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Anna Sawai faces the source of her character’s trauma in Monarch: Legacy of Monsters. Courtesy Apple TV+

A friend and I recently commiserated that keeping up with the Marvel movies and TV shows is beginning to feel like homework, how if you missed one episode or film, you’re lost for the next story, not helped by the overall decrease in quality. Apple TV’s new series Monarch: Legacy of Monsters manages to avoid these pitfalls by not being overly reliant on the Godzilla and Kong movies it’s spun off from and by telling a thrilling story all its own.

Starting with a terrifying prologue set during the events of 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, the series then introduces us to Cate (Anna Sawai), an American woman visiting Japan looking for information about her recently deceased father. What she discovers is her father’s secret other family, including half-brother Kentaro (Ren Watabe). Together they find another secret of his: computer files tying him to Monarch, the covert monster-hunting organization introduced in 2014’s Godzilla. This leads them to connect with Lee Shaw (Kurt Russell), an old friend of the family and former Monarch agent, who leads them on a globetrotting quest to discover what really happened to the father.

Meanwhile, back in the 1950s, a younger Shaw (Wyatt Russell) is helping scientists Keiko (Mari Yamamoto) and Billy (Anders Holm) study the giant monsters before they’re either discovered and destroyed or they run amok and eat some unfortunate extras.

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With a little bit of mysterious, X-Files-esque organizational coverups and Lost’s character-focused tales told between time periods, Monarch manages to avoid the problems of many giant-monster or kaiiju stories by not only focusing on the humans but making them worth watching. Cate and Kentaro’s relationship, based on the bitter discovery of the secrets held by a man they both loved, makes their journey to learn more about him relatable as they face all-too-human frailties in a world that’s been turned upside down. And Keiko and Billy’s adventures in the past as they discover monsters and try to start an organization to study them are engaging and exciting — they’re as invested as the viewers are with the creatures.

And the series doesn’t skimp on them. While not a Monster of the Week-type show, each episode does have at least a few exciting sequences with a new kaiju. But while the Big G may feature heavily in the series’ promotion, this isn’t Godzilla: The Streaming Show. He’s just one of many monsters the characters encounter as they chase secrets and study the unknown. That’s not to say he’s absent. Godzilla’s presence looms large. “G Day” is referred to like a new 9/11, people participate in evacuation drills in case he arrives, and, most of all, since Cate was on the Golden Gate bridge when he crashed through it, she has severe PTSD.

In lieu of weekly Godzilla, the show has its own secret human weapons: the casting of Kurt and Wyatt Russell as older and younger versions of the same character. Wyatt, who broke out on shows like Lodge 49 and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, is clearly having a blast doing an impression of his iconic father as Lee helps form Monarch in the ’50s, while Kurt gets to play an old monster-hunting soldier who’s seen a lot and is too old to care about getting in trouble. Lee also provides a tether between the two groups of characters and time periods, and the show is always a little more exciting when they’re on screen. This isn’t to say the other humans are boring — far from it — but they’re all certainly helped along by the Russells.

The complaints are few. Of the characters, only Kentaro’s tech-savvy ex May (Kiersey Clemons) feels ancillary, though with only three episodes shown so far, she’s got room to grow, and fans clamoring for Godzilla: The Streaming Series are going to be disappointed. And while Kong himself makes an appearance only in footage from his 2017 film, here’s hoping the Eighth Wonder of the World doesn’t let Godzilla steal all the kaiju cameo energy.

 

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters
Created by Chris Black and Matt Fraction. Starring Anna Sawai, Ren Watabe, Mari Yamamoto, Wyatt Russell, and Kurt Russell.

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