'Kong' and the Challenge of Creating a Shared Universe Out of an Island

Is there cinematic life after the Legendary and Warner Bros. planned 2020 crossover 'Godzilla vs. Kong'?

There's a certain logic to the development of Legendary's "Monsterverse" shared universe of movies. It launched with 2014's Godzilla, which was followed by Kong: Skull Island. Next up? Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 2019, and then, unsurprisingly, Godzilla vs. Kong the following year.

It makes sense, looking at the titles alone — there's an escalation leading toward the eventual confrontation of the two oversized marquee stars. (The second Godzilla movie title, in particular, feels like a dis track of a title; the other dude's name is King Kong, after all.) But there's also something finite about the progression of titles, as well. Godzilla vs. Kong feels like the logical endpoint of the series, because where can it go from there that doesn't feel like a comedown? Godzilla and Kong Go Have A Coffee, Probably Fight Another Monster Together isn't as impressive as the two biggest names fighting each other, and there's no larger property to use it as a stepping stone toward, a la Warner's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League.

In many ways, it identifies one of the problems with Legendary's Monsterverse — the lack of monsters with any kind of in-built audience recognition factor. Beyond Godzilla and Kong, who is there that non-kajira fans will be familiar with for future movies? Mothra? Mechagodzilla? On the one hand, this doesn't necessarily need to be a problem, assuming that the franchise builds out with quality movies — look at the way Marvel successfully built out its empire using characters audiences were only vaguely aware of, after all. But Marvel might not be the best point of comparison, because of the second major problem facing the Monsterverse: Who cares about monsters?

Or, more accurately, why care about multiple monsters? Both Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island take the point of view that the titular monsters are, essentially, unknowable beasts who have as much personality as gigantic, destructive pets (though Skull Island's Kong has quite a bit of intelligence and humanity in him, too). It's a formula that makes sense when the monsters are limited in number, because, sure, there's the giant hairy monster and there's the giant scaly monster. But the concept of building out multiple series of movies to constitute a "universe," where the central characters are all gigantic, destructive pets feels, at best, repetitive and limited. As much as people might complain about superhero movies all being the same, at least the superheroes can crack wise and complain about inner angst to try and differentiate themselves and entertain the audience.

Varying the formula is a tricky proposition, as well. Could Legendary pivot to use the human characters as shared focal points and connective tissue between the movies as they deal with the various monsters, a la Marvel's SHIELD? Sure, but at what point does that cross over into territory already staked out by another Legendary property, Pacific Rim? (Note to Legendary: Pacific Rim/Godzilla is the movie audiences really want to see.) Is there even enough interest and potential to spin off the Monarch organization into non-monster-centric movies?

All of these concerns might be moot, of course; perhaps Legendary's Monsterverse plans are intentionally limited, and Godzilla vs. Kong will actually be the final movie in the series, with the studio recognizing the inherently niche nature of the offering as it currently stands. If not, then it's clear what the next two movies have to do in order to earn its keep as an ongoing concern: introduce the next generation of monsters, and prove why they're memorable and not simply renamed versions of the two the audience have already accepted. Anything less than that, and even four movies in the series might end up feeling like one movie too many.

Kong: Skull Island is in theaters now.