Tomorrow the clash of the century will commence between everyone’s favorite giant lizard – Godzilla – and everyone’s favorite big boi ape – King Kong – in GODZILLA VS. KONG. The two have seen their fair share of battles over the years, but what we’re likely to see will be the ultimate ass whuppin’ either one has ever dealt with.
Over the course of his career in the movies, Godzilla has, admittedly, seen more scrapes than his cheat-beating competition. The kaiju from Japan has a storied career of fights on the big screen across the longest-running movie franchise, with dozens of movies having him square off against any number of foes. Some hold up even today as excellent examples of old-school spectacle, while others are best watched with friends and perhaps under some sort of added influence. Either way, Godzilla’s presence on the big screen over the decades has been towering as the creature himself.
Now, to mark the release of his latest outing, I’m taking a look back on several of his adventures and seeing how they stack up against each other. For the sake of keeping it as lean as possible, I will be focusing on his earliest days going all the way back to the original Showa era, consisting of his very first outing in 1954, his first clashes with the likes of Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidorah and his cyborg counterpart, Mechagodzilla, before concluding its run in 1975. To add more familiarity to the pot, I am also including his string of American blockbusters, from his 1998 debut to his recent makeover for Warner Bros. and Legendary’s Monster-Verse. That’s well over a dozen movies ranked from worst to best, with enough kaiju brawling – ranging from epic to grad-A ham – to satiate your appetite if you’re looking for more to watch after Godzilla and Kong throw down.
18. Godzilla (1998)
As I’ll explore with the rest of the entries on the list, most Godzilla movies range from genuinely fantastic to at-least-okay-for-simple-fun (maybe with the help of some substances). Not Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla. No amount of reflection after 23 years could make this movie seem better in context, nor all the drugs in the world make it seem entertaining. More interesting for Matthew Broderick’s worm obsession than anything Godzilla does, this fiasco with a criminal runtime of 139 minutes has none of the smarts, fun, or welcome weirdness that made the original movies classics – nor any originality to make it its own beast.
17. Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)
The zenith of the “these movies are for children and children only” vibe, Godzilla vs. Megalon feels like it was written by a children’s book writer in their twilight years, has given up, and just wants their check. An underwater civilization called Seatopia hijacking an amateur inventor’s fully functioning flying robot to aid them in taking over the world? For as awesomely odd as that sounds, everything about this one feels listless and routine, as if made with the mindset of “fuck it, they’ll still pay to see it.” It tries to cram new junk in there, like a robot superhero in the (albeit dope) Jet Jaguar, and some Italian Job driving for adults — and yet — none of it is enough to stop it from being the low mark of the series at that point, with Godzilla himself feeling like a tack-on in the final 30 minutes.
16. All Monsters Attack (1969)
Much like Megalon, All Monsters Attack also feels made with the “hey it’s for kids, who gives a shit!” mindset, but at least director Ishiro Honda tried to play into that angle by giving it themes kids could actually benefit from. A boy travels to MonsterIsland in his dreams and hangs out with a talking Minilla, Godzilla’s son, and together they find their own strength to stand up to bullies. That’s a cute message, but also the movie’s only saving grace. Between the infamous amount of reused footage from past movies to make up the action scenes and a 69-minute runtime, and it seems no one involved cared about making this an actual movie, and instead opted for an after-school special.
15. Son of Godzilla (1967)
Two Minilla-centric movies in a row, and for good reason. The spawn of Godzilla is only so cute before becoming terrifying, which always goes hand-in-hand with whatever cuteness comes from this father-son tale that is Son of Godzilla. The series in full slapstick mode, there’s some playfulness to come from Big Poppa teaching the little guy how to blast his atomic breath – which comes in handy against some gnarly creatures, namely the big spider Kumonga, which was operated with some impressive wirework. A moronic human-level story about weather-changing tech – and an equally stupefying ending (even the little guy is frozen?) – stop SoG from skating by as harmless fun aimed at kids, so anyone’s appreciation of this one entirely depends on how much baby Godzilla hijinks they can stomach.
14. Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)
With Invasion of Astro-Monster, Godzilla leaped into the campy territory from which there was no return – literally. Godzilla, after repelling Ghidorah on Jupiter, does a leaping dance like a giant, scaly ballerina. That level of goofiness mixed with the schlocky, retro sci-fi effects and storyline can make for a fun night with like-minded friends, but take that away and you have an often dull alien-invasion story that lacks a proper amount of kaiju action, and perhaps is only as good as the viewers’ tolerance for cheap sci-fi filmmaking.
13. King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Most moviegoers have no idea that this week’s Godzilla vs. Kong isn’t the first time the two icons have gone head-to-head. This new movie sports an epic story and grand special effects, and the original 1962 clash…doesn’t. The third Godzilla movie and a wild leap from black-and-white, serious takes of the first two, this monster clash is as silly as it can be when it gets the chance, even if the fun bits are few and far between. Kong does look like a Cabbage Patch doll covered in fur and then thrown in the microwave, which I guess adds to the charm? The fighting is bonkers, and scenes with humans trying to get Kong from Point A to Point B are just so, and it signaled Godzilla’s path into his future of zaniness.
12. Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
After coming out of retirement, Ishiro Honda’s Terror of Mechagodzilla (the final Showa era film) is his attempt to get back to the grounded, more doom-laden tone of his first movie, having grown tired of what he felt were sequels aimed only at children. The story is indeed more focused than previous installments, taking on a more dramatic, tragic approach to what the characters are going through. And yet, Honda still had to contend with latent silliness that was pretty much inescapable, meaning his approach can be undermined by unintentionally funny moments. The action is also a bit of a downgrade from the previous entry (see the next slot), even though it continues a solid trend of Godzilla getting his ass kicked before rallying and going gonzo on monster asses. There’s a lot working both for and against Honda’s vision, but it’s a decent entry with a perfect final shot of Godzilla wading into a sunset-covered sea, leaving the Showa era behind him.
11. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
While it may introduce one of Godzilla’s more iconic foes, it’s a shame that Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla itself isn’t a better movie. Sure it’s a step up from Jun Fukuda’s Godzilla vs. Megalon, but that’s because it’s «humans vs. ape-like aliens» story is mildly better than that one’s «humans vs. sea-people» angle. No, if Mechagodzilla is worth remembering it’s for its absolutely banging final act, which pits Godzilla (alongside an ape-lion guardian named King Caeser) against his robotic alter-ego. With perhaps the most explosions and pyrotechnics than any entry before it, the clash finds Mecha unloading rainbow laser beams and finger missiles at the big lizard, giving him a run for his money and making him have a full-on blood geyser spew from his neck. Makes it all worth suffering through one of the dumber, more poorly written stories just to get to.
10. Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972)
There’s not much that Godzilla vs. Gigan does differently than previous entries: Aliens are once again back to conquer the world (a story approach director Fukuda would bring to the next few movies) and once again Godzilla is needed to fight them off. But despite all that feels similar, Gigan manages to walk away as one of the better movies simply because it’s so purely enjoyable. The monster Gigan is designed like an interstellar robot chicken with a buzzsaw in his tummy; King Ghidorah is always a plus; the alien invaders are roaches disguising themselves as dead humans — which is dope and; the action as some weight to it, with Godzilla and Angurius getting their asses handed to them before a big win. Even when it’s failing it’s either kind of adorable or at least entertaining, earning it solid placement as one of Godzilla’s more reliable adventures.
9. Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
Godzilla Raids Again reminds me a lot of Rocky II in that it’s not quite as good as the first movie, but is still a good movie on its own, and it’s come out the other side as a solid, if almost forgettable, entry in the series. Many of the smarts from the original are there with an increase in action, teasing the first of many kaiju clashes that would define the series. However, nothing about it stands out among the rest of the series. Not as interesting as others, but still smarter than most; not as exciting as others, but sporting some relatively good fights. Solid kaiju moviemaking from top to bottom, which in the case of this series, isn’t too shabby at all.
8. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)
Of all Godzilla’s early adventures, Godzilla vs. Hedorah is the one to likely split fans down the middle. It’s the outlier of the bunch, with director Yoshimitsu Banno looking at much of what came before and saying, «Nah, not gonna do that.» After the last few entries dialed up the ham, Hedorah gets back to more grounded roots with a villain that reflects the anti-pollution themes, and the movie itself feels like a reflection of the changing cultural shifts Japan was going through at the time, making it feel bizarre in ways all its own. Like Godzilla mixed with The Blob and a bit of Creature from the Black Lagoon, there’s even a horror movie vibe to it all as Godzilla fights what is, essentially, a trash monster. Yeah, there are still some issues with the storytelling, and it can’t completely escape the campiness of past movies, but still, Hedorah a fascinating, unique entry in the series.
7. Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966)
After a really rocky start that sets up the ensemble of incredibly thin characters, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep soon establishes itself as one of the most purely enjoyable entries in the series. Taking a cue from colorful spy movies of the era, we’re whisked away to an island featuring a syndicate of villains who are exploiting the native population, and as the crew tries to save the day, Godzilla goes toe-to-toe with a giant monster crab in some of the goofiest, most intricate fights of the series thus far. Plus, it brings back beautiful, winged Mothra to help save the day as a harbinger of peace, while Godzilla gets some added dimension as a being who simply wants to be left alone. Throw in some jammin’ surfer tunes when the monsters throw down, Ebirah is Godzilla at some of his colorful best.
6. Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)
For the second entry in this rebooted series, Warner Bros. and Legendary decided to go all out and give folks who felt their thirst for kaiju spectacle went unquenched from the 2014 Godzilla exactly what they want: chaos and lots of it. Godzilla: King of the Monsters brings in classic Toho characters – Mothra, King Ghidorah and Rodan – and director Michael Dougherty lets us awe in the catastrophe they wrought (well, not wonderful Mothra. She’s an angel). But more doesn’t equal better, and while the spectacle is truly tremendous and a feast for the eyes, that means well-written characters and a story for them are thrown in the bin. By the end, you could be as easily blown away by the destruction as you could be bored of it, but either way, King of the Monsters provides a level of spectacle befitting of these massive titans.
5. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
A key entry in the Showa series, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is the film where it all turned around for the big guy, turning him from a villain of immense destruction into a hero of…mass destruction. With a prophesy story building up the arrival of King Ghidorah, director Ishiro Honda does an excellent job establishing the stakes, so that when the three-headed space monster arrives, you’re fully invested in watching Godzilla become the hero and whoop some golden ass. The shift forever changed the perception of Godzilla, but Honda ensured it didn’t feel cheap or random, wrapping it in a story of unity against an incoming threat, and once again proved Mothra will always be the voice of peace and reason.
4. Destroy All Monsters (1968)
Fit with a paper-thin story about invading aliens using mind control to take hold of a bunch of monsters (now all living on MonsterIsland – like Jurassic Park if we actually just left the dinosaurs alone) and unleash them on Earth until humans submit, Destroy All Monsters is among the best old-school kaiju action you’re likely to see. The plot moves quickly to get to the awesome set pieces, which make unique usage of each monster, giving the movie a sense of scope these movies don’t always have. It also doubles down on the teamwork angle of Three-Headed Monster and finds Ghidorah getting the absolute ass beaten out of him by Godzilla, Rodan and the rest. Pure, colorful, simple (but not totally dumb), Destroy All Monsters is some of the best Showa ever offered.
3. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
After getting her own non-Godzilla movie from Toho, the Queen of the Monsters, Mothra, got the chance to give the still-villainous lizard a run for his money. A condemnation of consumerism and the exploitation of nature, Mothra vs. Godzilla, finds director Ishiro Honda still using these movies to explore the state of then-modern Japan, with the effects of the nuclear bombings having an impact on Infant Island, Mothra’s home turf. What sets MvG part is how much reverence and mythos Honda gives these big beasts, building up Mothra as a beautiful, divine presence, which clashes with the stomping, crushing Godzilla. Their battle is superb, with Honda doing great work establishing a pure good vs. evil story. Even though the baby Mothras that eventually take Godzilla down are horrifying to look at by the end, Mothra vs. Godzilla earns its place as one of the very best in the whole series.
2. Godzilla (2014)
Modern audiences probably love dunking on Gareth Edwards’ reboot of Godzilla, calling out the slow pace, lack of kaiju fighting (until the climax), and the killing off of Bryan Cranston’s character far too early. But over the years, I’ve grown a deeper appreciation for what Edwards was trying to do in crafting a story about how utterly at the mercy of nature we humans are. The mad-dash to figure out what’s going on and the uncertainty of it all may come off as a thread-bare story filled with equally thin characters, but it’s all about showing humans having to come to terms with accepting – via a monster showdown – that the Earth is not our playground; it’s theirs. Edwards takes the time to let the gravity of it sink in with some stupendous visuals and cinematography, and blending in an excellent Alexandre Desplat score, and some fine performances all-around (even if none can top Cranston), Godzilla demands another look if you haven’t given it one since 2014. Out of all the other Godzilla adventures on the list, it’s thrilling, thought-provoking entertainment.
1. Godzilla (1954)
Was there ever any doubt as you scrolled through the list? Of course not. The 1954 classic, Godzilla, stands tall not only because it’s the first, but because as more sequels came out that defined the series as kaiju fights with simplistic stories everything that made this first outing great stands out even more. The storytelling and rich thematic elements are more palpable; the visuals and action, though cheap, have layers of fear and doom that give them more weight. As the series got more colorful, louder and hammier – and all about keeping that cash train flowing – the original manages to stand out from the pack completely unscathed, and even looks better with age, solidifying it as the true king of them all.
Godzilla vs. Kong is in theaters and on HBO Max March 31, and you can watch our video review below!