‘Monarch: Legacy of Monsters’ Review: A Mix Of Epic Scale & Human Drama Gets Franchise TV Right

If non-starter franchise TV isn’t at a nadir, all one needs to do is look at the recent Marvel TV reckoning—the Studio finally coming to terms with the fact that they have to tell television in a TV format using experienced TV people and changing creative course—to understand that it’s in trouble creatively. Both Marvel and Lucasfilm (“Star Wars”) have fumbled around and squandered their I.P. on television, wasting an opportunity to tell stories about lesser but still-beloved characters and mainly crafting shallow episodic building blocks to other pieces of I.P. (see the before and after of Marvel’s Rotten Tomatoes score to see the effects TV has had on their once impeccable track record). This is the longwinded way of saying, thankfully, Legendary and Apple TV+ have been paying attention and have gotten it right. Their new series, “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters,” based on Legendary’s Monsterverse of films that include “Godzilla,” “Kong: Skull Island,” “Godzilla: King Of The Monsters” and “Godzilla Vs. Kong” take the best of those movies— the epic scale, action, and ambition, and marries it to what fits best on television: human, character-driven stories and have found an inventive way to do it that doesn’t feel like it shortchanges either.

READ MORE: ‘Monarch: Legacy of Monsters’ Trailer: The World Is On Fire In Apple TV+’s November-Set Monsterverse Series

Created by and developed by exec producers Chris Black and Matt Fraction, ‘Legacy Of Monsters,’ perhaps more than any other franchise show, seems to understand the limitations of TV—you just don’t have the same budget for big-budget set pieces at all times—and turns them into an advantage, creating a show centered around the humans in this global drama, with just enough blockbuster flexing to satisfy everyone.

Given the secretive Monarch organization at its center—the mysterious S.H.I.E.L.D.-like org featured or mentioned in most of the movies that clandestinely monitors, tracks, and obfuscates monster activities around the world—‘Legacy of Monsters’ is both a history lesson—without being too expository or revealing too much of the puzzle—and a mystery, but one that seems to circumvent the frustration that often comes with the withholding and cryptic qualities of mystery-box storytelling. Moreover, the key mystery box element at play is deeply humanized in a sprawling story that unfolds over three generations and several decades.

‘Legacy of Monsters’ is set in the modern day, but not quite the present day—an interesting and deliberate choice about where the canon currently falls in the movies. ‘Monsters’ begins post-2014, following the cataclysmic events in San Francisco when Godzilla revealed himself to the world and fought back Titan monsters that threatened to destroy the city. In other words, it’s post Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla,” months after the world reckoned with the shocking revelation that these Titan monsters were real, but not before “Godzilla: King Of The Monsters” (2019) and “Godzilla Vs. Kong” (2021; the reasons of which are seemingly explained later.

While the world is still in an anxious state and post-daze, ‘Legacy’ is the key word at play here. ‘Monsters’ follows two Asian 20-somethings, Cate (Anna Sawai) and Kentaro (Ren Watabe) Randa. Cate is a PTSD-riddled survivor of the San Francisco events known as G-Day. Kentaro is a visual artist in Japan, and the two have nothing to do with one another until one fateful day when Cate, following the events of her father’s death (Takehiro Hira), travels to Japan to clean out an old apartment only to eventually discover he’s been leading a double-life and had two families. Dumbstruck, in denial, combative with one other, and feeling betrayed, like their life was a grand lie (juicy, complex character stuff, Cate and Kentaro eventually begin to come to terms with the secretive life their father kept. In trying to unpack and process the past, the actions of their father, and more, in snooping around his office, they begin to uncover clues that lead to their family’s connection to the secretive organization known as Monarch.

This melding of the emotional and the plot mystery is a brilliant touch to keep the plot moving forward—what is Monarch, what the hell does it have to do with our father—and keeping things fraught between the two main characters laying blame on one another and the others family in their anger and confusion.

In going down this rabbit hole of clues, inklings, and suspicion—which reconnects Kentaro with his hacker ex-girlfriend, May (Kiersey Clemons, who is a bit of a plot contrivance and excuse to have a tech-savvy person on hand, but it works well enough one supposes)—‘Legacy of Monsters’ jumps back to a seemingly unrelated story in the 1950s.

In this tale, Army Officer Lee Shaw (Wyatt Russell) is a military liaison tasked to protect a scientist named Keiko (Mari Yamamoto), who is trying to research and track anomalies in the Philippines. Along their journey, they come across the conspiracy theorist-enthusiast, photographer, and explorer Bill Randa (Anders Holm), and those with good memories should recall some of the characters’ names in “Kong: Skull Island” to understand the connection.

To say much more is to veer too heavily into spoiler territory other than to say the two time periods are inextricably linked, and the main connective tissue is Lee Shaw, who is played in the present day as Kurt Russell. Yes, he’s around 90-something by then, which all the characters note seems odd as the 72-year-old Russell is still a youthful force to be reckoned with. But the show is clearly teasing more secrets and mysteries to be unveiled later.

Suffice it to say as ‘Legacy Of Monsters’ evolves, the relationship between the two eras becomes clearer, and the show grows more and more intriguing, especially in the way that the theme of buried secrets revealed and digging into a painful past apply both to the history of Monarch and all these seemingly disparate characters.

Ultimately, ‘Legacy Of Monsters’ becomes a journey of discovery, both for the self, Cate, and Kentaro coming to understand who they really are and who they come from—and if a certain someone is actually still alive—and one of the plot machinations as Monarch’s elusive role in potential coverups and misinformation becomes more defined.

And it is essentially this deft balance of plot and character—and the understanding of how the two can work in unison and not against each other— and equalization to human drama and enigmatic elements that tend to unleash scale, action, and even titanic monsters that make ‘Legacy Of Monsters’ such a compellingly successful series (especially as that balance seems to be completely out of sync in most aforementioned big-budget franchise television).

Inventively, the creators of ‘Legacy Of Monsters’ use all kinds of neat tricks to bring Titans into the picture—be it PTSD flashbacks of San Francisco-set trauma, stories of exploration in the past that yield unexpected discoveries, or modern-day investigations that unearth surprise attacks. And yet, all of it feels organic, germane to the story, and never gratuitous—enough to satisfy fans of the blockbuster, and yet never too much to aggravate those more invested in the human drama and the mystery of it all being the absorbing draw for both audiences.

One might even go far as to say the way Black and Fraction have threaded the needle between the expectation for spectacle and the narrative demands of TV-driven character examination are so elegant folks at Lucasfilm, and Marvel should probably take a closer look.

Creatures are arguably used sparingly but effectively; every time they thunder onto the screen, the visceral, scary, and tangible effects of their monster-sized proportions are felt, both in scale and the emotional terror they illicit (never underestimate the cinematic experiential power of not only placing characters in jeopardy but communication emotionally to the audience how terrifying that feels).

Black and Fraction understand the franchise, too, and while they add expansive new layers of meaning and intrigue to other installments of the series, particularly ‘Skull Island,’ they don’t ever overdo it, which is maybe something the overwrought unjustified fan service of other franchise shows should take note of. In that regard—and the last not-so-subtle shade at Marvel and Lucasfilm, I swear— perhaps where ‘Legacy Of Monsters’ succeeds in this regard is that it knows and understands its audience, adults, and treats them as such (maybe we should be thankful this serious is on Apple TV+ and not Disney+?).

To put a finer point on things—and as I articulated in my “Godzilla Vs. Kong” review and the foundational burden that monster movies always carry—it’s not as if Legendary had ever forgotten about the humans in their Monsterverse stories. In fact, one can easily claim all the filmmakers pained themselves to anchor their movies around people and the dramas in their lives forever impacted by these terrifying monsters and the distressingly existential revelation of their existence. Yet, the blended formula here finally works. And moreover, “Monarchy: Legacy of Monsters” understands the (TV) medium is the message, effectively marrying action, scale, and mystery to the needs of small-screen human drama. [B]

“Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” premieres on November 17th on Apple TV+.