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A film still from Godzilla vs Kong (2021), featuring Godzilla filling the frame from the torso up. It is raining heavily, so we can't see much detail of Godzilla's face, but we can clearly see blue lightning running along the spines on his back.
Godzilla with the spicy lightning as depicted in Godzilla vs. Kong (2021).

The 2014 reboot/continuation/expansion of the Godzilla franchise opens with the standard mystery box. A helicopter flies low over a jungle landscape, there are low minor chords from a rumbling orchestra: dissonance, uncertainty, menace. Helicopter Passenger #1 turns to Helicopter Passenger #2: “They found something.”

This is the germ of what is now a multi-film franchise, with a spin-off TV series that debuted in late 2023. A few weeks ago, I re-watched Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot, as well as the sequel films I hadn’t seen, Godzilla II: King of the Monsters and Godzilla vs. Kong.

It was a bit of fun, obviously, a last hurrah before I went back to the very serious business of media academicking, but as is wont to happen, it’s been stewing ever since. So here: have some little thoughts on big monsters.

Last week I Masta’d1 up some speculations as to why Argylle has flopped. The first and most obvious reason that a film might tank is that it’s just not a very good film, as this may well be true of Argylle. But in a time where cinema is dead and buried and a media object is never discrete, we can’t look at the film in a vacuum.

I have thoughts on why #Argylle flopped. I haven’t seen it, so I won’t go into any great depth, but suffice to say there are two major components:

1) Marvel killed transmedia storytelling, jumped around on the corpse, drove a steamroller over it, then buried it in a nuclear waste facility.

2) Camp doesn’t hit like it used to. Big ensemble campy treats aren’t as sweet now; in an age of hyper-sensitivity, broad knowledge and information access, they taste a little sour. Ain’t no subtext anymore.2

The marketing machine behind Argylle decided they’d play a little game, by teasing a novel written by a mystery author (both in terms of them not being well-known, but also an author of actual mystery), with the film being quickly picked up for production. This was fairly clumsily-done, but leaving that to one side: okay, cool idea. The conceit is that the author runs into the real-life equivalent of one of their characters who whisks them away on an adventure. Cue ideas of unreliable narration, possible brainwashing, or whatever, and there’s the neat little package.

The concept overall is solid, but Universal and Apple made the mistake of thinking they could shoehorn this concept into a campaign that ‘tricked’ the audience into thinking some of it was factual, or at least had some tenuous crossover with reality.

Basically, they tried an old-school transmedia campaign.

Transmedia storytelling has always been around in some form or another. It dovetails quite nicely with epistolary and experimental narratives, like Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein, and discussions of transmedia also work well when you’re thinking about serial stories or adaptations. The term is most often attributed to Henry Jenkins, a wonderful and kindly elder scholar who was thinking about the huge convergence of media technologies occasioned by the wide adoption of the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Jenkins’ ur-example of transmedia is The Matrix franchise, “a narrative so large that it cannot be contained within a single medium.”3 The idea is that in order to truly appreciate the narrative as a whole, the audience has to follow up on all the elements, be they films, video games, comic books, or whatever.

“Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice versa. Any given product is a point of entry into the franchise as a whole. Reading across the media sustains a depth of experience that motivates more consumption.”4

This model is now far from unique in terms of marketing or storytelling; with the MCU, DC Universe, the Disneyfied Star Wars universe and others, we have no dearth of complex narratives and storyworlds to choose from. This is maybe now partly why transmedia is seen as, at best, a little dated, old hat, and at worst, a bit of a dirty word, when it comes to narrative, media, or cinema studies. Those still chipping away at the transmedia stoneface are seen as living in the past or worse, wasting their time. I don’t think it’s a waste of time, nor do I necessarily see it as living in the past; it’s just that transmedia is media now.

Every new media commodity, be it a film, an app, a game, a platform, novel, has a web of attendant media commodities spring up around it. Mostly these are used for marketing, but occasionally these extraneous texts may relay some plot point or narrative element. The issue is that you need to conceit to be front and centre, you need some idea of the full narrative; you can’t expect the audience to want to do anything. The producers of Argylle made this mistake. They did transmedia the old-fashioned way, where narrative elements are spread across discrete media objects (e.g. book and film), and they expected the audience to want to fill in the gaps, and to share their excitement at having done so… on social media, I guess?

But like transmedia storytelling, social media ain’t what she used to be. Our present internet is fragmented, hyper-platformed, paywalled; city-states competing for dominance, for annexation (acquisition), for citizens or slaves (subscribers). Content is still king, but the patrician’s coffers care not as to whether that content is produced by the finest scribes of the age, or the merchant guild’s new automatons.

Viral is still viral, popular is still popular, but the propagation of content moves differently. Hashtags, likes, views don’t mean much anymore. You want people talking, but you only care as much as it gets new people to join your platform or your service. Get new citizens inside the gates, then lock and bar the gates behind them; go back to the drawing board for the next big campaign. The long tail is no more; what matters is flash in the pan attention attacks.

The producers behind the Godzilla reboot clearly envisioned a franchise. This is clear enough from how the film ends (or more accurately, where it stops talking, and the credits are permitted to roll). Godzilla apparently saves the world (or at least Honolulu and Las Vegas) from another giant monster, then disappears into the sea, leaving humanity to speculate as to its motivations.

It’s also apparent that the filmmakers didn’t want a clean break from the cultural history, themes or value of the broader Godzilla oeuvre; the title sequence suggests that the 1954 Castle Bravo tests were actually an operation to destroy Godzilla5. And in the film’s prologue, this wonderful shot is presented with virtually no context.

A film still from Godzilla (2014), with a Lego model of the Saturn V rocket in the foreground, and a poster of Godzilla in the background.
American triumphalism meets Japanese… er, monster promotions?

What struck me most, though, is the lack of overt story-bridges, particularly in the first film. Story-bridges are parts of the plot, e.g. characters, events, images, that allow the audience to jump off to another part of the narrative. These jumping-off points can be explicit, e.g. an end-credits sequence, or a line of dialogue referring to a past/future event, or they can be implied, e.g. the introduction of a character in a minor role that may participate more prominently in other media.

As media franchises become more complex, these points/bridges are not as often modelled as connecting branches to nodes around a centred point (a tentpole film, for instance), but as a mesh that connects multiple, interconnected tentpole media. In some of my academic work, with my colleagues Vashanth Selvadurai and Peter Vistisen, we’ve explored how Marvel attempts to balance this complexity:

“[Marvel] carefully balances production by generating self-contained stories for the mass audience, which include moments of interconnectivity in some scenes to fortify the MCU and thereby accommodate the fan base… [T]he gradual scaling up in bridge complexity from characters to storyworld to a cohesive storyline is integrated into a polycentric universe of individual transmedia products. These elements are not gathered around one tentpole event that the audience has to experience before being able to make sense of the rest.”4

In Godzilla, the story-bridges are more thematic, even tonal. The story remains consistently about humanity’s desire to control the natural world, and that world’s steadfast resistance to control; multiple times we hear the scientist Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) speak about ‘balance’ in nature, the idea of a natural equilibrium that humanity has upset, and that Godzilla and his kin will restore. There is also a balance within and between humanity; corporate greed, political power struggles, individual freedoms and restrictions, all vie to find a similar kind of equilibrium, if such a thing is possible. The resulting tone is one that feels universal but prescient; topical and relevant to the contemporary moment, despite the presence of enormous monsters.

This tone is carried over into Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The monsters multiply in this instalment, and an extraterrestrial element is introduced, but in general Godzilla’s animal motivation is about preservation of self, but also of Earth and its biology. I should also note that there are more explicit bridges in this film, like the characters of Dr. Serizawa and his colleague Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins). But the true connecting thread, at least for me, is this repeated theme of humans and our puny power struggles playing out against the backdrop of a deep time, a history, forces and powers so ancient that we can never really understand them.

This macro-bridge, if you like, allows the filmmakers to then make tweaks to the micro-elements of the story. If they want or need to adjust the character focus, they can. If the plot of a single film seems a little rote, maybe, or they want to try something different, they’ve given themselves enough space in the story and the story-world to do that. This may not necessarily be intentional, but it certainly appears as an effective counter-model to the MCU/Disney mode, where everything seems over-complicated and planned out in multi-year phases, and everything is so locked in. The MonsterVerse approach is one of ad hoc franchise storytelling, and the result is a universe that feels more free, more open: full of possibilities and untold stories.

The point of all of this, I suppose, is to let us see what works and what doesn’t. As a storyteller or creative type, it helps me to model and test approaches to storytelling of all scales and budgets, as I think about what kinds of narratives I want to develop, and in which media form. Beyond that, though, I think that as we move into a contentscape that muddles the human-made with the computer-generated, this kind of analysis and discussion is more essential than ever.

Notes & References

  1. Still working out the vernacular for the new social web. ↩︎
  2. Me, on Mastodon, February 6, 2024. ↩︎
  3. Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York University Press, p. 95. ↩︎
  4. Jenkins, Convergence culture, p. 96. ↩︎
  5. The first Godzilla film, directed by Ishirō Honda, was also released in 1954 ↩︎
  6. Selvadurai, V., Vistisen, P., & Binns, D. (2022). Bridge Complexity as a Factor in Audience Interaction in Transmedia Storytelling. Journal of Asia-Pacific Pop Culture, 7(1), 85–108 (quote from pages 96-7). https://doi.org/10.5325/jasiapacipopcult.7.1.0085 ↩︎

One response to “Godzilla: King of the Franchises”

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