind as the dominant species on the planet again.
Of course, this is all just window dressing to the inevitable conflict between Godzilla and Kong. The pre-hype video package they play before the fighters make their way to the ring if you will. The opening title sequence even vaguely resembles a tournament bracket showing the other titans that have fallen to the two headliners on their way to facing each other. The filmmakers clearly understand that the attraction is the big fight. All of the human elements take more of a back seat here than they do in any of the three previous films in the series. Even the typical villainous humans that set the plot in motion are dealt with swiftly and unceremoniously once the carnage really sets in. Yes, there is some comic relief from a brief and inconsequential subplot involving Brian Tyree Henry (Widows) as a kaiju conspiracy theorist, Julian Dennison (Deadpool 2), and a returning Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) but it barely distracts from the monster action – it’s a noted improvement over the tedium of the human characters featured in Godzilla: King Of The Monsters – speaking of which Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) also reprises his role from that film, but his role here is so small, it’s surprising that he was included at all.
Not all of the human elements are a detriment though, Rebecca Hall (Iron Man 3) and the debuting Kaylee Hottle are endearing as the scientist who watches over Kong’s safety and the last remnant of the Skull Island natives respectively. They help Kong feel even more relatable as he goes out of his way to keep them safe and the affection the trio have for each other is the heart of the film and establishes Godzilla VS. Kong as having the strongest human characters of the four-film series. It’s faint praise, but it shows that the filmmakers tried to improve on the weaker elements of the previous entries and that should be commended.
Where the film works best though, thankfully, is when Kong or Godzilla are on-screen. Two-thirds of the film is devoted to our foremost titular characters, and the story takes the surprising stance of placing Kong squarely in the role of the protagonist. He is who the audience follows most throughout the film, and it’s no coincidence that the footage of him in action showcased in the trailers had visual references to action films like Die Hard. Here, the big ape is subtlely characterized as an “action lead” that is a bit world-weary and “too old for this shit”, to borrow a phrase from another classic action film franchise. He just wants to be left alone, but the world, and Godzilla – the latter characterized as much more animal-like than Kong – just won’t leave him be.
Godzilla is a force of nature, a walking disaster area with the mentality of an agitated canine protecting its yard. When the two square off for a final time basked in the neon lights of Hong Kong, it’s a brutal and thrilling fight that sees the cityscape demolished as it gets used as a makeshift arena for a fight that shows off the ferocity of Godzilla and the nimble quick-wittedness of Kong. Both characters get moments to shine that will have their fans geeking out with excitement and the destruction on display should please any hardcore action junkie. Surprisingly, the film makes the bold choice to indeed have a decisive winner in the conflict. The winner that stands tall at the end even feels believable and earned. The film also does an excellent job of having the plot progress in such a way that both fans of Godzilla and Kong will leave the film feeling satisfied that “their guy” was well represented. It had to have been a Herculean effort by director Adam Wingard (The Guest) to avoid the trap of leaving one set of fans feeling slighted over the other, but everything came together perfectly where it counts to send the audience home happy.
So, does Godzilla VS. Kong deliver on the hype? The main event on the marquee advertised an epic throwdown between the film’s two biggest monsters, and even if the human aspects of the story still mostly underwhelm, the big fight gave exactly what was promised and more. So if there’s ever a rematch (and any fight fan will tell you the big money is always in the rematch), they have guaranteed at least one ticket sold. (3.5/5)
Godzilla VS. Kong is now playing in theaters, and will stream on HBO Max through April 30 at no extra cost for subscribers.