What Sets Monarch: Legacy of Monsters apart from other MonsterVerse content

Apple TV+'s Monarch: Legacy of Monsters does what so many other MonsterVerse movies don't: it makes us care about the characters before monsters start ruining their lies.
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters - ©2023 Apple TV
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters - ©2023 Apple TV /

Many waxed lyrical about Godzilla Minus One in the wake of its international success; a common commendation was its approach to its characters, particularly the nuance with which it handled its protagonist, Kōichi Shikishima. The film is an unexpected character study about a failed kamikaze pilot navigating survivor’s guilt, an allegorical celebration of the human spirit set against the devastating backdrop of post-bombing Japan. Godzilla, though prominent, acts more as a theme than a character, its arrival introducing further turmoil to both Tokyo and our hero’s emotional state.

The low-budget feature, a worldwide critical and commercial triumph, has prompted many to reassess their relationship with the monster movie and Hollywood portrayals of kaiju both contemporary and historic; why can’t American-produced Godzilla media contain well-defined characters? Thoughtful stories? Emotional depth?

Nothing is preventing it from doing so—in fact, some of it already does. Though far from matching the storytelling mastery of Godzilla Minus One, Apple TV+’s Monarch: Legacy of Monsters possesses all of the aforementioned qualities, offering a compelling character-driven narrative that’s as emotionally engaging as it is entertaining. We’re not necessarily talking about Breaking Bad-level storytelling here—but we are talking about some of the most consistently absorbing and, frankly, strongest content produced as part of Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse.

Character and story are what allow a film or television show to resonate with an audience—media, regardless of the quality of its action set pieces or visual effects, is ultimately only as strong as these building blocks. This is an area in which much past MonsterVerse content has faltered; though creatures like Godzilla, Kong, Mothra, and King Ghidorah are entertaining while onscreen, there’s little in the way of character or story to captivate the audience. The films, in turn, often go down as forgettable popcorn fare as opposed to memorable cinematic experiences.

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, though very much part of Legendary’s shared universe, approaches the idea of kaiju media from a fundamentally different perspective than its contemporaries, prioritizing characters over creatures and story over sizzle. The ongoing series, while broadly an examination of the fictional government agency at the center of the MonsterVerse, is more intimately a character-driven story about trauma and loss. The show explores the extreme actions that one may take while attempting to process these complex emotions.

Falling in love with the humans on Monarch: Legacy of Monsters

The show has spent much of its first season establishing and fleshing out its protagonists, with monsters appearing very infrequently throughout the nine episodes released thus far. This is an objectively risky path for any piece of monster-centric media to take—by advertising and not consistently delivering kaiju, you run the risk of the audience growing bored, losing all interest before the promise can be fully delivered upon.

This hasn’t been an issue for Monarch: Legacy of Monsters—quite the opposite. The show has given the audience ample time to empathize with and grow connected to its characters, allowing viewers to become emotionally invested in their stories and care about their fates when the odd monster does pops up.

You feel something other than a light sense of visual stimulation when a creature appears. You feel anxious. Nervous. Scared. You simply don’t want these characters, each of whom has endured extensive heartache and trauma, to experience any further setbacks or hardships.

You feel this way because the show takes the necessary time to forge a connection between content and viewer, effectively establishing a layered and empathetic backstory for each of its characters. Take the show’s primary protagonist: Cate Randa (Anna Sawai) is the granddaughter of two of Monarch’s founders, an initially cautious and standoffish lead who, alongside her half-brother Kentaro (Ren Watabe) and his ex-girlfriend May (Kiersey Clemons) are swept into the mysterious world of Monarch.

The audience learns, through well-structured flashbacks, that Cate is a primary school teacher who feels directly responsible for the deaths of several students during Godzilla’s 2014 attack on San Francisco. This trauma paralyzes her; there are times throughout the series where basic function escapes her due to her PTSD. The condition provides an additional layer to her character, an ever-present hurdle the audience is eager to see Cate overcome as her encounters with monsters become more frequent.

Layered amongst the trauma is a litany of imperfections. Cate is not your prototypical non-nuanced action lead with no blemishes; she’s made mistakes in the past, regrettable decisions that she’s learned from and grown because of.

In other words, she’s human.

All of the protagonists get these backstories. Kentaro is a reclusive individual who has found solace in the series’ core group, his stubbornness and bitterness often clouding his decision-making ability. May is a charming but deceitful hacker who does several things throughout the show that are, in theory, inexcusable, but make perfect sense and are justifiable within the well-defined context of the character.

Even the show’s supporting cast is nuanced; Tim (Joe Tippett), a low-level Monarch employee initially framed as a farcical antagonist who comes off almost as a caricature, slowly evolves into a layered character with his own clear goals. Duvall (Elisa Lasowski) undergoes a similar arc; she starts as little more than Tim’s muscle before her own trauma is disclosed; these hardships come to define and explain her ambitions.

Each of the individuals—and the experiences that helped turn them into who they are—are thoroughly explored. Their actions make sense and are consistent with the characters as they’ve been defined. Lee Shaw (Wyatt and Kurt Russell) is perhaps the best example of this idea. The audience witnesses how the character’s experiences and surroundings change him over several decades, how his relationships and trauma prompt him to grow from a charismatic, by-the-book solider into a brash radical eager to achieve what he feels is the only solution to a growing global problem.

We see how Lee changes as he makes connections in the show's period piece sequences. Though not quite as nuanced as the show’s contemporary protagonists, Bill Randa (Anders Holm) and Keiko Miura (Mari Yamamoto) are each empathetic and likable characters that the audience can’t help but get behind, Bill thanks to his charm and general aloofness and Keiko thanks to her perseverance in the face of hardship. These characters form an unlikely partnership and find success despite adversity. The development of their stories lead us to s place where we can understand Shaw's actions, even if we don't commend them.

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters © 2023 Apple TV /

First Monarch makes you care, then introduces the monsters

These complex characters are the heart of Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, their stories and relationships driving a plot that, at times, seems to have little to do with the MonsterVerse, although connections to the wider universe have become more apparent as the season has progressed. Even the most devout MonsterVerse fan would likely tell you that the universe’s lore is a bit convoluted and difficult to follow. Monarch: Legacy of Monsters accomplishes the near-impossible feat of explaining the world’s complicated rules in a digestible and comprehensive way, never doing so at the expense of its own characters or story.

The show spends significant time establishing its characters before slowly implementing world-building elements, ensuring the audience was fully connected to the human story before venturing into unabashed zany territory. It ultimately does delve into and relish in its more fantastical elements, but by then we're willing to go along for the ride. You care about the MonsterVerse show long before it actually becomes a MonsterVerse show.

And that’s what sets Monarch: Legacy of Monsters apart from other MonsterVerse content. The characters aren’t throwaway, one-note bores that lack two personality traits to rub together; they’re complex, empathetic individuals that the show fleshes out.

Though likely not a show that will receive an Emmy for Best Drama, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters could provide a blueprint for the MonsterVerse moving forward. While there’s certainly value in monsters clashing with one another, those scenes are ultimately forgettable if not accompanied by real human drama.

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters has proven that the franchise is capable of crafting nuanced characters that are enthralling despite their well-defined flaws. It’s now up to people behind the Godzilla franchise to replicate and capitalize on the formula.

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