Throughout the previous installments of Warner Bros., Legendary and Toho’s MonsterVerse quadrilogy—Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters—the opening credits serve as little information dumps about how humanity discovered massive monsters. It’s an effective way of world-building, allowing eagle-eyed viewers to dig into the world, should they so choose. In the opening credits for Godzilla vs. Kong, the previous three films are quickly summarized, showing how the two titular beasts have come to rule their respective worlds. The sequence ends with images of the two, diametrically opposed, as the winners of their respective sides of a March Madness-style tournament bracket. It’s as if to say, right from the jump, Godzilla vs. Kong knows exactly what kind of movie it is.

Directed by Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest), the film is the culmination of one of the only successful Marvel-style cinematic universes. The MonsterVerse is tied together through the research of the science-based Monarch Initiative; it’s discovered humans have unknowingly existed alongside giant monsters (known as Titans) since before the dinosaurs. Now, re-emerging in response to humanity’s desecration of Earth, the beasts are looking to bring a destructive balance back to our world. The first Godzilla positioned the classic Toho creation as a misunderstood predator-turned-territorial defender who awakened when he sensed the presence of threats. It was criticized for its humanity-first approach, relegating Godzilla to sporadically appear in Jaws-like fashion. Kong: Skull Island flashed back to the Vietnam War-era, bringing with it nonstop action as a group of soldiers and Monarch scientists insist on wiping out the King-less Kong while uncovering subterranean tunnels known as “Hollow Earth.” Godzilla: King of the Monsters upped both the action and the human-side to decidedly mixed results, introducing re-imagined versions of Godzilla’s rogues’ gallery about every 20 minutes. By the end of the movie, it’s clear foes like Ghidorah, Rodan, and Mothra were just warm-up matches for the impending title fight of the century.

That context is about all you need to know before dropping into Godzilla vs. Kong, as the movie wastes no time in setting the stage for the championship bout. Under the watch of Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her adopted Iwi daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), Kong is living out his days in a giant Monarch-run dome after a storm rendered Skull Island otherwise uninhabitable for the monkey. But after the King of Monsters seemingly turns his back on being Earth’s protector by attacking, unprompted, the Pensacola-based Apex Cybernetics, humanity needs a new defense. A plan comes together for Ilene, Jia, and Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) to traverse into Hollow Earth, led by Kong, to recover a powerful energy source to help turn the tides against Godzilla. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorist podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) joins forces with Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) and her friend Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison), who believe that something at Apex provoked Godzilla; so the trio set out to investigate Apex head Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), his right-hand man Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri), and their shady ongoings to ascertain the truth.

Godzilla vs. Kong
Image via Warner Bros.

The breakneck pace of the movie—clocking in at just under two hours—is much welcome in the era where crossover events can become easily bloated affairs. This speed reduces the human-based plots to exposition-filled dumps of information as we wait for Kong and Godzilla to square off again. For many viewers, a streamlined approach will be a feature, not a bug; the non-Titan characters of the MonsterVerse have always left much to be desired, reinforced by the fact that few of them rolled over from one installment to another. Even with Madison and her father (Kyle Chandler) returning here from King of the Monsters, they’re largely sidelined in favor of Ilene, Jia, and Nathan’s Kong-based adventures. The ongoings of Team Kong turn out to be more compelling than in previous installments, thanks to the performances of Hall and Hottle. Hall has always brought her best to blockbuster fare and Godzilla vs. Kong is no exception; the relationship between Ilene, Jia, and Kong serves as the film’s empathic beating heart, insofar as a big action movie between giant monsters can have one. On the Godzilla side of things, Henry is the notable standout, proving he’s capable of making even the most thinly written characters otherwise interesting.

With Godzilla reigning over two solo movies, Wingard posits Kong as the movie’s de facto lead here. It’s a smart choice, allowing Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein’s script to get more at the ape’s storied love of innocent humans. Wingard’s Kong is a grizzled veteran coming back into the ring to defend his title one last time; he’s noticeably older, with what appear to be gray hairs in his beard. Years of containment have left him bored but no less capable than when we saw him in Skull Island. Yet, he proves to have met his match against Godzilla. Despite taking top billing in the title, the King of Monsters plays a supporting role. In a decision evocative of the 2014 Godzilla, the creature appears in fits and spurts but carries a weighty presence once he bursts onto the scene. The film never loses track of Godzilla and Kong’s respective motivation, injecting the duo with a considerable amount of pathos for giant monsters. They’re both, essentially, frightened creatures lashing out in the only way they know possible; their inevitable clash is just as tragic as it is exciting.

But man, when it comes to the fights themselves, Wingard nails it. The scope, intensity, and action of each battle feels titanic. Even on a subpar home setup, each beastly blow results in an awe-inspiring spectacle. Wingard and cinematographer Ben Seresin provide plenty of scale, allowing the audience to feel the intensity of two legends going at it. The Guest proved Wingard knew his way around an action sequence, but he elevates himself here, adding in plenty of kinetic tricks (including a first-person Kong shot!) to make each battle feel unique. The clear standout is the film’s closing Hong Kong sequence, drenched in neon from the buildings as Junkie XL’s electric score pulses along in his best work since Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s an absolute travesty my first viewing couldn’t be in IMAX, as Godzilla vs. Kong is the first blockbuster since Tenet that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. I hope Warner will find a way to re-release it later this year when more people are vaccinated to give its impressive scale a shot at a larger audience.

There’s something to be said for delivering precisely on the promise of a movie’s title—and Godzilla vs. Kong does it in spades. What you see is what you get. It’s refreshing to the point where it doesn’t really matter who wins or loses—although there is a definitive answer. No, what really matters is this: When a movie is as fun, enjoyable, and entertaining as Godzilla vs. Kong is, the biggest winner is the audience.