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Godzilla vs. Kong: Recounting The Historic Beef Between The Titans

The lead-up to Godzilla vs. Kong has been full of surprises. Two of cinema’s most iconic beasts duking it out for the first time in roughly 60 years, and with it, Warner Bros. and Legendary finally get to fulfill a major promise made when they established the MonsterVerse in 2014. The premise itself is enough to get fans flocking to theaters, but for something on this epic of a scale to be available right at home through a streaming service is an unprecedented milestone, practically guaranteeing that more people than ever will have their eyes on this fateful rematch. 

Make no mistake, this will be the match of 2021–the only difference here is it being on HBO Max instead of Pay-Per-View. Just like those battles in the ring (whether it’s a square or an octagon) Godzilla and Kong’s outing is one with a complex history. Yes, the two have only met once prior, but in between this time, the cultural zeitgeist has been stirring some beef, making it feel as if they have some legit score to settle. In a way, this is quite true, but to get a full understanding one has to dive into their rich histories, both on and off the screen.

Godzilla vs. Kong
(Courtesy of Legendary)

The Pre-Game 

Godzilla’s introduction to cinema was in 1954’s Gojira. A timeless classic that set an unparalleled bar in storytelling. Not even a full decade after the tragic WWII bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, a small group of daring Japanese filmmakers found the most unlikely way to express their grief and anger–through a monster movie. Out of these notable voices was Ishirō Honda, a veteran turned writer-director who had brushed with death multiple times during his 6-year service in the military. He and others made Gojira a heavy allegory for nuclear war and its unspeakable consequences.

The box office and cultural domination of Gojira, lead to the demand for more. Toho, Godzilla’s home studio, put a sequel immediately into production, fearing that what they had on their hands would soon get cold. The result is 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again, regarded as one of the most lackluster sequels in all the character’s 67-year history. With a disappointing performance at the box office, the studio couldn’t expect more from a rushed production with a multitude of limitations. Godzilla would go dormant for the next seven years. Who else to wake him up but Kong?

Unlike Godzilla, Kong’s ownership is a bit blurry. Though the way the two rose in popularity and eventually come face-to-face was extremely similar. After the success of the original 1933 King Kong classic, RKO Pictures put a sequel immediately into production. Son of Kong was released that same year to a weaker response and has since been largely forgotten. Godzilla Raids Again is still seen as lacking but fans at least recognize it for featuring the first of Godzilla’s frenemies, the armadillo-like Anguirus. ‘Little Kong’ didn’t come close to hitting the same high notes as his father sadly. Hollywood gave up on Kong and the IP laid dormant for the next 30 or so years, just enough time for cinema to gain a new perspective on monsters.

(Courtesy of Toho)

Round 1

Now with the two monsters in desperate need of a comeback, what better way to get people looking than starting an international rivalry? The actual conception of 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla is complicated enough to warrant its own article. To simplify, multiple Kong sequels were in development throughout the decades, all “vs.” films with different proposed foes (including a giant Frankenstein-like monster). It got awkward when each film was being developed by a different party who were under the assumption that they had the legal right to use Kong. A classic Hollywood issue of “who owns what”, filled with its fair share of lies and backstabbers, eventually, the rights landed on Toho’s lap. 

Toho was initially interested in making Kong films of their own, but they couldn’t resist the idea of reviving their baby in this deal. Godzilla replaced the original villain and King Kong vs. Godzilla was born. Director Ishirō Honda was on board, making it a true return to glory for the giant lizard. Though by this time, Hondo was more versed in Kaiju, having directed Rodan (1956), Varan the Unbelievable (1958), and Mothra (1961). Godzilla and Kong’s battle marked the first time both characters were presented in color and widescreen format. Despite original Kong creator Merian C. Cooper losing the legal battle to make his ideal sequel and hating the prospect of his character being portrayed by a man in a monkey suit, King Kong vs. Godzilla was every bit of a success Toho had bet on.

The film is still reportedly one of the most attended Godzilla entries at the Japanese box office, setting Toho on a path of greatness. Honda would go on to direct 6 more films in the series, pioneering the tone for what is known as the Showa Era (all Godzilla films from 1954-1975). The way he balanced genre and commentary with imaginative Kaiju action would become a standard. Honda used King Kong vs. Godzilla to touch on the ridiculous nature of the Japanese TV industry of the time. It’s represented in the plot by big corp. using the title monsters as free publicity for their greedy cause. It’s the kind of ridiculous plot that has since inspired the MonsterVerse and birthed its batch of timeless moments. See: “Eat your vegetables!”

Who Bows to Who?

This is where the real beef starts to form. One of cinema’s most notorious controversies comes from who exactly wins the final fight here–a controversy born out of an urban myth. Somewhere in the fragments of time, the notion spread of two different endings to this film: one where Kong wins shown in U.S. theaters and one where Godzilla wins shown in Japanese theaters. As fun or spicey as it may be, this is simply false. Born out of the idea to stir some kind of international cinematic feud. 

At the climax of King Kong vs. Godzilla, the giant gorilla-like ape recovers from a beatdown and starts to best the lizard with his newly discovered powers to harness electricity. Call it cheap, they had to give Kong some new advantage. He literally has no powers and the film makes clear that Godzilla’s atomic breath can f*ck him up. So, after the two throw some more hands and reach the summit of Mount Fuji, their abilities are matched, and there’s nowhere to go but down. They take each other off the cliff and plummet into the crashing waves. After some underwater chaos (not shown to the audience) only Kong resurfaces and gets to walk away. 

A few things need to be cleared. First, the human characters acknowledge that even though Kong solely resurfaced, “it’s possible” that Godzilla isn’t dead (as translated from Japanese). Second, he wasn’t dead because he did come back for more sequels in the years to come. Third, despite there being a separate U.S. edit of the film, the ending stays the same–as the original version features the American monster winning anyway. 

Hollywood heavily bastardizing Godzilla films for the U.S was nothing new at that point. After the rights for the first two films were purchased for distribution, whichever studio would heavily rewrite, re-edit, and even retitle them to fit the American market. They were barely even the same movies, and although something similar did happen with King Kong vs. Godzilla, again, the final result was left unchanged. The only thing worth mentioning here is that both of the monsters’ roars can be heard after the credits in the Japanese cut, as the American cut only features Kong’s. Sneaky.

(Courtesy of Toho)

Endless Debate

Many believe Kong to be the only opponent in Godzilla’s 67-year history to beat him. A popular saying, yet there is still a good amount of rebuttal. The first counter-argument is that King Kong vs. Godzilla technically ends in a tie since Godzilla didn’t die. Though a good response to that would be that Kong still won because Godzilla swam away underwater like a coward. Also, the idea of Godzilla “losing” is a bit tricky. For a good portion of his career, Godzilla has been portrayed as a traditional villain. Whether it be other kaiju or the human protagonists, Godzilla has been beaten before, but to only come back at the end of the day. Fun fact: he’s even returned after literally being swallowed by a black hole. 

One can count the number of times Godzilla has technically died with one hand: the respective films from 1954, 1984, 1993, 1995, and 2001. Still, in three of these examples, he is either somehow revived or revealed to not be dead in a physical or metaphorical sense. Fans have only seen the character die in the most literal way twice in all of history (no the 1998 American film doesn’t count).

Toho would go on to produce one more film with Kong before they lost the rights to the character, 1976’s King Kong Escapes which is also directed by Honda. Instead of Godzilla, this film is famous for pitting Kong against Mechani-Kong, a robotic nemesis à la Mechagodzilla. Ever since fans never thought that they would see the titans’ butt heads again due to rights issues. Thanks to a deal struck by Universal (who held the rights to Kong and are responsible for 2005’s King Kong), Legendary, and Warner Bros., fans can finally get Godzilla vs. Kong. With Warner Bros.’ deal with Toho, Universal made the move in a 4D chess play that would benefit both studios in building expanded movie universes.

(Courtesy of Legendary)

Round 2

Godzilla vs. Kong has finally arrived (check out my review here). Many will be going into this movie not knowing what to expect. Fair. It’s a colossal battle of epic proportions, but because the two icons at the center have something to settle. After years of debate and controversy, and some cross-border tension, will there finally be a definitive winner? Director Adam Wingard has certainly said so in the past, but there seems to be more than meets the eye with this film.

As of this moment, Godzilla vs. Kong is the last film in the MonsterVerse, as it was last reported that Toho’s deal with Warner Bros. would end after 3 movies. Toho is looking to continue making films of their own, following the wide success of Shin Godzilla in 2016. They agreed to pause their franchise to let Godzilla shine in Hollywood, and after 5 years of waiting, one would think that they are ready to move on. There hasn’t been any news on this front in years, but perhaps all will be made clear when a winner is declared. Even if this is the end of the MonsterVerse, Godzilla getting one more rematch with the Eighth Wonder of the World would truly be a way to bow off stage.

Godzilla vs. Kong is now in theaters internationally and available to stream on HBO Max beginning March 31 (in the USA).

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