Godzilla might be king of the ‘kaiju,’ but he’s still having a hard time at the box office

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In this weekend’s battle for box office supremacy, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” came out on top. The latest installment of the franchise—and following 2014’s “Godzilla” and 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island,” the third entry in what Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. are calling the “MonsterVerse” film universe—collected $49 million in the U.S. over the weekend, beating competition like the live-action “Aladdin” remake and the Elton John biopic “Rocketman.”

But despite the first-place finish, Legendary might have cause for concern: Godzilla isn’t quite roaring like he used to.

Diminishing Returns

The $49 million opening for “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is significantly less than the $93 million that “Godzilla” pulled in over its opening weekend. It’s also less than the $61 million “Kong: Skull Island” made in its opening frame in March 2017. That’s a troubling trend for an expensive franchise (“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” reportedly cost around $200 million to make, not including marketing).

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“You can’t make an epic monster movie without spending some money,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, told Variety. “The fact that it earned less than the previous films may be an indicator that some creative risks or a different perspective on the genre could be needed to reinvigorate it and keep it relevant.”

Monster Movie or Melodrama?

Dergarabedian has it right; Godzilla needs to shift creative gears. Following the lead of the 2014 remake,Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is heavy on human melodrama. The story centers on a family (Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, and Millie Bobby Brown) fractured by Godzilla’s previous attack on San Francisco. It also turns out that this family has some expertise in hunting giant monsters; one of too many plot contrivances.

Like “Kong: Skull Island,” the new Godzilla features a ridiculously overqualified cast. This includes comedians (Thomas Middleditch, who is not really given any funny lines), two-time Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins (one of the few characters returning from the last “Godzilla”) and international stars like Ken Watanabe and Ziyi Zhang. The problem is that the movie devotes way too much time to this impressive collection of actors, rather than giving us the giant monster battles we signed up for.

The other issue boils down to plain stupidity. The more “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” delves into Monarch, the secret organization that monitors and studies Godzilla and his fellow Titans, the more idiotic the premise seems. Simply put, why would anyone work for an organization whose job sites are adjacent to creatures that could destroy your life’s work and kill you simply by taking a step?

Fights are Tight

All this said, when “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” actually gets down to giant monster fights, it’s frequently thrilling. The redesign of classic Toho Studios characters like Mothra, King Ghidorah, and especially Rodan are spectacular. As with the last “Godzilla,” the destruction of cities is frequently shown from the perspective of the average person on the street, giving the movie an intimate feel that adds real terror. And in IMAX, the scale of the monsters and their destruction feels appropriately imposing.

Still, there’s a reason why “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is sitting at a lousy 39 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. In an odd way, it’s the rare blockbuster that would have benefitted from less story and character development.

Why so Serious?

A big part of what made “Kong: Skull Island” so good was its unabashed campiness. Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman chewed the scenery, while the always great John C. Reilly provided comic relief. Along with some amazing shots and set pieces, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts got the tone just right.

That’s where “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” director Michael Dougherty goes wrong. Godzilla should be at least a little cheesy (though not as cheesy as the terrible 1998 version directed by Roland Emmerich). The dark, somber tone of the past two “Godzilla” movies makes what should be a light, fun experience into something grave and gritty.

New Contender?

Despite the creative issues and disappointing U.S. box office, Godzilla remains a major international draw. Overseas, “King of the Monsters” collected an additional $130 million for a global opening of $179 million.

Regardless of its final box office haul, Legendary is already moving ahead with another crossover: Godzilla’s battle with King Kong. That movie, currently titled “Godzilla vs. Kong,” wrapped shooting in April and is currently pegged for release in March 2020.

Directed by Adam Wingard (“You’re Next,” “The Guest”), “Godzilla vs. Kong” will feature Millie Bobby Brown and Kyle Chandler reprising their roles from “King of the Monsters,” along with Alexander Skarsgård, Rebecca Hall, and Bryan Tyree Henry.

Pray to Godzilla

With the new “Godzilla’s” somewhat tepid opening, producers may be worried about the upcoming crossover. Hopefully, they will deliver a movie more closely aligned to the lighter tone of “Kong: Skull Island” than the more serious Godzilla movies. Unlike the generally smaller returns of direct sequels, box office experts believe the crossover can improve on “King of the Monsters’” gross.

“As much as they are connected and part of a MonsterVerse, they all rise and fall on their own,” Paul Dergarabedian also told Variety. “If the trailer is killer, the marketing is great, and the timing is right, [“Godzilla vs. Kong”] could be bigger. You just never know. You can have an ebb and flow, but that doesn’t mean you need to give up on a franchise.”

Since that film has already wrapped, we’re guaranteed at least one more look at Godzilla. But if his battle with Kong fails to find an audience, we could see the King of the Monsters go back into movie hibernation.