This week, millions of people will watch a monkey fight a lizard. The question is: How?
I’m not talking about whether to watch Godzilla vs. Kong in theaters or on HBO Max, where it debuts today. That’s between each individual and their nearest vaccination provider. What I mean, rather, is that there are three ways to experience the new movie: as visceral destruction porn; as highly potent edible-bait, with its beautifully composed, trippy visuals; and, finally, by looking at it through the lens of symbolism. Let’s talk about that last one.
Both creatures at the center of the new film originated as metaphors for humanity’s inherent fallibility, and the consequences of our actions as we wander blithely through the universe. In both instances, however, “humanity” can also be interpreted specifically as “America.”
The original King Kong, from 1933, finds a group of Americans kidnapping a gargantuan primate from a foreign land, taking him back to the U.S. in shackles, and trying to integrate him into the capitalist system for rich white folks’ amusement. This plan does not end well. Kong escapes from his hilariously ill-conceived Broadway confines, and wreaks havoc around New York City, in search of the blonde damsel he loves. It’s “the low-hanging fruit of Black metaphors,” according to University of Michigan professor Robin Means Coleman, sending as blatant a message as the would-be rapist in blackface from 1915’s Birth of a Nation. The charitable interpretation is that Kong here represents the world’s resistance to colonization, but even in this version the film still hinges on the impossibility of assimilation—and not in a particularly complimentary way. It’s like watching your most egotistical, self-absorbed friend attempt to tell a story in which they aren’t the hero.
On the other hand, the original Godzilla is a critique of America made by non-Americans. Produced by Japanese studio Toho, it premiered in 1954, roughly a decade after America dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the time, America was still an occupying, post-war presence in Japan, and artists had to watch what they said. A movie in which an anachronistic dinosaur is irradiated by an American hydrogen bomb, and thus turned into an indestructible killing machine, was a sneaky way for pacifist director Ishirō Honda to make a bold political statement about U.S. imperialism.
It was not a message America particularly wanted to receive, however.
Long before Donald Trump bumped against critical race theory with the alternative fact-filled 1776 Commission, America has had a tendency to erase its darkest history. In the case of Godzilla, the United States first released the film in a heavily edited 1956 cut, where Raymond Burr had magically become the star, any connection between American nuclear power and the king of monsters no longer existed, and the ending was happy. Over 40 years later, the first fully American Godzilla reboot, starring an early middle-aged Matthew Broderick, continued the patriotic whitewash. In this treatment, the monster is born from atomic testing by the French, rather than Americans. It’s a real monster of a dick move.
Finally, there are the current incarnations of Godzilla and Kong that belong in what Legendary Pictures calls the MonsterVerse. (You absolutely do not have to call it that.)
Starting in 2014, just as America was showing early symptoms of cinematic universe fever, this series sought to bring back our old pal, ‘Zilla, and possibly spin off separate franchises for his monster friends. First came the 2014 Godzilla, which seemed to have siphoned some of the grim, joyless aura of the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, with very little of the verve that made those movies worth watching. In this conception, America’s hands were once again essentially clean. We didn’t create Godzilla with our nuclear runoff; we heroically nuked an already existent monster that belongs to a category called Titans, of possible alien provenance. Rather than symbolize humanity’s hubris, or its capacity for genocide, nuclear power has now evolved into a positive plot point—a tool for luring radiation-craving titans, or reviving them when they get beat up.
Since race as a topic remains more charged than nuclear power, though, the current MonsterVerse depiction of King Kong, on the other paw, reflects America’s slow march toward progress. In 2017’s Vietnam-allegoric Kong: Skull Island, the giant gorilla is explicitly the protagonist, rather than a misunderstood force of destruction. He is the protector of his island, and more or less immune to being kidnapped or colonized.
Which brings us to this week’s monster movie mashup.
Godzilla and Kong form a fairly obvious pairing. It’s fun just to talk about the comparative fight advantages of a reptile and a primate, let alone see them play out in combat. Japan’s Toho studio certainly thought so, anyway; its third-ever Godzilla movie, in a franchise that now spans 36 entries, was 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla. (Kong won in that one.) Also worth noting, the word godzilla is an interpolation of gojira, which combines the Japanese words for gorilla and whale, lending our lizard some monkey DNA. These two were destined for each other.
The plot of Godzilla vs. Kong is both overly complicated and almost incidental. The filmmakers, led by The Guest director Adam Wingard, zoom out on the mythology of the titans, with a quest to find their point of origin: a nonsense place called Hollow Earth, first alluded to in 2019’s Godzilla: King of Monsters. In order for our human protagonists to find this elusive, vaguely metaphysical space, Kong must first be enticed to lead the way. The only problem is that an openly traveling Kong is a magnet for attention from that other alpha titan, Godzilla.
It’s hard to search for symbolism during a knock-down, drag-out literal clash of the titans, amidst the neon-blanketed skyscraper garden of Hong Kong, successfully executed in a way that doesn’t look like a video game. Let’s dig in, though. This version of Kong is not merely an anti-colonization hero, but a hero for all mankind, nobly exploited. He’s a fitting vessel for white guilt in 2021, unencumbered by any pesky demonization. Godzilla, however, is roused to random destruction whenever it detects the presence of another titan, filling the role of protective figure or nuclear arrogance embodied, depending on what the situation calls for. The film positions Godzilla as beholden to its most destructive impulses, but blameless for receiving them. It seems America still can’t quite own up to how its use of nuclear weapons has been central to the existence of 67 years’ worth of Godzilla movies.
Godzilla vs. Kong has another trick up its sleeve, though, for unmistakably symbolizing America’s callous recklessness: Mechagodzilla.
First appearing in the 1974 film, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, the new kaiju on the block is a mammoth robotic replica of the giant lizard. In its first movie appearance, mechagodzilla was an alien, while in later films it became a man-made weapon for defending Japan from Godzilla. In the new offering, however, it is a product of corporate malfeasance, the privatization of military, and Big Tech irresponsibility. (No new product launch has ever moved faster while breaking more things than mechagodzilla.)
Since modern corporations are like independent nation-states, they are a lot easier for Hollywood to vilify than America—even if they can functionally stand in for America. Godzilla vs. Kong may not have a lot on its mind, but throwing mechagodzilla into the way it does is a handy signal to the audience that no matter who wins, we’ve kind of all already lost.