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When it comes to the history of movie monsters, be they Large Scale Aggressors, Kaiju or Titans, everyone’s history traces back to that god among lizards, Godzilla. Most recently returning to theaters in this summer’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and with Godzilla vs. Kong set to strike at some point in the next year, it’s a vital time in the modern history of this landmark franchise.
Of course, to really understand the future, we must look to the storied past of Godzilla and his various adventures with colleagues of all shapes and sizes. In that context, it felt like a good time to go through the many adventures of Toho’s legendary creation and rank the 10 best entries to have ever stomped onto the screen.
10. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)
What would the world be like without Godzilla? It’s a question that’s worth asking, and one that 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah attempts to answer, with a group of beings known as The Futurians trying to prevent his existence through the use of time travel.
It's hard to talk about this movie without bringing up the elephant in the room, which is that it's been accused of harboring anti-American sentiments, right down to the motivations of The Futurians focusing on preventing Japan from becoming an economic superpower that surpasses the world in the future.
That doesn’t stop Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah’s monsters from shining, especially when it shows the audience what its titular monsters looked like before their mutations. Godzilla also gets to play both sides of the hero/villain coin, showcasing that ambivalence to humanity that we’ve seen reiterated in more recent Godzilla films.
In a perfect world, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah would have set a new standard for the series’ output in the ‘90s, especially after producing Mecha-King Ghidorah as a new fan favorite. Unfortunately, as the budgets for the Godzilla franchise declined over the rest of the decade, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah was more of a high point for the era than a trendsetter; even if it’s relatively one of the canon’s crazier entries.
9. King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
The story of King Kong is a tale of humanity and beast-clashing, after the former tries to exploit the latter. It’s a plot so nice, King Kong vs. Godzilla decided to tell it twice, as the famous beast would be captured in the name of boosting Japanese TV ratings. Though Godzilla just happens the be awoken from an icy sleep, and eventually takes on his fellow Titan, in a showdown we’ll see modernized in next year’s Godzilla vs. Kong.
What started as King Kong vs. Frankenstein changed its concept drastically once Toho got involved and decided that they wanted Kong to face one of their own monsters instead. With only two Godzilla films existing in 1962, the well-received original and the less-well-received Godzilla Raids Again, the series was in need of a save. Which meant it was time for Godzilla to pack his bags and square off against the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Strangely enough, King Kong was the more popular monster of the era, even after almost 30 years of existence. That led him to become the marquee character and the hero of the movie. If it wasn’t for the success of King Kong vs. Godzilla, we’d have never gotten the multitude of “Godzilla vs. X” sequels that followed.
While still a weaker entry in the Godzilla movie canon, and the plot largely a knockoff of the original King Kong, except with Godzilla added into the film, the filmmakers' love for both monsters shines through in this ambitious crossover.
8. Invasion of the Astro Monster, aka Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965)
Acting as a sort of sequel to 1964's Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster, this film actually recycled footage from that film, and several others from the Toho monster universe, to create a new narrative altogether.
With that monster firmly established in the canon, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero is a classic story of aliens kidnapping monsters and using them for their own nefarious purposes. Namely, the villainous Xiliens’ plot to blackmail the Earth’s leaders to either surrender the planet to their control, or destroy it through their control over Godzilla, Rodan and King Ghidorah.
Though there’s plenty of other intrigue involving intergalactic espionage and assassination also thrown into the mix, should you want something out of the usual mold of monsters destroying monsters. Throw in Godzilla dancing a jig, and Godzilla vs. Monster Zero is a fun romp for everyone to enjoy!
7. Terror of MechaGodzilla (1975)
Another tale of remaking/recycling concepts from the Toho library, Terror of MechaGodzilla owes a lot to 1974's Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla. That previous film introduced Godzilla's mechanical twin, but the movie itself can be a bit of a drag with a plot that feels tacked-on and an infamously-long musical number.
Where Terror of MechaGodzilla gets it right is in the fact that it tones down some of the wackiness of its predecessor, as well as ditches that musical number. In its place is the story of Shinzô Mafune, a mad scientist that wants to destroy humanity. Another game of “Spies vs. Aliens” breaks out, as warring factions try to wage all-out war with various kaiju, including Titanosaurus and another MechaGodzilla, leaving the OG Godzilla to clean up the mess and save humanity.
Terror of MechaGodzilla has some fun with its story, as it firmly remembers the events of Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla enough to give its robotic villain a second head, which allows it to avoid the same method of destruction Godzilla used against it in the previous film. Aliens don't fall for the same trick twice, even if the footage happens to be recycled!
6. Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)
In 2004, Godzilla was going on hiatus for the third time, and it would prove to be the longest hiatus in the franchise. Before the franchise went dormant, not to be seen again until 2014’s Godzilla, Godzilla: Final Wars was one more excuse to throw literally every monster at the screen, as our hero would be employed to save the world one battle at a time.
And when we say every monster was used in this film, we mean it! This film actually saw the one true Toho Godzilla face off (and win!) against “Zilla,” who you would know as the featured creature from Roland Emmerich’s 1998 disasterpiece starring Matthew Broderick.
This is a movie where the heroes are a mustachioed muscleman who commands a flying laser battleship and a superhuman monster fighter who does wall runs while shooting off laser guns. And make no mistake, there are a lot of lasers to be fired in this movie.
It’s important to understand that there’s two major types of dumb movies. Some pretend that they're not dumb and try gamely to move along, while others ask you to accept that they're dumb and just go with it.
Godzilla: Final Wars is neither of those type of movies. Instead, this film creates a new breed of beast: a dumb movie that defiantly locks your gaze and then just cackles maniacally because it knows there's nothing you can do to stop it.
All of this madness culminates in a third act that is basically a long montage of Godzilla wrecking everybody and everything. Sure it's dumb, but it doesn't care and neither do we.
5. Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)
With some of the most ambitious special effects in the franchise, Godzilla vs. Biollante begins as a story that sees the Japan Self-Defense Force experimenting with Godzilla's cells to create a way to destroy him. But, of course, in pure sci-fi fashion, the titular opponent this time is a genetically modified plant that Godzilla himself will have to take down, for the sake of the planet.
That may sound like a terrible opponent for a monster that breathes radioactive fire, but Biollante is more than just a big flower. In a franchise where the monsters are normally men in suits, Biollante breaks the pattern with a non-humanoid monster that absolutely dwarfs Godzilla in size.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of Godzilla vs. Biollante was that it introduced the most iconic design for the creature in its entire franchise. While the suit would change a little over the next couple of movies, the fundamental design that was introduced in this movie remained until Godzilla vs. Destroyah in 1995, and since that time has continued to be a mainstay of Godzilla merchandise, as well as a landmark that’s honored at Toho’s own studios and a hotel that houses a life-sized bust of Godzilla’s head.
4. Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)
When Toho revived its Godzilla movies in the new millennium, it poached rival director Shusuke Kaneko to make Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. A unique spin on the boss kaiju from their universe, Kaneko’s success with a Gamera reboot in the mid ‘90s was all it took to get him on board for this rather interesting reinterpretation of the storied character.
The movie reimagines Godzilla not as nuclear mutant, but as a vengeful spirit out to punish Japan for trying to forget the role it played in World War II. The only hope for the Japanese people are three mystical guardians: Baragon, Mothra and King Ghidorah.
The Godzilla of Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack isn't a force of nature or a confused animal like in previous movies. He's deliberately cruel, tormenting humans and monsters alike during his rampage. It's the only Godzilla movie where Godzilla is going out of his way to deliberately kill people and monsters alike, because he hates them. Godzilla has been a villain in many movies before this one, but this movie is the only one where he's truly evil.
3. Shin Godzilla (2016)
In the wake of the 2014 Godzilla movie it co-produced, Toho stepped back to the plate to show that they could still make Godzilla its way, with Neon Genesis Evangelion director Hideki Anno at the helm.
While the original 1954 Godzilla drew its parallels to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, Shin Godzilla uses the Fukushima meltdown as its central allegory. The story follows government officials in their baffled, ineffectual response to a threat that they don't know how to handle.
This political satire is a new realm for the Godzilla franchise, but Anno navigates it well. The subtle gags carry what would otherwise be a boring first act full of political meetings, and just when the audience starts to relax and wait for the next joke is when Shin Godzilla turns into the full on monster movie one would expect it to be.
Creature-wise, Shin Godzilla’s central kaiju is an incredibly weird creature, both in its appearance and its array of strange powers, which include, but are not limited to growing in size and asexual reproduction. It’s a shame barely anyone in America got to see this one during its theatrical release, as Shin Godzilla was a pretty big deal.
2. Destroy All Monsters (1968)
Destroy All Monsters was actually intended to be the big farewell to Toho's entire monster menagerie; one more big brawl before all of the monster suits went into storage forever. Seeing as it was supposed to be the last time any of the suits were used, there wasn’t a reason that the studio shouldn’t have used all of them, so it did.
This is, unequivocally, The Avengers of Godzilla movies, as Destroy All Monsters features a dozen monsters in a worldwide rampage, smashing cities from New York to Moscow instead of just Japan, in a plot that revolves around alien invaders using these monsters to conquer Earth in the far-distant future of 1999.
It's an undoubtedly silly movie, but Destroy All Monsters is one that's impossible to resist the campy charm of, right down to that amazing title that almost always guaranteed you’d stop on a dime in any listing that contained it. While it was intended as a grand finale, Destroy All Monsters helped revive the franchise and kept it churning out sequels until 1975.
1. Godzilla (1954)
It feels a bit traditional to put 1954’s Godzilla at the top of the list, but it's difficult to find a reason not to. Not only does it has the obvious advantage of being the original, the film also invented everything that we’ve come to know and love about the franchise.
Godzilla is more than just a monster movie; it's a somber allegory for the inescapable power of the atomic age and the sacrifices that would be needed to survive it. Originating the series as a chilling parable that illuminated the fears of this technological age, even its infamous re-edited version for American audiences, starring Raymond Burr’s Steve Martin, managed to keep the grim tone that director Ishiro Honda was trying to strike.
This was also where Eiji Tsuburaya's now-famous "suitimation" technique was used for the first time, with Haruo Nakajima's debut as the man in the Godzilla suit, a role he would continue to play until 1972. Even the music associated with these large scale creatures originated here, with Akira Ifukube’s timeless themes just recently coming back into play with 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
Looking back on Godzilla’s debut, and the various incarnations that saw their way to screens in the following decades, the original is a revolutionary sci-fi film. He may not have been the first giant monster, or even the first radioactive mutant of the '50s, but the rules previously laid out in the genre by films like King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms went out the window with Godzilla's arrival.
While the modern world saw Godzilla’s playbook reinvented by films like Cloverfield, Pacific Rim and even the newer Godzilla movies that came in 2014 and beyond, the history that precedes our modern understanding is still sacrosanct. Godzilla wouldn’t be who he is if it wasn’t for that first film, or any of these films, and that’s why they hold up as the gold standard of what audiences should expect from the Warner Bros. MonsterVerse, and any other giant monster movie that should come after. Long live the king!