Among entertainment series based on extra-powerful intellectual property, Legendary Pictures’ so-called MonsterVerse is a latecomer and a lightweight. Beginning with “Godzilla” in 2014, it has generated four films, unexceptional beyond their special effects (and middling performers at the box office, by franchise standards), and an animated Netflix series. Not exactly a rampage.
Modesty can eventually have its virtues, though. Against the backdrop of Marvel’s recent multiversal inability to tell a coherent story, Legendary Television’s new series “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” (premiering Friday on Apple TV+) can feel like a breakthrough, or at least a welcome respite. Putting impressive visual effects at the service of a relatively straightforward, earthbound story, it has just enough nostalgic charm to invoke a more innocent era — say, mid-70s to mid-90s — of adventure filmmaking. (A gratuitous “Goonies” reference indicates that this is what the show’s creators, Chris Black and Matt Fraction, were trying for.)
Reinforcing that nostalgia is the casting of Kurt Russell, now 72 and making his first onscreen appearance in a scripted TV show in more than 40 years. Russell is as bright-eyed and sharply alert as ever, if a bit slower moving than we’re used to, in the role of Lee Shaw, an Army officer attached to a scary-monster-hunting organization called Monarch.
Russell shares the part with his son Wyatt — Kurt Russell plays Shaw as a supposedly burned out, comfortably imprisoned renegade in the show’s present, in 2015, while Wyatt Russell plays the younger Shaw, who is chasing titans (the term for Godzilla and its planet-threatening compatriots) during the 1950s. The resemblance is stronger, in every way, than the usual double casting. Through the eight of 10 episodes available for review, the show doesn’t bend time to bring the two Russells together, but a quick scene involving a grainy home movie provides a touching juxtaposition.
The show’s two time tracks are given nearly equal weight, increasing the visual variety and the opportunities for cliffhangers and reversals at the cost of character development and emotional involvement. In the past, Shaw is attached to a pair of scientists: the excitable Bill Randa (Anders Holm in a younger version of the role played by John Goodman in “Kong: Skull Island”) and the formidable Keiko Miura (Mari Yamamoto). These three flirt, track titans and lay the groundwork for Monarch in scenes that dance in and out of the narrative established in the films; Godzilla is once again baited into a close encounter with a nuke at Bikini Atoll in 1954, and an expedition to Kazakhstan forecasts later developments.
Much of the fun of “Monarch” is in those flashback scenes, which are shot with a retro Hollywood glow and benefit greatly from Yamamoto’s physical presence and flinty-sexy charisma. The modern story, set just after the destruction of San Francisco by Godzilla in the first film, starts out well but settles into a rut that’s more formulaic, in terms of the adventure story, and more melodramatic, in terms of family dynamics.
That track features Cate (Anna Sawai) and Kentaro (Ren Watanabe), half-siblings and the adult grandchildren of the monster hunters Keiko and Bill — their father, also a titan tracker, maintained separate families in America and Japan. The show opens with their discovery of each other, and there is some comedy and poignancy in their mutual disdain and distrust.
As they join forces with a young hacker, May (Kiersey Clemons), and the elder Shaw to go in search of their father, however, the show makes a mistake: It keeps playing the young characters on the same notes of anger, alienation and cynicism for too long. It’s not that their behavior isn’t believable — and the writers may have been trying to reflect the current unhappy zeitgeist — but they are too humorless, as written, to be very interesting, and the young actors, with the occasional exception of Clemons, aren’t able to overcome that. When Kurt Russell is onscreen with them, his wit gives you something to hold onto; when he’s not, it can be pretty heavy going.
When you are able to drum up some feeling for the characters, it can be hard to decide where to place it, especially in the modern story. The MonsterVerse — with its origins in the pacifist, anti-imperialist ideas of the original Godzilla films and the pastoral, anticapitalist ones of “King Kong” — has to carry out a more tricky thematic balancing act than other fantasy-adventure franchises: The corporation at its center is dark but not entirely evil; governments are harsh but not hapless or dictatorial; the monsters are terrifying and destructive, but just want to be left alone.
Through most of “Monarch,” those contradictions are not balanced in a way that makes consistently satisfying narrative and emotional sense, perhaps because of the demands of maintaining suspense across 10 episodes. You can put the gnawing questions aside, however, when Yamamoto, Holm and Wyatt Russell are making classic movie-matinee moves in the flashbacks, and whenever the truly impressive monsters rear their scaly heads in any time frame.