The Japanese monster has undergone a series of evolutions since the first creation in 1954 by Japan's Toho Company, through to 2014's Hollywood-sized Godzilla that is faithful to Ishirō Honda's original design.
Nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan's Toho Company tapped into lingering paranoia with Godzilla. Inspired by American monster movies and the work of Ray Harryhausen, Akira Kurosawa collaborator Ishirō Honda turned atomic fear into a reptilian monstrosity capable of wanton destruction. With stark black and white photography and harrowing drama to match, the original film -- repackaged for American audiences with footage of Raymond Burr -- remains individual in the Godzilla legacy. Man-in-suit chaos of the utmost seriousness.
Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
Those who complain about Hollywood's Model-T approach to franchising should take mild solace in the fact that some things never change. After the box office success of Godzilla, Toho rushed a sequel into production, releasing Godzilla Raids Again a mere six months after the original. To one up that production, Toho added a monstrous adversary for Godzilla: Anguirus, the spiky turtle.
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Ishirō Honda returned to the series for the genre mash-up of the century. Originally conceived by King Kong (1933) animator Willis O'Brien as a fight between the towering ape and a giant Frankenstein's Monster, Toho saw a marquee opportunity that would broaden the appeal of its star beast. King Kong vs. Godzilla leap into color, and the absence of Kong's traditional stop-motion, add a hokeyness that would run through the veins of franchise. Godzilla would be a family franchise.
Over the years, Godzilla racked up a rogue's gallery of animalistic "kaiju" worthy of the most famed superheroes (in fact, the King of Monsters eventually faced off against Batman in the comic books). Pre-dating Marvel Studios' renowned universe cross-overs, the likes King Ghidorah, Baragon, Rodan, Ebirah, and Mothra appeared in standalone and Godzilla vs. titles. Mothra debuted in a self-titled 1961 film that adapted the basic Toho framework. The pitch: "Godzilla... with wings!"
All Monsters Attack (1969)
After a series of straightforward monster on monster throw-downs, Toho kid-ified its franchise even further by turning Godzilla's skyscraper demolishing into a family affair. In 1967, the radiation-breathing lizard adopted a baby boy, Minilla. Two years later, Ishiro Honda went full Steven Spielberg for All Monsters Attack. The Goonies-ish childhood fantasy follows a pudgy 10-year-old overcoming as he overcomes his bully problem through a series of imaginary misadventures with Minilla. Cheeky, stupid, and laced with late '60s psychedelia.
Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
A 20-story monster is inherently "science fiction," but to keep the franchise trucking after two decades of films, Toho found itself beefing up the otherworldliness with even wilder imagery. Enter: Mechagodzilla, a coupling of Godzilla and Japan's fervent adoration of robotic technology (the same cultural obsession that would birth Mobile Suit Gundam and, later, Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim). Though 1974's Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla would prove a hit, its direct sequel, Terror of Mechagodzilla, would send Godzilla back to the ocean for nine years.
The Return of Godzilla (1984)
Both a franchise reboot and a direct sequel to the 1954 film (Raymond Burr even returned for the American cut), The Return of Godzilla kicked off the "Hesei" series, lifting its name from Japan's shifting Emperors of the era. Gone was Godzilla's antihero persona. Carnage was the name of the game, draped in a shadowy grit that would make The Dark Knight proud. Still, there was a sense that hibernation couldn't completely rejuvenate the series. For 1984's Godzilla vs. Biollante, Toho held a contest where anyone could pitch a Godzilla story to be adapted. A dentist won.
A wholly American incarnation of Godzilla stewed from the early 1980s until Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin cashed in their Independence Day cred for their condemned reinvention of the character. In the mid-'90s, a version movie written by Pirates of the Caribbean duo Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio to be directed by Jan de Bont was squashed after the budget inflated beyond nine figures. So Emmerich and Devlin stepped in, impressing with a legendary teaser trailer and feeling the fiery breath of critics who complained about lackluster action and dim-witted plotting. The hold adage held true: If a spike-backed creature ain't broke, don't fix it.
Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)
By 1999, Godzilla had entered the "Millennium" series, a string of sequels that scraped continuity in favor of blockbuster action. The movies delivered on the implicit promise of the Godzilla brand: Crazy monsters, crazy battles, crazy destruction, all glued together with the screenplay equivalent of a Grateful Dead LSD trip. For the series' 50th anniversary, Toho vowed to put Godzilla to rest (for at least a decade) and go out with a bang. Final Wars collides post-apocalyptic Earth with alien invaders, cyborgs, and the full roster of Toho kaiju duking it out across the globe. It's fan service to the nth degree.
In 2010, devout fan and Legendary Pictures CEO Thomas Tull announced that his company would team up with Toho to produce a Hollywood-sized Godzilla picture, faithful to the 1954 classic (minted by the Criterion Collection) and Ishirō Honda's original design, and the hiring of British director Gareth Edwards, whose sole credit was the no-budget, sci-fi drama Monsters. Any doubt in Edwards' abilities was put to rest at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con, where the director previewed a test reel showcasing a devastated metropolis, the gigantic beast, and narration by Robert Oppenheimer. A new era was on the horizon.