Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
It will be the Battle of Kings, a royal rumble a whole lifetime in the waiting. But by the time you read this, we will know the outcome. Who will win, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, or King Kong?
In one corner stands the original, the giant monster from which all other giant monsters descended, the one and only King Kong. In 1933, King Kong not only electrified movie theaters to the awesome spectacle of film, it also saved the RKO Pictures from bankruptcy. The stop motion animation used to create Kong’s adventures might look quaint to our contemporary, CGI-dazzled eyes, but when Kong climbed the Empire State Building, the film prophesied the way that blockbuster special effects extravaganzas would enrich box offices and thrill future audiences.
In the other corner stands the King of Monsters, the atomic powerhouse that is Godzilla. Hitting the silver screen in Japan in 1954 and then coming over to America in 1956, the Big G took the states by storm, towering over the other giant radioactive creatures that had come to invade the imaginations of 1950s audiences dealing with the Cold War politics and the features of nuclear destruction. Godzilla used costuming, modeling, and creative camera angles to achieve its fantastic scenario. The film launched the kind of cinematic movie franchise that is still the envy of studios today.
The two titans have officially met only once before, in the 1962 film King Kong vs. Godzilla. A popular culture myth holds that there were actually two different endings filmed with America getting a victorious Kong and Japan getting a triumphant Godzilla. This is not the case though. Suffering a brutal beating from Godzilla, Kong prevailed after an empowering jolt of electricity reinvigorated the giant ape and enabled him to repeatedly zap Godzilla upon contact. The two terrors fell into the ocean and a few moments later Kong swam away, apparently victorious.
That ending has felt like an enormous cheat to me since my first childhood viewing. Kong got an extra power added to his resume at the last minute. Complaining about that is, admittedly, a lot like getting upset that a wrestler suddenly hit an opponent with a conveniently placed folding metal chair that the ref somehow did not see. Ultimately though, it is just such a weak ending to a title match. Godzilla has no trouble in the ocean. Did he just leave? Did he just get clobbered in the fall? Or did Kong actually knock him out?
A definitive answer is needed.
First, fights in popular culture are fun mental puzzles. What prevails, atomic powered reptilian fury or super simian mammalian creativity? Face it, Kong is going to burn. Everything Godzilla fights eventually burns. Radioactivity is Godzilla’s one big trick. If Kong figures a way around this, Godzilla is in for a whole lot of trouble.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, there are some fascinating cultural values at work here. The original King Kong was thematically a story of obsession, Kong’s strange love for the beautiful Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). After Kong is shot and plunges to his death from the top of the Empire State Building, promoter Carl Denham remarks, “Oh no, it was not the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” Those were pretty self-serving words from the guy who dragged Kong out of his native environment and got him killed. No, Carl, we all know who really killed Kong and that curious way in which Kong was the underdog of the tale. Kong represents not just the heart of tragic love but also the heart of resistance to greed.
Godzilla, meanwhile, is pure retribution for humanity’s ego. As Blue Oyster Cult reminded us in their 1977 rock anthem dedicated to the King of Monsters: “History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.” As is often the case in 1950s films, the atomic bomb that mutates Godzilla represents a corruption of natural order. Human ingenuity has defiled Mother Nature, so Godzilla arrives as a particularly punitive reminder not to mess with her. True, Godzilla has over the decades become more of an anti-hero, but the destruction that follows in his wake is always treated as the price that must be paid for our role in his creation.
Curiously, the biggest problem for both our royal monsters is humanity. Their true issues are with us. Careful viewers of the first trailer for Godzilla vs. Kong noted that something else is going on in this movie. No spoilers, but there is likely to be an eventual team-up here.
When it is all done though, we had best hope that the two Kings do not remember who their real enemy is.