Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond have each been portrayed by several actors and with vastly differing styles but to me Godzilla stands above all as being the most varied movie icon of all time. So today we take a look back across the ages at the many incarnations of Godzilla to see what makes him The King of the Monsters.
In answer to the popularity of such creations as King Kong (1933) and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) Japan gave us Gojira (Godzilla for American audiences) but this Toho monster movie was of a much darker tone than its predecessors. This move was a nuclear fueled allegory for the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki focusing on man’s responsibility when it comes to creating weapons of mass destruction. The film is full of haunting images of people fleeing from the creature’s atomic fire or later dying from radiation poisoning. Such bleak elements are pretty much abandoned in the later films.
Unable to match the effects budget of films like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms Toho Studios decided to forgo the costly stop motion process in favor of the man in a suit technique and this is probably the weakest element in the 1954 film as even though the rampaging action is great some of the shots of Godzilla’s head are a bit goofy in its puppety way.
The Shōwa series (1954 -1975) With but a few exceptions the Godzilla films of this era are as divorced from the original as one can imagine. Gone is the dark shadow of Hiroshima and is replaced with a Godzilla who though still a rampaging monster that causes untold destruction he has become a bit more light-hearted and up to a point even reaches anti-hero status. In many cases he is a savior of mankind as he battles creatures such as Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster an alien menace and a greater threat to the world. If you thought Godzilla looked a bit goofy in some shots in the original those moments are nothing compared to his “Victory Dance” after defeating King Ghidorah in Invasion of the Asto-Monster.
It’s hard to tremble in awe and terror before a giant behemoth if said behemoth is doing an Irish jig. Now I’m not saying there were no dark moments during the Shōwa years as some of his battles got down right bloody with arterial spray going everywhere, and in films like Godzilla vs Hedorah (aka The Smog Monster) we see toxic sludge killing countless people including babies, yes babies! Of course moments like that are kind of undercut by shots of Godzilla holding his tail and rocketing through the sky.
In 1977 Marvel Comics got the licensing rights to publish a Godzilla: King of the Monsters comic and in this 24 issue run pitted Godzilla against various foes from the Marvel Universe with “Dum Dum” Dugan Agent of S.H.E.I.L.D. tasked with bringing him down. In most cases Godzilla is portrayed as the lesser of two evils and as in the case of the Shōwa years he is more a reluctant hero than a villainous monster. It also leads to one of the greatest moments in the history of Godzilla where everyone’s favorite atomic lizard is shrunk and sneaks around New York City in a trench coat and hat.
Godzilla: The Animated Series (1978-1981) was co-produced by Toho and Hanna-Barbera Productions and pushed Godzilla even further into full on good-guy status. The show followed a group of scientists who travelled around the world via a hydrofoil research vessel, investigated strange events that were usually monster related, and whenever they got into a jam the Captain would press a button that would summon Godzilla.
This cartoon is most known for bringing the world Godzooki who is basically this shows Scooby-Doo as he’s a smaller version of Godzilla but there mainly for slapstick comedy. Godzooki was for those who didn’t think Godzilla’s son Minya was annoying enough. Watching the show one wonders if they called Godzilla for anything else but rescuing, I know that if I had a button that called Godzilla I’d be using it all the goddam time.
The Heisei series (1984–1995) It is in 1984 that we get his first big reboot in which we are told to ignore all the sequels that came before and that The Return of Godzilla is a direct sequel to the 1954 original. Back is the destructive Godzilla and also back are the darker themes and tone. In this series we also start getting some really boss Godzilla suits and he takes on some really amazing adversaries such as the new and improved Mechagodzilla, Space Godzilla and my favorite being the awesome plant monster Biolante. Who can but love a creature created from combining Godzilla’s cells with genetically mutated plants and the soul of the scientist’s dead daughter.
The Millennium series (1999–2004) This series is interesting as almost all of them are stand-alone reboots. Each film, with the exception of Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. are all again considered direct sequels to the 1954 original. These movies are much in the same vein of the Heisei series as Godzilla is still a terrible force that plagues mankind, but when something nastier comes along its lucky for mankind that Godzilla is around to kick its ass. For me the stand out in this series is Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack where it is discovered that Godzilla is imbued with lost souls of those who died during World War II and who are angered that their sacrifices have been forgotten. Now they want to destroy Japan.
Enter Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich with their CGI travesty. There aren’t many good things that can be said about the 1998 Godzilla film; Matthew Broderick was horribly miscast, Maria Pitillo as the ex-girlfriend was beyond annoying, and the creature itself just wasn’t Godzilla. And I’m not saying that because it wasn’t a man in the suit but because it just wasn’t Godzilla.
The design was more angry iguana than atomic fueled dinosaur, and he didn’t fucking breathe fire! If you have found yourself making a Godzilla film where at no point does he unleash atomic fire on his enemies you have made a grave mistake and should retire to making romantic comedies about fish.
Sixteen years later Gareth Edwards shows the world that you can do a decent CGI Godzilla.
Now in 2014 Godzilla has Hollywood going for the millionth reboot in the franchise to see if maybe they can get it right this time. Taking a page out of the Millennium series they depict Godzilla as a violent force of nature and then pit him against some other giant nasty monsters. There is something in this film about an EOD soldier trying to get home to his wife and kid, and who occasionally runs into some of the giant monster action, but really who cares about that shit when we have Godzilla smack downs to watch. In this film we may not get a lot of monster on monster action but what we do get is pretty damn spectacular and it certainly has me eager to see the next installment in the Legendary Godzilla series.
So there you have it, a quick look at the history of everyone’s favorite atomic lizard; he started out as an allegory for the dangers of nuclear weapons, drifted into some series goofy camp stuff, and then took a long trip back to being a dangerous badass. Here’s hoping for sixty more years of Godzilla!
Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.