It’s been two weeks since the release of Michael Dougherty’s long-awaited sequel Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which hit theaters to a mixed critical reaction and moderate financial success. It hasn’t received the widespread enthusiasm Legendary and Warner Bros. were likely hoping for, but the film does contribute to the now 65-year old legacy of the world’s favorite giant monster in more ways than one.
Depending on your definition, there have been as many as 39 feature films to officially include Godzilla in their runtime, and every one of them possesses a unique cinematic identity, for better or (usually) worse. As such, they have gone on to uniquely influence subsequent installments in every area from tonal pointers to plot points to thematic leanings. Dougherty is an unabashed Godzilla fan, so it makes sense that the latest Kaiju outing would have its own variety of influences.
Having watched every Godzilla film within the span of 5 months, I was able to develop a thorough perspective on the series as a whole. So I’ve decided to narrow down and chronologically present the 10 films I believe to be the most essential — if not always objectively good — installments that will hopefully make you appreciate King of the Monsters in a new way.
Note: For obvious reasons, Gareth Edwards 2014 reboot (which I’m personally quite fond of) has been left out of the running, and although I won’t go out of my way to reveal details of the plot, potential spoilers for King of the Monsters follow.
1. Godzilla (1954)
In addition to debuting the character and beginning the series 65 years ago, Ishirō Honda’s 1954 classic has remained one of the most inspirational and iconic sci-fi monster movies to this day. It perfectly encapsulates the somber tone affected by many of its sequels and remakes, and it focuses on the tragedy of nuclear warfare better than any other.
Most notably, it includes the brilliant character of Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), the namesake of Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ishirō Serizawa. In the original film, Dr. Serizawa is known for vaporizing Godzilla with the deadly Oxygen Destroyer, which is a kind of poetic counterpoint to Serizawa’s fate in King of the Monsters. In spite of the somewhat dated effects and unusual sense of pacing, the original Godzilla is as effective as ever, making it the clear choice for where you should begin with this series.
2. Rodan (1956)
Although Godzilla doesn’t appear in Rodan, the film is notable for introducing the longtime under-appreciated Pteranodon in a solo outing that impressively sets itself apart from similar stories in the genre. It’s a slow burn that might not play to some viewers, but anyone yearning to see Rodan in a role away from the sidelines will surely delight at the literal whirlwind of destruction found in the third act.
Rodan’s role in King of the Monsters frankly doesn’t allow for the agency or prominence I would’ve personally liked, nor has any other Godzilla film over the years, but the creature’s debut is an underseen bundle of joy that epitomizes the potential thrill of shabby destruction, and it’s one worth seeking out.
3. Mothra (1961)
Like Rodan, Mothra’s debut feature doesn’t feature a crossover with Godzilla, but in hindsight, this worked out for the best. The fan-favorite “Queen of the Monsters” is allowed the entire spotlight in one of the more mysterious early Kaijū films, establishing valuable lore that would go on to inform the character for decades.
The template for Mothra as a benevolent advocate of peace and justice is nicely set here, as is her rousing and hummable theme. And her prominent role in King of the Monsters would be greatly supplemented by her fascinating first film.
4. King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
The Eighth Wonder of the World only appears in a series of cameos in King of the Monsters, but seeing the precedent for Godzilla and Kong’s showdown next year is something I would consider a necessary experience.
Frankly, this one doesn’t work particularly well as a movie, but it modestly pioneers the notion of slowly introducing iconic monsters before an inevitable battle, and it possesses a faint shadow of the existential species-wide futility emphasized in the Monsterverse thus far. It’s also the first film to feature either of the famed beasts in color, providing valuable perspective on how far the action scenes have come.
5. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
This 1964 monster mash is perhaps the most obvious parallel to King of the Monsters, seeing as how Ghidorah, Rodan, Mothra, and Godzilla are all featured in a battle to decide the fate of the world. One scene in particular, in which Godzilla and Rodan question their obligation to fight for humanity, has been cited by Michael Dougherty as being a significant influence on the thematic undercurrents of King of the Monsters, and Ghidorah’s presence as an unforgiving force of evil is owed to this film as well.
I personally believe that Dougherty’s iteration of Ghidorah is the best we’ve ever seen. But it certainly couldn’t have evolved that way without such a strong precedent in this 1964 film.
6. Destroy All Monsters (1968)
A world in which numerous titans exist as a part of everyday life seems to be where the Monsterverse is headed, and 1968 saw such a world with this glorious showing of the Kaijū goodness. Every monster has been quarantined to Monster Island, but the sudden arrival of hostile aliens (a common occurrence in the films of Godzilla) intent on releasing the monsters spells doom for everyone involved.
It’s another film that isn’t particularly good by my judgment, but it’s impressive in its ability to wrangle a bizarre handful of giant creatures into a single narrative, and it might be interesting to consider this scenario as something of an ultimate endpoint for the Monsterverse.
7. Terror of MechaGodzilla (1975)
The 15th and final film of the Shōwa Era pits Godzilla against his mechanical counterpart and the imposing Titanosaurus. Neither of these characters appear in King of the Monsters, but this film portrays Godzilla in a heroic light very similar to that of the newest iteration.
Godzilla is a burdened savior, here, one who is uncontrollably compelled to fight on the side of his oppressors, and there’s a melancholy tone to the action and destruction that I truly appreciate. Godzilla is also granted his greatest entrance ever, as well as one of his better exits, serving overall as one of the better portrayals of Godzilla as a character yet, let alone in this era of Kaijū films.
8. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)
The third film of the Heisei Era is an exciting, sprawling journey through time and space, and it’s another one of the best showdowns between Godzilla and his nemesis Ghidorah. The Heisei Era is worth complimenting for how it subtly confronts and reflects on elements thought to be intrinsic to the formula, particularly with how the various monsters are largely created out of human interference, a subject given extensive focus in King of the Monsters.
This film is almost as weighty as it is spectacular, and it may even shed light on Ghidorah’s potential future within the Monsterverse. What, you think Ghidorah is finished?
9. Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II (1993)
Also included in the Heisei Era is Godzilla’s third confrontation with MechaGodzilla (the film is not in continuity with 1974’s Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla, as the title may suggest), which is also worth appreciating for just how weary the monsters become by the end.
Rodan and Godzilla Junior also appear, and the film excitingly builds to a conclusion strikingly similar to that of King of the Monsters, right down to a somewhat confusing plot point executed in both films. The action is exhausting and thrilling in exactly the right way, and the film may have the potential to please viewers unsatisfied by the climax in King of the Monsters.
10. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995)
The 7th and final film of the Heisei Era is an enormous fan favorite, specifically in how it fantastically kills off Godzilla in the best possible way. Godzilla has essentially become an unstable nuclear reactor and is set to explode, killing millions in the process, and he’s suddenly forced to face off against Destoroyah, an amorphous creature born of the Oxygen Destroyer from 1954.
This element factors heavily into the climax of King of the Monsters, and the film’s epic presentation of Godzilla as a martyr and beacon of hope is felt throughout Dougherty’s film as well. If there were ever a suitable ending to the character, it would be difficult to do better than this, but it also reminds us why we love Godzilla to begin with, and why we (hopefully) always will.
How many Godzilla films have you seen? Were there any significant chapters that I missed? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!
Sam is a frequent contributor to Cinemaholics and former co-host of Anyway, That’s All I Got. Yes, he’s still recovering from the first time he saw Pulp Fiction.