Saturday, June 29, 2024

Part Two - A Nuanced Deconstruction of Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

By Joe Gibson

The following is the second part of a larger Godzilla x Kong The New Empire Review focused on act two.  A link to the first part can be found here:


Act two begins with Kong encountering the scouting party as they are returning to the Hollower Earth.  In it are Suko, a young monkey Kong takes on as a son, One-Eye, an older ape that is low on the hierarchy but determined to rise in the ranks by being as loyal as he can to Skar King and two guards, presumably meant to keep those two in check.  Kong encounters Suko first, confusing through the mist Suko to be a much larger ape than he actually is.  When Suko reveals himself to Kong, Kong lowers his weapon and tries to touch fingers with the child.  This is where the greatest subversion of the film happens.  From the marketing, everyone expected Suko to be the token cute baby character, but he is actually a jerkish bastard, biting Kong’s finger and generally being a feral pill.  He will take an active role in the fight, but his appearance to Kong was meant as a distraction and trap.  As Kong chases after Suko, One-Eye comes from the back and the guards from the sides.


Kong loses his weapon as the guards hold him down but uses a rock to hit one of them off him and navigates One-Eye’s attack into the other.  While that one is down, the first has recovered, swinging a club as One-Eye grabs Kong’s axe.  Suko is readying himself to leap and attack Kong’s face, which will happen after Kong disarms the soldier and One-Eye back to back, knocking the armed soldier into the one that is just getting back up.  At this point in the battle, all five characters have consistently been taking the proper actions one would expect in a fight, rather than just taking turns as happens in so many modern fight scenes.  Suko’s attack blindsides Kong, but he adjusts by grabbing Suko to use as a weapon, knocking out the other three apes.  


The two soldiers recover, and Kong beats down one of them, with the other attacking but falling off the cliff.  Kong rescues the fallen soldier, who retrieves one of their weapons, prompting Kong to kick him off the cliff.  The other guard ape has disappeared, and that is the first major issue of this part of the film.  We do not see his unconscious body anywhere, suggesting he recovered from Kong’s assault but then chooses not to fight. However, Kong was distracted and physically by the Cliffside, and that guard could have killed him there.  With both guards gone, One-Eye retreats, and Suko hides in a tree, where Kong finds him.  Interestingly, it seems Suko and One-Eye did not have weapons during the start of this fight.  Kong notices that and offers Suko one of the knives.  Suko refuses, not trusting Kong but also unable to escape him unless he can get the big guy killed.


Andrews looks at the footage from the Outpost One camera at the ape that destroyed it, presumably One-Eye, when the electrical disturbance SOS happens again, knocks out the HEAV controls, and Jia senses the approximate location in a ridge.  Bernie’s motivation for going into Hollow Earth is to document his findings and prove his importance to trolls on the internet, and, 40 minutes in, this is the start of the scenes that will cut to him filming a mock documentary.  His arc in regards to that never exactly finishes, but it brings him closer to Trapper for scenes of comic relief and also works to explain Mikael’s increasing disdain for the pair of them. Among the comic relief bits is Trapper allowing a mosquito to bite him, which could start any number of disease outbreaks.


Trapper senses something wrong near a tree mimic, and Mikael is frustrated but asks Trapper what is wrong and checks his own sensors, still clearly annoyed but rational.  Trapper proceeds to insult Mikael and offer no real answers for what is wrong, prompting harsh words from Mikael.  Bernie, coming to Trapper’s aid, starts a freakout from Mikael, which alerts the conveniently placed tree mimic to food.  As a tree suddenly swallows Mikael, I am left to reflect on a character with a very small role but genuinely good character progression scene to scene.  Trapper, meanwhile, after the group has run away, indicates that the tree mimic cannot follow them that far, revealing he knew what it was the entire time and somehow did not notice it right behind Mikael.  This is the start of my issues with Trapper.  He is an expert on the Vertacines and tree mimics but only insofar as the plot demands. Bernie actually does react realistically to the traumatic death.


As Godzilla hunts after Tiamat, Hampton talks to a submarine crew following him to learn more information, and they have a file on Tiamat to pull up.  Once again, this is good integration of understandable exposition.  Tiamat, it turns out, is Titan 19 of at least 23 active, sitting on the largest energy stockpile in the world and an aggressive destroyer.  People criticize Godzilla evicting and killing her for the energy.  These same people missed the opening credits where it showed many Titan events already happening and did not consider that from Godzilla’s perspective Tiamat would be planning something by living near an energy stockpile.  There is no issue with Godzilla being as harsh to Tiamat as he is.


Jia finds man-made Iwi ruins, and hopefully Trapper is regretting the incident with the mosquito.  Andrews will identify the ruins as Iwi, which she should not be able to do given the difference in architecture that would arise from hundreds or thousands of years of isolation between the Hollow Earth Iwi and Skull Island Iwi.  That said, the larger issue with the scene is that we as the audience have no idea how far the group has traveled from the HEAV or if they even know how to find their way back since they ran off in a hurry from the tree mimic.  Later payoffs will require Trapper to run back to that HEAV from even farther in record time.  Now, the film will introduce the idea that the Iwi, Godzilla, Mothra and the great apes have some level of psychic energy that varies but allows them to know what is going on.  Technically speaking, the film implies Trapper to have this as well with him sensing the tree mimic instead of seeing it, sensing the camouflaged Iwi village guards later and sensing the Iwi psychic energy, but that does not fix the issue, since his abilities are vague, more of a Spider-Sense to danger than premonitions to guide the way.  So any farther into uncharted territory these characters go, the larger the issue is.


The characters take a few steps to ruins that double as a place of worship for Mothra and the Iwi’s irrigation hub.  Trapper notes that only the closest steps lack moss, and he clears away moss on a Mothra mural, seemingly the same Mothra mural from China in Godzilla King of the Monsters.  With that in mind, Andrews’ surprise at seeing Iwi architecture does not make sense, since, implicitly, the ancient Chinese are now Iwi too if they perfectly replicated unique Iwi drawing.  The other Mothra temple has a unique Mothra mural to these, meaning this issue was entirely avoidable.


A small glowing butterfly appears on the irrigation button for Jia to press.  No one else reacts to the insect, so one could make the case that this is a spiritual encounter for Jia since she will eventually be Mothra’s tether to full return.  However, there is nothing in the film to point towards that reading, and it is unnecessary since much of that meaning is already conveyed.  This insect is Mothra, specifically Fairy Mothra, a form Mothra could either send out as an emissary or collapse into a bunch of in the 90s films.  This reference is well integrated into the plot, being foreshadowing for Mothra’s return requiring psychic spiritual energy.  Many people criticize this turn, but Mothra was already spiritual in Godzilla King of the Monsters.  Following Fairy Mothra’s instructions, Jia starts the water, which leads very quickly, only past a couple turns, to an organic barrier that hides the Iwi village.  Jia rips open part of the barrier, Andrews and Trapper help her, and Bernie just witnesses this, slightly uncomfortable.  That sentence is the best single encapsulation of their subplot I am now realizing.


Returning to Kong and Suko, they observe a flock of Warbats, large winged snakes from the previous film, flying overhead.  In Godzilla vs Kong, they traveled in pairs but now travel in much larger packs.  This could either be an inconsistency with grave consequences (if the previous film had held consistent to this new pack structure, Kong would have died) or merely meant to foreshadow the kingdom of Kongs.  In Godzilla vs Kong, there was no indication of more than two Warbats existing anywhere, and Kong killed them.  But now the subterranean realm shows off many more, just like the previously thought extinct Kong species.  


We also see Hellhawks from the previous film, now in all colors of the rainbow, but the scaling is far more difficult to determine here than with the Leafwings earlier.  Hellhawks are supposed to be roughly human sized, but they are too far away from the one hundred foot Suko and trees or 300 foot Kong to be able to tell.  Honestly, they look far larger.  The original plan for the Hellhawks in Godzilla vs Kong was to have one far larger specimen, and I cannot tell whether this is a retcon to return to that scaling or not.


Suko is clearly uncomfortably leading Kong and wastes very little time leading him to water he knows contains the deadly Drownviper.  To convince Kong to enter the lake, he dances around in it, incidentally washing off Skar King’s red paint from his chest.  All of the other apes we have seen thus far have paint on their chest if lower in the hierarchy or on their face if a guard.  The Drownviper attempts to eat Kong, and Suko attempts to flee, but Kong foils both.  Suko expects Kong to beat him, but he is just retrieving his axe.  Suko trips on both the axe and a rock.


Kong, having chopped up the Drownviper is enjoying a meal.  Suko begs for food, but, even as Kong gives it, Suko is distrustful.  This is a good way to show off how hard and uncaring life is under Skar King, since Suko does not have the basic need of a child to trust adults yet.  Skar King is introduced very late into this film, but the conflict between him and Kong is present even now.  Kong offers the food to Suko, expecting nothing and not planning to hurt the child.  Suko eats it and finally begins to trust Kong, sitting a little closer to him.  As I alluded to, this film explores fatherhood with this relationship since the authoritarian control of Skar King contrasts with the authoritative parenting of Kong, and we see the change in Suko from those different influences, all done without words.


Godzilla attacks Tiamat.  Again, the fight is in character for both parties involved, and the submarine crew’s exposition is reasonable.  Now that there have been two very short fights involving Godzilla traveling across the world, it is worth labeling this what it is.  While Kong is adopting a son and freeing his people, the other side to this movie is Godzilla’s “Little Final War.”  In Godzilla Final Wars, he fought most of his 60s and 70s supporting cast in extremely quick bouts that did not seem to increase in difficulty or relevance.  While there are issues with how that film handled it, here, it is a valid way to communicate Godzilla’s strength, tease that the final opponents must be even stronger, and worldbuild that there are other monsters attacking at all times.


Returning to the human characters, it is annoying how unclear it is how far the characters have traveled in the Iwi village, because, again, Trapper will have to run this distance later and make multiple trips to Outpost One and back in a very short timeframe. In any case, he senses Iwi guards that bring them into the village, called Malenka in the novelization, at spear point and take a special interest in Jia, who they connect with telepathically.  It is a little odd to have the Iwi’s psychic nature both include the ability to read minds and have premonitions, but that vague generalized powerset is what makes me believe Trapper is meant to have some degree of it with his Ace Ventura sixth sense.  By this point, Andrews and Jia have shed their jackets, either indicating it was hot the whole time down there or that all of the running they did has overheated them.  I still do not like that Trapper took off his jacket far earlier, seemingly only to get bitten by that mosquito and doom the Iwi people to disease.


Malenka’s pyramids are made of quartz, and they will use other chemicals and minerals to shift them, including something that may be mercury later on.  In Malenka are several vortices to the surface world, and this is where it is appropriate to talk about the retcon that has just occurred.  In Godzilla vs Kong, each Hollow Earth vortex was a tunnel with a clear point A and point B.  In that film, it was a little contrived that the energy source for Hollow Earth was directly underneath Hong Kong, but in this film, Malenka can lead both to Rio and Egypt.  Introducing the concept of a Hollower Earth and stating at the beginning of the film that they only explored less than five percent of Hollow Earth in Kong’s earlier film trek from Antarctica adjacent to Hong Kong adjacent means that geographically, it is impossible for these to still be tunnels.  The softer terrain of the Egypt fight will allow Kong to survive his rematch with Godzilla, and there is no effect of Rio’s terrain so the fix would be just setting both surface fights in Egypt.


The Iwi Queen emerges with less than an hour remaining, so, again I consider her a tertiary character.  She views Jia’s memories and shows our cast to both the Iwi beacon’s source and a second Mothra temple where Andrews can translate the Iwi script and Jia’s sign language to give exposition about Skar King, Godzilla, and a prophecy about Jia reviving Mothra.  If you accept what the film is saying about telepathy, in broad strokes, there is no large issue with this.  The exposition explains that Hollow Earth was on good terms with the surface world and that the apes protected humanity until Skar King took over, wanting to reach the surface world.  Once Godzilla sealed them away, there was no real reason for the Iwi to keep isolating from the rest of the world, but Mothra’s people in the Toho movies often had isolationist policies, so it is not the worst convenience in the world.  The previous Iwi SOSes that Monarch had on file corresponded to previous Titan events, and so, it makes sense that the Iwi are not omniscient and might have thought their great prophecy was coming to pass then.  The specific list has some issues, but it is not irreconcilable.  Godzilla, in the distant past, beat and imprisoned both the army of apes and Shimo, the frost Titan, seemingly in separate fights.  Now, granted, it makes a lot of sense to dump the apes into what you have already turned into a Shimo pit.  Godzilla would have no reason to believe Skar King would somehow be able to tame Shimo, and the Iwi must have informed him that Skar King now has, since the film shows Godzilla’s evolution corresponding to higher heat output.  This whole timeline has some issues, but the Monsterverse has always retconned the timeline in each installment, so we will have to wait and see if anyone can coherently organize all of the events we now know have happened.


Suko finally leads Kong to the ape kingdom, past a bone bridge of a creature so massive, Kong’s 300-foot stature means nothing (This is the most egregious scale issue in the film).  More importantly, they reach the kingdom, where well-fed guards command emaciated slaves to move rocks, infants play in the background, and the severed heads of dissidents remain on pikes as warning.  All of the guards have a cocky tempestuous personality, but the Red Stripe apes that receive characterization in this scene are One-Eye, Suko’s caretaker and weak slave Boots (so named by Wingard because he gets kicked for dropping a boulder), as well as The Skar King himself.  Kong is horrified to see his people enslaved and helps Boots, knocking out a guard.  Suko is incredibly stressed, and his caretaker attempts to comfort and later protect him from the Skar King.  Interestingly, once Suko has located his caretaker, he separates from Kong.  One-Eye notices all of this and alerts Skar King to Kong’s presence.  Seeing the abuse he suffers at the hands of Skar’s guards contextualizes why One-Eye is so driven to be so dependable and rise through the ranks.  The film definitely could have and debatably should have done a lot more to show how the ape society functions, but it is not impossible for negative alpha males to maintain control of chimpanzee groups if they have strong allies and control the hierarchy and breeding in the real world, which we do see in this film with Skar’s harem and Red Stripe hierarchy.


Skar King makes a grand entrance, paired with Suko’s nervous screeching.  Skar King shows off a lot of personality as an abusive dictator who strikes poses to look cool and mocks Kong for having a silver tooth.  When he notices Suko, he attempts to punish him and then kills his caretaker, when they try to step in.  Kong does not grab his axe until Skar King threatens Suko, indicating that he would have been willing to reason with the mad king, which is very interesting.  If the film were not structured under an ideological conflict between Skar and Kong within Suko from the beginning, it probably could have included scenes of these two bonding before Kong realizes the flaws in the kingdom.  People proposing this change without also rewriting Suko’s previous scenes are not improving the movie however.  Skar King killing Suko’s only other caregiver while staring Kong in the eyes enrages him, and they fight.  This fight is just as well choreographed as the previous 4 v 1 except here no other apes are unaccounted for since Skar King tells them all not to intervene.  One-Eye is the first one to start pounding the floor tribally, once again attempting to be Skar King’s most enthusiastic soldier.  The death of Suko’s caretaker represents a turning point in the boy’s arc.  He bonded with Kong out of necessity before, but now Skar King is pushing him by removing the only other person Suko had left.  From this point on, it makes perfect sense why Suko will work with Kong, and this was expressed all without dialogue contained to the second act of the film.  Suko will help Kong find the exit, set off Kong’s trap to wipe out Skar King’s hunting party (save One-Eye on account of using a guard as a shield), and help Kong to walk, perfectly coordinated partners just like Andrews and Jia.


Kong’s fight with the red king is interesting, since Skar’s agility and use of a whip initially catches him off guard, but Kong adjusts and wins the fight.  Skar King then reveals his Shimo crystal and nearly kills Kong by having Shimo give his arm frostbite and aim her ice beam after him.  One of the common criticisms of this film is Skar King being as weak as he is, but this is a benefit to the character writing.  This scene is so unfair that Skar King is instantly hateable, and we rally behind Kong.  Back to back, Skar King kills a defenseless ape, cheats in a fight, steals Kong’s axe and abuses an ice lizard.  This is effective characterization, especially when the effects of his actions have also been shown clearly through Suko and One-Eye.

The other apes chasing Kong out of the subterranean realm to an area where Kong has placed traps is a rather large problem.  Not enough time passes in Malenka to allow for Suko and Kong’s previous path to be tread again.  All that happens is that the Iwi get back to working their jobs and invite Jia into ritual play.  Others have suggested that Suko took Kong the long way and there is a more direct shorter path.  That doesn’t work to fix this because Kong would not know any other path.  Suko only has time to point to an exit of the cavern before the hunting party is chasing Kong.  Kong kills a couple guards with his traps, but One-Eye notices the larger trip wire and avoids it until Suko activates that trap on them anyway, and One-Eye only survives by using another guard as a shield.  It would seem that One-Eye got a promotion for his efforts, as he now carries a knife.  The wounded Kong gets from the sinkhole to Malenka in only a few minutes, but, come act three, the remainder of Skar King’s army will take far longer to get there.

Trapper calls out Bernie for wanting to publish his documentary for the consequences it will have for the Iwi, and this is the last that plotline is mentioned.  The film will show that only Trapper leaves Malenka at the end, but if Bernie were anything more than a secondary character, he would need proper resolution here.


Kong and Suko have somehow found the Iwi.  In the film, they say Kong must have sensed Jia, but, given that he lived with the Iwi for decades, it is more likely he sensed a mass of the telepathic people he once protected.  The issue arises insofar as he has never sensed them before when they are presumably close to the sinkhole, and he has been looking for people or apes to protect this entire time.  I also do not know how the Iwi can open and close their organic barrier with a wheel, but that has to happen for One-Eye to see Malenka’s vortices.  One-Eye will run back to Skar King much quicker than his army will reach Malenka.  Kong collapses in front of the humans with Suko, and Skar King mobilizes his forces to attack.  This is the darkest hour in the film, Kong thoroughly beaten and the bad guys with everything they need to win as Suko runs off.


Act two progresses Kong’s journey but really serves to show off Suko’s character arc extraordinarily well.  Rather than expecting the audience to enjoy the cute infantilized mascot, Adam Wingard and company crafted a dynamic character that the audience can hate, learn about and then love over the course of an hour.  It is for that reason that I would pick Suko as the best character in this film, a nearly flawless gremlin-to-hero journey that perfectly encompasses the themes this movie is trying to portray.  However, at the same time, the larger problems with this film are starting to set in, ones that will affect much of the third act, so I would rate this third a 5 out of 10.

Part Three will release in three days.

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