With a purposeful grimace and terrible sound, he pulls the spitting high tension wires down. Helpless people on subway trains scream, bug-eyed, as he looks in on them. He picks up a bus and he throws it back down as we wades through the buildings toward the center of town. Oh no, it’s time for new Geek Life – Go! Go! Godzilla!
Geek Life Special #5: Godzilla
I spent the better part of this Summer looking back on movie series that have been a big part of my life. The Superman movies were such a big part of my childhood. In fact, the first Superman was the first movie I was ever taken to as a baby. The Kevin Smith View Askewniverse was a huge part of my life from ages 18 to 29. The X-Men movies were integral to the movies I enjoy today like Marvel’s Avengers franchise.
With only two more Geek Life Specials planned for the next, likely long, while, I wanted to take a look at two of my very favorite movie characters and series of all time. One, which I will bring out on October 5th, is a character celebrating his 50th anniversary on that exact date. But for this one, I look to one of the all time greatest monsters ever – the King of Monsters, himself, Godzilla.
I’m not sure there is another character in cinema history that is more recognizable than Godzilla. I’m not counting characters like Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man because they have a life outside of their film versions. I’m talking about purely cinematic character “recognizability” (yes, I know that’s not actually a word). Anyway, you could try saying that King Kong is just as recognizable, but I actually have a contention with that. Why? Because of Mighty Joe Young. Show a picture of Mighty Joe Young and people will think it’s King Kong unless they specifically recognize that there are two different characters. ”What about Dracula?” you ask? Dracula is the longest running cinematic character, but he’s simply a vampire. There are lots of vampires out there that act like Dracula and Vlad, himself, has been represented in several different ways as well. The design of Godzilla (in terms of the Japanese character and not the American abortion that came out in the 90s) has changed very little over the past 58 years. While he might have been characterized as both a villain and a hero over his lifetime, he’s pretty much stayed the same in terms of looks.
In terms of his pop cultural importance, think of all the movies that have mentioned him or parodied him in some way. He’s had a cameo in The Simpsons. Hannibal from the A-Team once disguised himself as a Godzilla-like character that was so popular, it was used in the opening credits time and time again when showing George Peppard’s name in the cast. He was eluded to in major motion pictures like this year’s The Amazing Spider-Man and in the second Jurassic Park movie. You can’t drop kick a balled-up Anguirus into a pile of famous movies, television shows, or books without hitting a time when Godzilla was mentioned or referenced in some way. Hell, even Michael Nesmith (of Monkees fame) made a parody of his classic “Joanne” called “Rodan” in his long-form video called Elephant Parts. That particular video ended with him wearing feet that looked like Godzilla’s while he trashed a town. That’s how far and deep the references go.
While many people look at the old Japanese movies with a chuckle at the badly overdubbed dialog and the obvious use of a guy in a rubber costume, I can’t believe there’s a single male who didn’t grow up loving at least one Godzilla movie – especially when they were little kids. I think comic artist Phil Hester said it best when I once asked him, “You grew up a Godzilla fan, right?” – an obvious tip of the hat that he not only drew some of the issues of IDW’s Godzilla: Kingdom of Monsters series, but as the inspiration for his own creation, Firebreather. He’s straightforward response of “Who didn’t?” couldn’t be more true for any character.
But what is it that makes Godzilla such a huge icon? Why is it that people gravitate toward these movies for so long? When I think about this from my own point of view, I think I find the reasons pretty quickly.
Let’s face it, there are two things that little kids love – dinosaurs and fantasy (even to the point of it crossing over to science fiction). There are so many people who grow up completely transfixed by dinosaurs. To this day, if I see a dinosaur on a book, a comic, or a t-shirt, I seriously give it some thought as to whether or not to buy it. They evoke so many thoughts and feelings about a world completely ruled by gentle giants and vicious monsters that, even though it’s our world dozens of millions of years ago, feels like a completely different planet. Knowing that their ultimate extinction paved the way for us to be here make dinosaurs so damned interesting. Even those people who grow out of their “dinosaur phase” don’t leave the idea of loving giant beasts behind. Removing the obvious animals like dogs, cats (and other domesticated animals), and primates (for their ability to show signs of intelligence and emotion and closeness to humans), it’s hard not to find someone who doesn’t like the larger animals like whales, dolphins, sharks, elephants, giraffes, hippos, and rhinos. It’s no surprise that these animals are closely linked to ancestors that would have been around slightly before or immediately after the fall of the dinosaurs. Either way, we tend to find ourselves gravitating toward those larger animals.
Then, add to that the different ways to tell stories. Kids, in particular, love wild and imaginative plots. I mean, seriously, think about the runaway success things like Transformers or Spongebob Squarepants have had. These are things that take off because they are so original and different. Whether or not they use more fantasy or sci-fi driven bases, the more it allows kids to use their imagination, the more beloved they become. Throw dinosaurs or other “monsters” into that mix and you’ve got something that will stick with children for the rest of their lives.
That’s exactly what makes Godzilla such a huge icon. It seems immune to the idea that the movies rarely have great plots or great special effects. It’s immune to so many things that would destroy other properties before they can even get off the ground – unless it’s something like Birdemic or Mega Piranha because those movies are god dammed amazing. Kids think of things as being so much bigger than life. Seeing something so recognizable, like a dinosaur or a moth or a three-headed dragon, blown up to even larger proportions and given some sort of personality is gold. At a very early age, even knowing Godzilla wasn’t a good guy most of the time, watching those movies on the local TV station’s Saturday Afternoon Matinees filled our hearts with such love that these different characters are still there to this day.
That’s exactly how I watched these movies – spending an entire Saturday glued to Channel 4′s marathon of the cheesiest of Godzilla flicks. Knowing that their Saturday afternoon programming would garner greater ratings by showing the movies in color, and the slightly more recent ones compared to the early to mid 80s, most of these Godzilla movies I saw as a kid were from the late 60s and 70s. This was a time when these movies were geared more for younger audiences. Godzilla and the other residents of Monster Island were mostly our friends (except for King Ghidorah… He’s a jerk). They had personalities like people. The Big G was the leader. Anguirus was his hapless sidekick. Mothra was pretty much Mother Earth with her little fairies protecting the planet from harm (her character really never changed from her very first appearance in her own movie). Even monsters like Kumonga, a giant spider, who had fought Godzilla before had now become his friend of sorts when all the monsters of the island teamed up to take down Ghidorah. The point is, there seemed to be a wonderment to them. They were giant monsters, but they also seemed like things that we could gaze lovingly at, and even protect us when evil aliens came to try to take over the planet.
Even as a kid, I knew that Godzilla’s earliest appearances made him out to be this force of destruction and not our friend – even Blue Oyster Cult told me that in their epic and classic song about everyone’s favorite monster. Those weren’t the movies I saw most of the time. Of course, as I grew up and understood the stories better, I definitely couldn’t ignore the more historical idea of why he went from monster to protector. However, as a kid, I saw movies like Son of Godzilla, Godzilla’s Revenge, Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster, and Godzilla vs. Megalon. These were the movies in which he was the champion of the people and protector of the Earth. These are some of the worst of the series, true, but as a kid, they were pretty awesome to spend a day watching.
As an adult, I recognize the original Godzilla, King of the Monsters! as the undisputed best of the series for how incredibly dark and disturbing some of the scenes are, but as a kid, my favorites were always Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and Terror of Mechagodzilla. ”A mechanical Godzilla? Seriously? How bad ass!” That’s pretty much what went through my eight-year-old brain when I saw these movies. Of course, by then, Transformers had also invaded the U.S. from Japan, so it’s no surprise that giant mechanical monsters mixed in with giant regular monsters would be my favorite thing in the world. Ever.
Even as I write this article, I can’t help but to have visceral reactions when thinking about Godzilla or any other giant monster. I could have taken this article in a direction where I laid out the history of the character and the three series of films that were made, but those are things that you can find in endless abundance online. There are so many sites dedicated to Kaiju (the Japanese term for giant monsters) that approach the topic of Godzilla in both a historical and a societal way. There are sites that approach the fandom side of things. Then there are sites that simply embrace the love of that sub-genre of sci-fi.
I guess I just wanted to share my love of giant monsters who just beat the crud out of each other and stomp through cities. That was the direction I decided to go with this retrospective of one of my very favorite fictional characters ever. I do think that there are so many who just don’t understand why so many people can so easily get into these pretty low budget and preposterously over-dubbed movies. To some, I suppose they think it’s just 90-100 minutes of monsters. There is a human element to these movies. While many of these movies in each of the series spend a great deal of time building the humans’ side of the story before unleashing the monster(s), one thing always remains constant – the people could never outshine the monsters featured in the movies.
That’s one of the main reasons why the Godzilla comics of late have been a little disappointing. The medium of comics demands that you get your main characters exposed to the audience as quickly as possible. Just think how angry you’d be if you bought the first issue of a Godzilla series and the monster didn’t even appear. So, now, writers, only using 20-25 pages of comic needs to balance the title character’s presence with something a little more than having the Big G stomping about wherever he shows up. While the screenwriters have always spent time giving people stuff to do, no matter how really insignificant it might be, the comics have had even less time to give exposition to what these people are doing. If you really want to see what Godzilla is all about, it’s always better to sit down and watch any one of the 28 (29 if you count the dumb American version) movies. The comics tend not to truly balance these story threads the way the movies do.
Then, there’s the whole idea of the personality confusion of the character. Is he a good guy or is he a bad guy? Thanks to the two more recent series (known as the Heisei and Millennium Series, respectively), Godzilla’s been a bad guy more often than he is a good guy. It was mostly during the original, Showa Series where he had become more of a protector and friend to the children. Either way, there’s no doubt that he’s considered a Japanese treasure. It’s a character they are proud of and own with such loving care. In a way, it helps him be someone that fans root for even when we know he’s the menace. In fact, Godzilla is probably one of the world’s favorite villains, probably second only to Darth Vader. Again, you could bring King Kong into this discussion, but usually the reason why we pull for the big ape is more out of guilt and identification than anything. Kong’s angry for being taken out of his environment by people who wanted to exploit him. I’m willing to bet King Kong is the sole inspiration for PETA (at least they could never convince me otherwise). Characters like Godzilla and Vader become so loved mostly out of being bad ass than us finding any true common ground with them.
To be perfectly honest with you all, even when I watch a movie in which Godzilla is the villain, I often find myself rooting for the big guy. That’s what’s so funny about a “villain” like him. Granted, as I mentioned earlier, most of the first movies I saw most often featuring the monster, he was a hero. However, it all comes back to that bad ass reputation he brings with him whenever he comes up out of the ocean. It’s not uncommon in these movies that you get some relatively silly or over-wrought plot involving the humans, or the army, or some reporter who wants to break a big story. When Godzilla rises from the water, at that point, we no longer care at all about that actual plot. All eyes go to Godzilla and we all collectively say, “Screw the humans! They had this coming!” (for whatever reason we can find that they have it coming). Somehow, some way, we begin to identify more with a guy in a rubber costume than we do with real flesh and blood people who are in mortal danger. It’s the brilliance of this whole series.
At this point, you can probably tell I could go on forever on this subject. I could go on about each of the supporting monsters, or monsters like Gamera who are completely separate from the Godzilla-verse, well beyond where this article should end. The point is, there’s nothing that gets me more giddy than the idea of two guys in rubber costumes knocking the hell out of each other. It speaks to a primal love fans have in the pits of their bellies. There’s such a spectacle to these movies and the actors play their roles so seriously and, at times, way over the top. It just brings a smile to my face. Maybe just as much as comics do, simply thinking about Godzilla makes reconnects to that kid inside me who is forever wowed by the magical effect giant monsters in a movie has.
To be fair, I should mention two more recent movies featuring Godzilla-like monsters that didn’t work – 1998′s American made Godzilla and the 2008, found footage style Cloverfield. Also, to be fair to myself, I’m not going to go too far into this because both movies bum me out big time. Cloverfield‘s problem is that I didn’t give two craps about the people who I was supposed to identify with. I’m not sure if my own desire to just get to the point where I get to actually see the monster tearing through New York made me like these jerks even less, or what, but it just felt flat and forced – which, mind you, is a major problem with some found footage movies. I appreciate to no end the attempt to merge the movie genres, but, man, I don’t know… By the end of the movie, I kept asking the characters to hurry up and die or escape, but, either way, get me out of this theater.
And then there’s 1998′s Godzilla. Oh wow. You have to think Sony/Columbia knew they had a real pile of turd on their hands. Why do I believe this? Think back to late 1997 through early 1998. How was this movie marketed? For a long while, we only saw something coming up out of the water and we saw a single eye and, if I’m not mistaken, heard the familiar roar. Later, we saw the foot, which does not look like Godzilla at all, mind you. we kept wanting to know what the damn monster looks like. It began making fans really worried about what this creature was going to be. It wasn’t until the last possible moment when Taco Bell started cranking out the promotional stuff that we realized, “Oh god, there has been a terrible mistake made… And worse, I already bought my damn tickets to watch the movie!” Now, I’m not going to be one of those guys that we have all heard before (usually in reference to the Star Wars prequels) and say this felt like someone, or something, raped my beloved childhood memories, but I am going to say that it was horrifically obvious this was just another Jurassic Park movie with no care for the source material. Now, if the script was worth a damn, then we might have something else to think about, but the script, plot, and dialog is WORSE than the creature they called Godzilla. All of this movie turned into a colossal pile of dump. What continues to make this movie an even bigger disappointment with each day that passes is that every time I search cable channels to watch a Godzilla flick, this movie keeps popping up. Seriously, this turd is on every single day on some Showtime channel. Out of all the other films in the actual series, you can’t find a different one than this one?!?
However, thankfully, that movie didn’t kill the character. Instead, the Japanese retaliated and gave us five more movies that fit nicely with the other classic films. Now, as we look to the 60th anniversary of when the big G first appeared on screen in Japan, it looks like Legendary Pictures has plans to make one more American attempt, and from everything they showed the fans at San Diego Comic Con, could they actually get it right this time? While what they showed wasn’t truly footage that came from a movie that’s already in full-on production, what they showed gave fans a real jolt of excitement. I don’t expect this new movie to be the greatest of them all, but I know I’m not alone in hoping it at least captures the essence of the classics and the character himself. If it can at least treat the franchise with respect, then we might just be in for a treat because the rest of it should fall into place… I mean, shouldn’t it?
That concludes the last of the “Summer of Specials” for Geek Life. I’ll be back with another special on October 5th when my all time favorite movie franchise turns 50. To give you a hint, let’s just say that I really should have planned this out better so I could make it the seventh special instead of it just being the sixth. Come back in a month to find out who this truly dashing hero is!