In 2021, the Monsterverse series, begat from 2014’s Godzilla franchise kickstart, finally matched up its two chief prizefighters by pitting King Kong against the mighty Godzilla. It was also by far the most successful movie in the fledgling kaiju franchise, and Warner Brothers was eager to keep the good times running. Now it’s three years later, but Kong is older and weary, living in the Hollow Earth realm below our feet but feeling very alone, the last of the giant apes. Suddenly, he discovers a new world beneath his feet, another level where there are other apes like him. However, they’re ruled in fear from the vicious Scar King, and so Kong needs to call upon his former rival and now tentative ally Godzilla for the ultimate homecoming smack-down.

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire finds a comfortable resting place as solid disposable fun, a work that knows its real appeal and doesn’t get in the way of it, so why does this movie work for me whereas I had trouble really celebrating the 2021 predecessor? I think it comes down to streamlining and limiting the “dumb fun” to a more manageable quotient. There is still plenty of junk science and goofy moments that will likely inspire their share of guffaws, but I was more pleased this time than overwhelmed in 2021. I had plenty of friends that absolutely loved the 2021 showdown, and I’ll admit the big bouts of monster action were well developed and staged, but for me the dumb was more present than my “dumb fun” threshold could bear. Again, that’s not to say that this newest adventure doesn’t evoke similar eye-rolling. The very revelation of ANOTHER subterranean world and hidden civilization just under the feet of the other subterranean hidden world makes me wonder if every successive sequel will just keep digging downwards, discovering yet another undiscovered world, until they reach the molten core.

This movie is broken into three storylines and only one of them has the human characters; the core of the movie is Kong’s exploration of the new subterranean world, and this is told wordlessly and effectively. The 2021 movie had to juggle multiple human enclaves all having their own adventures and discovering components of our story that would ultimately prove helpful. There was the Godzilla Team and the Kong Team, but did you know that the 2021 movie included all these human characters: our unexpected lead of the Monsterverse now in Hall, the returning new characters from 2021 by Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, and Kaylee Hottle, Alexander Skarsgard, Eiza Gonzalez, Julian Dennison, Demian Bichir, Lance Reddick, and the returning characters from 2019 by Millie Bobby Brown, Kyle Chandler, and the son of Ken Wantanabe’s deceased scientist. Top it off with the starring title bout of Kong v Godzilla, and that’s a lot of speaking roles to have to juggle over two hours of monster mash. Having only one human group and only one new significant character (Dan Stevens as a hip veterinarian) helps keep things moving and puts more emphasis on the real big star, Mr. Kong.

Godzilla is sidelined for the second movie in a row to give way for Kong, and it’s the right call as the giant ape is more of a wounded warrior, and his loneliness and desire for community is an easier emotional state to convey than anything from the large enigmatic lizard. Godzilla spends almost the whole movie, leading up to the climax, on a mission where he’s powering up, like it’s a filler Dragon Ball Z episode. It does build a sense of anticipation for his eventual return in the big arena, but it’s clear that Godzilla’s name should be second in the title. He’s presented almost like an angry cat, settling into the Colosseum as an impromptu nap den. With Kong, the emotional arc of a lonely creature seeking kinship is universal and easy to understand even without words. He believes he’s the last of his kind and then to discover a community of those like him, and adjust as an outsider, and then upset the power structure of a bully wrecking havoc. There’s even a budding stepfather-like relationship with a little ape who begins as quite an annoying little stinker and then warms up to this better paternal figure. It’s a simple story of discovery and reunification, as well as overthrowing a corrupt leader, but it’s enough to get you emotionally invested in this giant CGI monster and his giant sense of encroaching ennui.

The biggest appeal of any monster movie is its destructive action, and Godzilla x Kong delivers in this regard while keeping things fluid and fun. Returning director Adam Wingard (You’re Next) makes sure the big brawls are easy to follow with minimal edits to better orient the viewer. The big hits feel like they matter, and the rules of the different fights and fighters and the varying geography matter. There’s a climactic fight in the Hollow Earth where gravity becomes a second thought, and it’s a tremendous visual spectacle as well as rousing sequence of excitement to watch these giants suddenly weightless and zooming through the air in combat. Wingard also knows when to give his characters their big hero moments, and the team-up between Kong and Godzilla has the same rousing satisfaction as you would wish for two titans of mayhem. I enjoyed the new orangutan villain, the Scar King, a fearsome beast that cannot match Kong for sheer brutal strength but makes up for it in speed and agility, and a whip-like weapon that controls a frost-breathing kaiju through fear and pain. It’s an interesting character at least in design and contrast from our hero kaiju, so it’s not just more of the same but with a horn or something. I have to think anyone coming for some top-tier monster wrestling will leave the movie happy.

As for the human drama, it’s mostly kept along the fringes and there to introduce necessary plot elements that a grunting ape couldn’t more adequately convey. Hall has to worry about possibly losing her adoptive mute daughter who is herself the last of an older civilization. It’s pretty simplistic but acceptable as a parallel about finding one’s place in the world from feeling alone.

Godzilla x Kong is silly and stupid and stupidly fun, appealing to any kaiju fan’s inner child, working that same primordial wonder of monsters and destructive spectacle. For my money, it’s a step above the 2021 initial brawl thanks to scaling down its many assorted plotlines dealing with too many forgettable human characters. The action is rip-roaring and proof that even more can be ceded to Kong and a lack of dialogue to tell this story in a meaningful manner. Wingard still has a natural feel for elevated B-movie material, and clearly this movie is going in a very different route than 2023’s now Oscar-winning Godzilla Minus One, a shockingly affecting post-war human drama that just so happened to have Godzilla in it. It’s a perfect blockbuster to chow down popcorn and hoot and holler along with our giant avatars of childhood glee.

Nate’s Grade: B


This review originally ran on Nate’s own review site Nathanzoebl. Check it out for hundreds of excellent reviews!

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