It’s not Godzilla or King Kong that serves as the connective tissue in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse, but the secret government agency tasked with studying them: Monarch.
“Monarch: Legacy of Monsters,” the second MonsterVerse series (after the animated “Skull Island”), seeks to dig further into the mysterious organization’s origins, dating back much further than the MonsterVerse’s beginnings with 2014’s Godzilla. Using Godzilla as a launchpad, “Monarch” aims to expand the mythology through a globe-trotting mystery, making for a Titan-filled adventure that’s uneven in energy and execution.
“Monarch” primarily takes place in 2015, in the wake of Godzilla’s epic battle with the MUTOs and the devastation that left San Francisco in ruins. That’s not the only event that’s destroyed G-Day survivor Cate Randa’s (Anna Sawai) sense of normality; she’s just lost her father (Takehiro Hira). Cate pushes past the PTSD from G-Day and travels to Japan to sort out her father’s affairs, only to find an unexpected sibling in Kentaro Randa (Ren Watabe). Determined to find answers and closure about their father’s secret life, Cat and Kentaro follow clues that lead them down a dangerous path filled with Titans and Monarch secrets dating back three generations.
While the series spends the bulk of its time with Cate, Kentaro, and Kentaro’s hacker ex May (Kiersey Clemons) in 2015, “Monarch” also frequently jumps back to the 1950s to introduce key members from the Randa family and their relation to the secret agency tracking the Titans. Both timelines are connected through Army Officer Lee Shaw, played by Wyatt Russell in the past and Kurt Russell in 2015. Both Russells steal the early half of the series with their natural charisma and screen presence, threatening to overshadow the central trio.
There’s a lot of expositional ground to cover in service of the overarching mystery and how it all fits into the MonsterVerse at large, which makes for an uneven adventure that toggles between methodical plotting, character building, and Kaiju spectacle. The latter is most frequently sidelined. That the ’50s timeline offers most of the Godzilla-sized thrills in the earlier episodes doesn’t help as viewers get slowly acclimated to the newcomers, nor that Cate and Kentaro must overcome their initial shock and mistrust of each other.
Showrunner Chris Black, who co-developed the series with executive producer Matt Fraction, smartly structures the series in such a way that every episode ends on a noteworthy hook, revelation, or cliffhanger that keeps you invested regardless. The answers don’t come easy, further inspiring investment. Save for a lackluster opening sequence effect involving a digitally enhanced John Goodman, Black ensures the kaiju carnage more than satisfies patient viewers. Most critical to the series’ success is how that slow development of Cate, Kentaro, and May pays off once the season finds its groove and pieces to the central mystery begin coming together.
It’s here in series form that the MonsterVerse finally figures out how to organically make the humans more compelling to match the Titans. Sawai, in particular, comes into her own and quickly emerges as the season’s soulful, determined heroine. “Monarch” bides its time getting there, and the competing timelines can make for an uneven experience, but the highs often outweigh the lows. The action picks up in the back half, making for a more thrilling ride, and the new details and monster reveals ensure that it’s not just Monarch’s story getting expanded here.
Of the eight episodes screened for critics, season one finds new ways to expand the MonsterVerse lore and connections to the films to varying degrees of success. More importantly, it seems destined for a thrilling finale and potential continuation after a careful, uneven buildup; there’s no shortage of monsters and conspiratorial villains to be discovered across time. But the journey so far is also so dense with lore, mysteries, and details that it may not be as welcoming to newcomers.
“Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” premieres globally with the first two episodes on Friday, November 17 on Apple TV+, followed by one episode every Friday through January 12.