The rise of franchise-first pop culture has made what was previously a genre stumbling block into everyone’s problem: Exposition. Specifically, the stuff we call “lore.” When every big show or movie has to connect to something else, those connections aren’t always graceful. Especially when you need to work in how your villain was in the Amazon with your mom when she was researching spiders right before she died.
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, Apple TV Plus’ extremely good mystery-thriller based on Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse, deftly dances around every major pitfall modern mega-franchises happily dive into. The series packs the frame with fascinating little details that unobtrusively build out the world of the show without having characters explain much of anything. It’s thoughtful in its visual design in a way that recalls HBO’s Watchmen, another show full of extensive references to a prior work, carefully building out a story that stood on its own.
The similarity is more than superficial. Both shows are very interested in the background construction of a political and cultural apparatus predicated on one massive, divergent event in history. Both shows have clearly had writers do a ton of mapping out the ways in which their fictional worlds were similar and the ways in which they diverged, and instead of having characters recite endless factoids better served by a wiki, they merely depict the characters living in that world. It’s for the viewer to notice the ways in which it is different.
The early episodes of Monarch are filled with details like this. Passengers on a commercial flight are sprayed down by men in hazmat suits after an international trip, airline corridors have clearly marked Godzilla evacuation routes, and installations of military weaponry stand ready for another Titan appearance.
This, coupled with the show’s noteworthy focus on human drama about two siblings whose father kept them from each other, gives Monarch a thematic richness that surprises and delights. If the big, cacophonous MonsterVerse movies use their kaiju as a metaphor for humanity’s disregard for the planet on a grand scale, then Monarch personalizes that devastation. Not just by showing what it’s like to try and adhere to normalcy after surviving a spectacular catastrophe, but in showing how the men and women who chased these monsters over generations shattered their families to pursue their reckless work — work that would in turn shatter the planet.
Monarch is less openly about thorny, difficult topics than Watchmen was. You won’t find, for example, provocative explorations of race in America. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a show for these times. Much like Watchmen found new relevance in its revisitation of a comic book from 1986, Monarch finds depths to plumb in the haphazard cinematic universe that was jury-rigged around Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla remake. In it, we can see a consideration of humanity’s struggles to navigate a collective disaster, a casual reflection of our inability to solve great crises without militarism, and the way institutions warp fear of collapse into an excuse to control more of our lives. The story may be set in 2015, but few genre shows feel more 2023.