In the age of franchise-dominated popular culture, the issue of exposition, particularly in the form of “lore,” has become a concern for everyone. When every major show or movie has to tie into something else, these connections aren’t always seamless. It can be a challenge to work in the backstory of your villain’s Amazonian adventure with your mother’s spider research, just before her unfortunate demise.
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, an enthralling mystery-thriller on Apple TV Plus based on Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse, skillfully sidesteps the pitfalls that many modern mega-franchises stumble into. The series is packed with intriguing little details that subtly expand the world of the show without needing characters to explain much. Its visual design is thoughtful and reminiscent of HBO’s Watchmen, another show rich with references to a prior work, carefully constructing a story that stands on its own.
The similarity between the two shows runs deeper than just surface-level. Both are deeply invested in creating the political and cultural framework built on a monumental, divergent historical event. The writers of both shows have clearly put a significant amount of effort into mapping out the similarities and differences in their fictional worlds. Instead of characters reciting endless factoids, the shows depict the characters living in that world, leaving it to the viewers to notice the differences.
The early episodes of Monarch are brimming with such details. Passengers on a commercial flight are decontaminated by hazmat-suited individuals after an international trip, airline corridors are marked with Godzilla evacuation routes, and military weaponry installations are prepared for another Titan appearance.
In addition to these details, the show’s focus on the human drama of two siblings who were kept apart by their father gives Monarch a thematic depth that is both surprising and captivating. If the grand, chaotic MonsterVerse movies use their kaiju as a metaphor for humanity’s disregard for the planet on a massive scale, then Monarch personalizes that devastation. It illustrates what it’s like to seek normalcy after surviving a catastrophic event, and how the pursuit of chasing these monsters over generations has shattered families — work that has in turn shattered the planet.
Monarch may not be as openly focused on complex and contentious topics as Watchmen was. It may not offer provocative explorations of race in America. However, this does not mean it’s not a show for our times. Similar to Watchmen, which found renewed relevance in its reexamination of a comic book from 1986, Monarch uncovers depths in the haphazard cinematic universe that was constructed around Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla remake. It provides a poignant portrayal of humanity’s struggle to navigate a collective disaster, a casual reflection of our inability to solve major crises without resorting to militarism, and the way institutions exploit the fear of collapse as an excuse to exert greater control over our lives. The story may be set in 2015, but few genre shows feel as relevant to 2023.