“I was born in 1965,” Kyle Chandler reasons, “I don’t know what an Easter Egg is.” The question was in relation to whether any sly references to his iconic role as Coach Taylor on TV’s Friday Night Lights will appear in his upcoming summer blockbuster Godzilla: King of the Monsters. But ideally, it’s indicative of the mindset in making the film too, namely that it won’t be too preoccupied with its position as a lead-in to next summer’s blockbuster, Godzilla vs Kong. Because as we’ve seen numerous times now, the biggest cinematic universe failures suffer from keeping too much of an eye toward the future.
The movie studio’s mad scramble to realign themselves post-Marvel Cinematic Universe created, to borrow Game of Thrones terminology, a clash of kings. Intellectual properties with even a sliver of franchise potential and/or brand recognition were either plumbed from the vaults or crudely rearranged to fit a linear narrative. DC’s failed attempt to go from A to Justice League is the most parallel example. But there was also Universal Studios woeful Dark Universe comprised of classic movie monsters, Andrew Garfield’s Spiderverse, the Dark Tower Stephen King-based saga...even King Arthur was attempted. The deck of viable contenders hasn’t cleared out completely yet, though. Next summer, Godzilla vs. Kong will present a re-imagining of one of Hollywood’s most classic, intercontinental showdowns. Before Tokyo and America’s mythic monsters square-off though, the narrative track Gareth Edwards started in 2014 with his spin on Godzilla has to be furthered and solidified. That’ll come in the form of King of the Monsters, which will pit the eponymous titan against some of his most classic foes and help kickstart the 2019 summer movie season with a late-May release.
The stakes for King of the Monsters extends beyond the normal expectations of a summer blockbuster, the future of an already greenlit and in-production sequel are riding on it. Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures aren’t playing it coy; Complex, along with a handful of other outlets, were invited to the set in Atlanta early on in the production process for presentations from director Michael Dougherty, cast members including Chandler and O’Shea Jackson, Jr., and a tour of the set so they could assert how seriously they’re taking this expansion into cinematic universe territory—and how much fun they’re aiming to deliver.
King of the Monsters picks up five years after the events of Edwards’ film, which left Godzilla and humanity’s perspective of him—particularly Monarch, the shadowy “zoology” agency tracking his movements—at a shaky truce: a fearsome, untamable creature but one who could ostensibly be counted on to defend us against worse offenders, referred to in this universe as “titans” (“We don’t use the ‘m’ word,” Dougherty says). A 2017 King Kong reimagining, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts and set in the 1970s, included a post-credit scene (a prerequisite for any self-respecting cinematic universe) establishing Monarch as the link between films, and confirming Godzilla and Kong exist in the same universe. But before we get to that face-off next summer, Monsters will pit the God against some of the most revered creatures in his rogues gallery: the pterodactyl-esque frenemy Rodan, the three-headed, dragon-like otherworldly enemy Ghidorah, and Mothra (which should be...self-explanatory). Don’t mistake this summer’s event for biding time, Dougherty is swinging for the fences.
“I hesitate to say it, but I would call it the Aliens to Gareth's Alien.” While comparing his movie to one of the greatest sequels (and films, overall) of all time is a big swing, it’s also fitting shorthand to explain the differences in tone. Alien was a contemplative horror, Aliens is balls-to-the-wall action. The monster line-up in Dougherty's sequel alone implies how it might have less of the meditative moments and mounting dread Edwards employed (the two communicated early on and Edwards visited the set). Dougherty, a lifelong Toho fan, is centering the film on Monarch, and their uncharacteristically wholesome outlook despite being a shadowy agency. “I felt there was an opportunity to craft Monarch as a group of heroes. Monarch has a very positive outlook on what these creatures are and what they represent, and the idea of a team of heroes who are scientists really appealed to me,” he explained during a break in filming. "This isn't a Marvel film where you have people in mech suits or superpowers running around getting into endless fistfights; these are just very intelligent, capable people who are up against impossible odds. In our current climate, where science is constantly being questioned and targeted, the idea of creating a film where scientists are heroes, I thought was really important.”
The scene being filmed on the day of our visit was on a soundstage doubling as a situation room in Monarch’s underwater(!) base. Jackson’s gung-ho soldier along with Monarch officials played by Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, Sally Hawkins and Bradley Whitford are seated at a roundtable. The mood is tense, mostly because of Kyle Chandler’s Dr. Russell. The events of the movie are set in motion when Dr. Russell’s estranged wife and daughter (played by Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown, neither on set that day) are kidnapped by a mysterious aggressor played by Charles Dance (bringing his Tywin Lannister energy to the proceedings). How the enemy titans play into that is still unclear, even from the two trailers released at our visit. But audiences have a lot to look forward to from the monster mash—an on-set rep promises none of the three are relegated to cameos (a la Venom in Spider-Man 3), even teasing a Godzilla, Rodan, Ghidorah three-way fight—including a show-stopping sequence at Fenway Park between Millie’s character and Mothra.
Our visit was still relatively early in production, but as a lifelong Toho fan myself, what we saw and heard was still reassuring enough. It helps that Dougherty will hand the reigns for Godzilla vs. Kong off to Adam Wingard, leaving this as his big chance to make an impression. He has enough reverence for the source material to make sure that, for example, Ghidorah’s three-heads aren’t just send-ups of the Game of Thrones dragons. Special care was paid to Mothra’s creature design to make “her” come off more formidable than, well, being a giant moth. That reverence for getting the designs right extends to the narrative backstory as well. “It's more of mythological, almost biblical backdrop to the creatures...so in some ways we're putting the God back in Godzilla.”
Still, franchise goals are the endgame and to that end, Dougherty isn’t concerned. “Toho was one the first companies to pioneer the idea of a shared universe. They were doing it long before Marvel was. They did it through those creatures. You know, Mothra was a completely separate film from Godzilla. Same thing with Rodan. So it kind of feels things are things are coming from a sort of well.” In that sense, this is less of a trend-hop and more of a full-circle return to form. Bring on the beasts.