Greetings, fellow geeks. I come to you bearing a gift … a totally unnecessary gift that took up a lot of time and I don’t get paid at all for this and I’m not entirely sure why I did this to myself but …
A monumental clash of titans is about to occupy our theaters and our TV screens (the latter is courtesy of HBO Max). That movie, of course, is Godzilla vs. Kong. It promises to be an epic battle between two monsters who have occupied our VHS shelves and TV screens for just short of 100 years.
In the lead-up to this movie, I decided to take it upon myself to watch every. single. Godzilla and Kong movie ever made. That way, in case you haven’t had the chance to experience all of these movies, you are still at least equipped with all of the backstory and information you’ll need for Godzilla vs. Kong‘s drop on March 31.
It was a journey. There were monsters. There were giant monke. There were aliens. There were cockroaches. There were alien cockroaches.
I watched many of these movies for the first time and journaled some of my quick thoughts about each and every one. But, through it all, I serendipitously got to experience the zeitgeist of filmmaking from the ‘30s on—the connecting thread, of course, being Godzilla and/or Kong—and it was fascinating to see how film has evolved through the decades.
So join me on part one of my totally unnecessary journey. In this article, I explore the first half of this 46-movie marathon. And who wins the Godzilla vs. Kong debate? Well, for that, you’ll have to stick around for part two.
King Kong (1933)
The classic. Monster movies in Hollywood had certainly existed before this one (House of the Devil, Nosforatu), but Kong took that success to the nth degree. The movie, overall, holds up pretty well.
The setup that gets our crew to Kong Island is believable, and Ann Darrow is a memorable character who helps carry the movie. The Claymation/puppet Kong is beyond dated but somehow still … works? Also, fairly impressive how they were able to make the giant dinosaurs and the actors blend together.
What makes this movie a classic, though, is the thematic element of the beast being brought into man’s kingdom. We witness Kong in battle after battle, taking on gigantic beasts and owning all of them. Kong is a god, but then men capture him, disrespect him, put him in chains, and we’re surprised he reacts the way he does? He’s a king out of his kingdom, and the tragic ending amplifies that.
Method of defeat: Airplanes, beauty
Son of Kong (1933)
Due to the success of its predecessor, this one was rushed. Released nine months(!) after the original, this takes a totally different direction.
The guy who captured Kong in the first movie escapes the debt collectors coming for him after all the damage he caused to New York City. In a comical romp, he somehow ends back up at the island, where he meets Kong’s albino, adolescent son.
Kong’s son is actually friendly and helpful, and not a great fighter. Just kind of a goofball. He helps the humans track down an ancient treasure, and then the island suddenly just kinda starts … falling apart? If it had to do with the island’s treasure and a curse, it wasn’t clearly presented. And what of all the islanders? Son of Kong ultimately gets screwed over and tragically sacrifices himself to help the humans escape. His dad’s killer gets away … and gets the girl. Womp womp.
Method of defeat: Random act of God
And here he is, the King of Monsters.
After a typhoon wrecks a seaside village, the actual reveal of Godzilla is a little underwhelming, but overall, some of the scenes of destruction are pretty satisfying.
The human-centric story includes a love triangle as well as the woman’s scientist dad who is conflicted about eliminating Godzilla. It feels a little bit like an afterthought, but it gets past the bumps toward the end, especially when the woman reveals a secret she’s been keeping at the behest of her ex-lover, which is an oxygen destroyer he’s invented.
Her dad, ever the scientist, sees the tragedy of having to kill Godzilla, and I agree. Mankind woke him up, so it’s not entirely his fault that he’s grumpy. It’s also impossible not to see the latent trauma of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings etched into this story; there’s even one character who mentions she barely escaped Hiroshima … right before Godzilla strikes. More added tragedy.
Method of defeat: Oxygen destroyer
Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
Oh, but wait, there’s more than one Godzilla! And, even better, there are more giant monsters!
In this one, we get introduced to a full-on kaiju brawl, and it is glorious. Godzilla takes on his foe Anguirus, a dinosaur creature who walks on all fours, has an alligator snout, and a spiked shell. The old-school special effects make this movie a treat. Just two guys dressed up in lizard suits duking it out. This is art, people, and I’m sorry for you if you can’t see that.
Otherwise, there’s a long drag in the middle where we’re trying to follow the mishmash of pilot buddies (friends from a recent war, but which wa—ohhhh…) but then we return to trying to take Godzilla out once and for all. They end up luring Godzilla into a snowy ravine, where they create an avalanche and entomb him in ice.
Method of defeat: Luring Godzilla into an avalanche
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
So, you’re telling me we did this before?
This one is a little bit of a hodgepodgey effort that tries to bring in some American cast members who … aren’t great actors. Oh, and it’s kinda their fault that Godzilla wakes up in this movie, on account of them running their nuclear sub into the iceberg that had trapped Godzilla for seven or so years.
When we finally get a glimpse of Kong, he’s quite ugly. And then after giving some islander kids some cigarettes (I’m not joking), Japanese soldiers decide to capture Kong and take him back to Japan. Kong wakes up, yeets off his wooden raft, and goes to confront Godzilla. Godzilla gives him a roasty blast to the chest, and Kong just ain’t having it. He goes off, Godzilla continues his march, and Japan’s finest toy army is no match.
Kong comes back, does what other monsters pick up on in later movies and hones in on attacking Godzilla’s tail, the two wrestle around a bit, fall off a cliff, and then we just kinda see Kong swimming back home. The end?
Method of defeat: Two bros, locked in each other’s arms, falling off a cliff
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
This one is so delightfully weird, I couldn’t help but be charmed by it.
A reporter and his photographer assistant discover a strange-looking object floating in the water. And that’s before a giant egg shows up. Crooked businessmen almost immediately lay claim to the egg, thinking of making it the centerpiece of an amusement park, but then we see who might get a better claim to the egg: two tiny little fairy twins (played by vocalist sisters The Peanuts) from Infant Island who say (in unison, as the almost always do) the egg belongs to Mothra and the larva inside present danger unless they are returned.
A power struggle over the egg ensues, but then Godzilla shows up, spurring Mothra to use her last reserves of energy to keep her egg safe from the giant, fire-breathing lizard. The larva awaken, team up, web up Godzilla with their wormy silks, and send him off into the ocean. The fairy twins ride off the giant larva into the sunset on their way back to Infant Island.
This movie has a very ’60s vibe to it, and the addition of the Shobijin twins to Godzilla lore is a key moment of this franchise’s history.
Method of defeat: Silky nets
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
This one doesn’t quite have the magic of the last one (and if we haven’t already, we’ve definitely veered into Godzilla movies aimed at kids), it still has a delightful amount of weird.
A young princess is trying to escape an assassination attempt, but while her airplane is in the sky during a meteor shower, she is told by a strange voice to jump out—right before the plane blows up. A cop who was assigned to protect the princess thinks his duties are over before they even began—until she shows up in fisherman’s clothes, claiming she comes from Venus (yes, the planet) warning of great danger.
Meanwhile, a scientist investigates a strange meteorite that has magnetic force. Unfortunately, it turns out to be what the Venusian prophet had predicted: King Ghidorah, a horrifying beast that destroyed her planet (for a horrifying beast, Ghidorah sure does sound like a cell phone chirping).
Godzilla is working out a feud he has with Rodan (a giant pterodactyl), but Ghidorah spells doom to even them. Unfortunately, they can’t overcome their differences … that is until the humans plead with Mothra (still in larva form) to come unite Godzilla and Rodan against Ghidorah. They, at first don’t want to cope, so Mothra inches off to go after Ghidorah herself. Seeing Mothra’s reckless bravery, Godzilla and Rodan decide to team up, beat up on Ghidorah, and the planet killer decides to just … fly off. Satisfied, Mothra heads back to Infant Island and Godzilla and Rodan just kinda decide they’re cool.
A little bit of a bloated mess, but the cast rolls with the Venutian prophet plot and sells it.
Method of defeat: Monster team up!
Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)
We are in full-blown ‘60s-obsession-with-space-and-aliens mode.
Two astronauts—one Japanese, one American—land on the mysterious Planet X, where they are quickly ushered underground by strange aliens who assure them this is their safest move. They say a strange beast roams the surface and wreaks havoc, and that beast is—Ghidorah.
The aliens convince our heroes that they have the technology to capture Godzilla and Rodan, who helped defeat Ghidorah on earth (“Wow, okay.” – Mothra), which they do. In return, the aliens promise a formula that cures all diseases. We get a monster space battle, including some soccer kicks back and forth with some rocks (a recurring gag in these movies), and then Ghidorah flies off again.
However, the aliens renege on their promise and instead decide to use Godzilla and Rodan as part of their plan to take over Earth. The humans of Earth fight back, eventually destroy the machine mind-controlling Godzilla and Rodan, which results in another fight when Ghidorah shows up (and probably the same footage of him flying away in defeat from the last movie). The aliens blow up, Earth is saved.
Where aliens made the last movie fun, they just feel like a forced product of the times.
Method of defeat: Blowing up the UFOs
Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966)
We’re deep into Godzilla-for-kids territory now.
A young man visits a spiritualist, who tells him his brother—thought to be lost in a boat tragedy—is still alive. He’s determined to find him, so through a random series of events, he finds himself off on a stolen yacht with a professional thief and two dance competition dropouts. They run into Ebirah, a giant lobster monster, who destroys their yacht and leaves them stranded on a strange island.
The island is occupied by an evil terrorist organization called Red Bamboo (terrifying!) that is kidnapping Infant Islanders and forcing them to create a yellow liquid that keeps Ebirah away from their boats. The yacht crew teams up with a native girl who escaped and work to wake up Godzilla—who is a very sleepy boy in this movie—using a sword and metal wire conducting electricity from lightning. They hope Godzilla will fight Ebirah to give them a chance to escape, which he does.
However, Red Bamboo decides to just blow up the island. The Infant Islanders are able to summon Mothra to their rescue, Godzilla briefly interrupts her efforts before going back to handle Ebirah. Everyone leaves, including Godzilla, just before the island blows up.
This feels like a campy, kid-friendly James Bond-meets-Gilligan’s-Island kaiju brawl that doesn’t really land. The monster fights are especially tame, given the title of the movie.
Method of defeat: Godzilla eating lobster claws
Son of Godzilla (1967)
I feel like they should have learned from the first “Son of…” title in this list, but maybe they weren’t talking to each other.
Scientists are working on a remote island to create climate-changing technology in order to allow humans to live in usually inaccessible areas. They are joined by a journalist who randomly just parachutes onto the island. Their first experiment is a failure, and they end up mutating the large mantises that have harassing them into gigantic mantises. Those, in turn, go crack open an egg containing Godzilla’s son, who looks like Baby from Dinosaurs with an avocado for a body.
Baby Godzilla (not nearly as cute as Baby Yoda) cries for Daddy, who shows up and beats up what we call the Kamacuras to save his son. After some Godzilla roaring and fire breathing lessons, Godzilla and son accidentally wake up Kumonga, a giant spider. Godzilla gets knocked out, Kumonga almost webs up Minilla (Baby Zilla) before Godzilla wakes up and duo fire blasts Kumonga with Minilla.
The scientists and the woman they find on the island use their technology to try to freeze the monsters to escape, which they do.
As silly as this movie was, the scene with Minilla struggling with the cold and Godzilla and son embracing as they freeze is, well, very heart-warming.
Method of defeat: Roasted spider, frozen ‘zillas
King Kong Escapes (1967)
Finally, back to Kong!
An evil scientist named, amusingly enough, Dr. Huu (Dr. Who in the English version) is working in conjunction with a mysterious Asian government official to obtain the all-powerful Chemical X. The scientist’s Mechani-Kong (Mechakong before Mechagodzilla!) failed, so only the real one will do. He kidnaps Kong, but an intrepid submarine crew of Americans and Japanese go to rescue Kong.
Kong and Mechani-Kong end up doing battle on a giant radio tower, because, well, Kong can’t stop grabbing damsels and climbing up things. Kong defeats his robot doppelganger, Dr. Huu is defeated, and our heroes learn that the government lady is, as they suspected (and weirdly talked about a lot), not Japanese.
A decent-yet-goofy entry from the final Toho take on Kong. You can tell how badly they wanted to make more James Bond for kids.
Method of defeat: The true self triumphs over the image of the true self
Destroy All Monsters (1968)
Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached the ultimate kaiju slug-fest.
Humans have learned how to control monsters, sequestering them all to Monsterland (later called Monster Island). Godzilla and Minilla share space with the old classics: Rodan, Anguirus, Mothra (as a caterpillar again?), Gorosaurus (from King Kong Escapes), Kumonga, Manda (a kaiju star in his first Godzilla movie) … the whole gang, man.
They use special technology to keep the monsters at bay, but when a mysterious alien race hijacks the human bases and implants mind control devices in the monsters, it’s up to the crew of the rocket SY-3 to stop the aliens before they use the monsters to destroy every city—with Tokyo as the final mark (this is the first time we see Godzilla in New York City).
The SY-3 crew learns the aliens are metallic-based and need Mt. Fuji’s magma to survive, so naturally, the movie’s climax includes an all-out kaiju brawl at the foot of Fuji. The aliens, of course, summon King Ghidorah, but earth’s monsters quite literally curb-stomp the crap out of him. There’s no flying off to space this time, Ghidorah. The monsters destroy the alien’s Fuji base and Earth is saved.
Fun, goofy, and the alien plotline doesn’t detract from the plot in the way other alien Godzilla movies do.
Method of defeat: Monster gang up
All Monsters Attack (1969)
Aka, Godzilla clip show.
Seriously, there’s a lot of recycled film from previous entries in this movie, leading it to be one of the most disliked Godzilla films ever. Fortunately, it’s a short one.
It starts off on an odd note: this one kicks off a very brief era where Godzilla films start with a theme song. This movie’s song is called “Monster March.” And it’s a strange one. A growly, over-theatrical female vocalist sings about Godzilla and Minilla destroying everything with the concluding words, “Sorry! Sorry! But living is hard for us, also.” That’s deep, man.
Anyway, this story focuses on a young, imaginative boy who is obsessed with Monster Island to the point where he daydreams of having adventures with (a creepily talking) Minilla. These daydreams enable him to overcome his bully and also bank robbers who are wanted for stealing 50 million yen.
I liked the kid aspect, but it’s such a strange film that the cuteness prop-up doesn’t save in the end.
Method of defeat: Bullying the bullies
Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)
Another Godzilla movie with a theme song, though this one is a little better than the previous.
Our eyes are assaulted with garbage and toxic waste in the oceans as the voices in the music cry out for a return to the blue sky—they definitely don’t beat around the bush on the environmental themes in this movie.
Hedorah himself (based on the Japanese word hedoro which stands for sludge and vomit, among other things) is a pretty great foe to Godzilla. Born out of toxic waste, Hedorah starts in tadpole forms that morph together, then evolves into a land-based form, then he can fly, and he just totally causes mayhem and destruction. I haven’t seen as many actual people die (and melt) in a Godzilla movie up to this point.
Godzilla also seems pretty outmatched until he is able to cue in on the humans’ discovery that Hedorah needs a good blast of electricity to basically turn him to ash.
This one feels like a return to form for Godzilla—good horror, a monster born out of human hubris and waste—an ironic breath of fresh air among Godzilla movies that have felt phoned in. I’d love to see Hedorah return in a modern setting soon. Maybe he’ll be the real villain for Zilla and Kong?
Oh, and Godzilla totally learns how to fly in this one.
Method of defeat: Electric blasts, rinse and repeat
Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972)
Well, back to formulaic plots involving space monsters.
Cockroaches (yes, cockroaches) from a far-away Earthlike planet are using human skins as disguises to build a supposed theme park that actually summons space monsters to destroy Earth and allow their race to take over. King Ghidorah is joined by Gigan … a giant Cyclops Space Chicken Robot with a Buzzsaw Belly. Yes, I’m not exaggerating.
Godzilla and Anguirus team up (including weird moments where we see them talking to each other with speech balloons) and curb stomp Ghidorah using recycled footage from the last time they curb stomped him, then do likewise to Gigan. The humans outsmart the cockroaches.
It doesn’t make sense that the cockroaches are here. They come from a planet that was destroyed by the toxic waste of the human-like creatures there. Cockroaches are gross. Wouldn’t they be thriving on a planet like that? We have cockroaches invading our homes every spring here in Southeast Georgia, and they like the dark and dirty places. We make sure our house is immaculate.
Cockroaches wanting a cleaner planet is a major plot hole. Oh well. Points for a solid cast of human characters, one of which is an aspiring manga artist.
Method of defeat: Teamwork between old rivals
Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)
This one is amazing in all of the wrong ways. It took all of six months from start to finish and was shot in three weeks, and it definitely shows.
There’s some plot about inventors of a knock-off Ultraman robot called Jet Jaguar and nuclear testing upsetting a subterranean ocean-dwelling people, and that’s about as much thought that went into this movie.
Jet Jaguar is incredibly forced—apparently this robot was the result of a contest in Japan where an elementary student submitted the winning sketch. What a sad legacy, right? Gigan randomly shows up to help the beetle-like Megalon, who was unleashed by the sea people, but Godzilla and Jet Jaguar handle them.
The saving grace of this movie is when Godzilla drop-kicks Megalon multiple times. If you’ve seen that clip of Godzilla scootching on his tail, then you’ve seen the only part of this movie worth seeing.
Method of defeat: Drop-kick Zilla (great band name)
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
Aliens AND ancient prophesies? This is starting to sound like the History Channel.
A team of archeologists discovers a cave with strange glyphs, and a young woman from a vanishing Okinawan dynasty prophesies the coming of a terrible monster that will be defeated by two other monsters. Spoiler alert?
Mechagodzilla is controlled by aliens—who are monkeys this time, not cockroaches—and he absolutely works Godzilla. Godzilla is then aided by the ancient Okinawan guardian King Caesar, who looks like a giant ugly Gremlin. They barely beat Mecha by Godzilla using lightning blasts to turn himself into a magnet, beat up Mecha, and then tear off his head. The monkey villains (that are surely not a rip-off of Planet of the Apes) are killed and their base blows up.
This was a decent entry, despite the monkey aliens. The cast is a little bloated with several people—scientists, archeologists, explorers, Interpol—and it’s kind of hard to keep track of. But the fight with MG is pretty good (although MG’s S C R E E C H is a little grating) and Godzilla even gets bloodied up a little bit. Which makes the win that much more satisfying.
Rest well, King Caesar. You could definitely use some beauty sleep.
Method of defeat: Magnetism!
Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
Screech boi is back, and he brought a friend.
This is the final Godzilla film of the Shōwa period (named after the “Shōwa Emperor” Hirohito, who died in 1989), and, honestly, it’s a pretty decent send-off to the kid-friendly version of King Zilla. The human characters actually have fascinating stories, particularly one of the antagonists, who has a very Dr. Moreau approach to marine biology.
This mad scientist is aided by the aliens from the last movie (though, weirdly enough, they don’t appear to be apes anymore) and his
dead alive dead twice-resurrected daughter, who is alive courtesy of alien technology. She, however, unwittingly befriends a ragtag group of do-gooders and is conflicted with her programming and her humanity.
She is forced to control a similarly-repaired Mechagodzilla and his new friend Titanosaurus in an attack on Tokyo and, ultimately, against Godzilla. However, her humanity wins, and she sacrifices herself to end her control on Mechagodzilla, allowing Godzilla (with the help of Interpol) to dispatch of Titanosaurus.
The script and characters work well, but sadly, this was (and still is) the least financially successful Godzilla movie, bringing him to a long hibernation.
Method of defeat: Cutting the mind-control cords
King Kong (1976)
This movie was so surprising to me. I don’t know how I never saw this one before, but it completely slipped under my radar until now. The movie borrows largely from the original but updates it for the (then) modern era.
Oil tycoons are looking for their next big strike, ultimately leading them to Kong Island. Meanwhile, a primate paleontologist (Jeff Bridges!) and a woman rescued from a shipwrecked film crew (Jessica Lange!!!) find themselves attached to the crew and all the Kong-scapades that follow. Instead of the Empire State building, Kong climbs up the World Trade towers, where he is ultimately brought down by machine gun-equipped helicopters (in retrospect, thank God it wasn’t planes).
I love movies from this era, and this movie captures that ‘70s Hollywood magic with haunting set designs, otherworldly sound effects, and sweeping scores that carry your emotions. Plus, the special effects aren’t half bad for the time period.
Jessica Lange made her acting debut in this one and was panned for her strangely ditzy character (named “Dwan” because she wanted to stand out), but she went on to basically win every acting award ever and was amazing in American Horror Story, so we thank Kong for giving her a launching point.
This movie, in a lot of ways, seems more appealing to modern audiences as opposed to the original, but the huge difference between the two is that, in the first one, we are more focused on a king out of his kingdom, tangled in a human-made jungle. In the remake, Kong’s escape is reduced to a mere spectacle of a giant gorilla in New York City.
Method of defeat: Machine-gun choppers
The Return of Godzilla (1984)
Godzilla is back, after nearly a decade. And he’s back to his old ways of being a nuisance—rather than a hero—to the people of Japan.
The people of Japan seem to be preparing to stop his unfettered rampage throughout their cities, but the film also subtly deals with many of the previous entries by acknowledging the misplaced fanaticism some people had for him. Godzilla is dangerous, and he needs to be stopped.
Added tension comes courtesy of the Cold War, where Russian and American diplomats both try to pressure Japan into nuking Godzilla. Japanese leaders won’t budge, stating (in front of the Americans, naturally) that they aren’t quite fond of nuking their own citizens. The message is received, and, although Russia “accidentally” launches a nuke from space, the Japanese are ultimately able to deal with that and Godzilla by luring him into the heart of an active volcano.
This one has a decent start but kind of tails off in the end with the political intrigue and Godzilla being knocked out for most of the climax.
Method of defeat: Volcano bath
King Kong Lives (1986)
So that dramatic slowing heartbeat at the end of the last one?
Well, somehow, scientists were able to preserve Kong for 10 years, prepping him for a heart transplant. However, the lead doctor (played by Linda Hamilton, fresh off the Terminator set), says bringing him back isn’t possible without a blood transfusion. Problem is, they have no match … until an intrepid explorer stumbles on a giant female gorilla. She is, naturally, brought back to the States. A now conscious Kong can sense her and breaks them out of their labs, romping through the Southeast United States and pissing off the military and hillbillies as they go.
Everything good about the first one was laid aside in order to make this E.T. rip-off of a sleeper. It’s not that it’s atrociously bad—Linda Hamilton and the rest of the cast desperately try to do the best they can with what they’re given—but there’s nothing memorable or thematic about this movie. Even the tearjerker scene at the end where Kong dies (again) in front of his newborn son is bizarre—these monkeys sure reproduce quick!
Oh, and there’s a cringeworthy scene where people are celebrating Kong’s successful heart transplant that is marred by a young Black boy happily waving … a Confederate flag. Yiiiiiiiiikes. Oh, Georgia.
Method of defeat: Helicopter-less machine guns
Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)
Whoooaaaa, we’re halfway there!
While Godzilla is hanging in his oversized jacuzzi from the last movie, scientists are trying to use his cells to genetically modify plants to grow in a desert region, but terrorists show up, blow things up, and kill the scientist’s daughter. Trying to retain her soul, the scientist infuses her soul with a plant that also had Godzilla cells (this was a very confusing movie) resulting in the creation of the plant-like Biollante monster. There’s a power struggle over who gets to control Godzilla’s cells, Godzilla and Biollante fight a few times, and then Biollante wins and dissolves and the soul of the woman is released (just amazing SFX on this scene).
Like I said, kind of a confusing movie with all the pieces involved, and the extra letdown is that we get way more scenes of scientists and politicians talking about what Godzilla is—while we only get screentime with Billonte for maybe 10 minutes of the movie. But the Godzilla and Biollante fights are definitely worth watching, plus this movie has a fantastic poster.
I wanted them to go deeper into the themes of the woman’s soul trapped in the plant and the struggle between her and Godzilla within this organism, but alas, they only scratch the surface.
Method of defeat: Infecting Godzilla with bacteria
If you stuck with me this long, congratulations. You are well on your way to being prepared for King Kong and Godzilla’s big fight and maybe picked up a few movie recommendations along the way.
Update: A previous version of this article incorrectly described Ebirah as a “crab.” Ebirah is a lobster, and we deeply regret this error. We extend our apologies to the lobster and crab communities for the mix-up.