Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a peculiar thing: it's a sequel for people who didn't like the original movie. Myself, I still think the 2014 Godzilla is a hell of a picture, capturing a sense of genuine non-humanity in its scale and scope: it's a movie about things so big that there's simply no way to fit them into a human-oriented world. Which I think is why it has such slack, empty characters: its deeply uninteresting lead is a conduit for us to at least try to comprehend what the hell is going on, not so much a psychological actor as a stand-in for our own incredibly compromised perspective. And I still love how the film withholds from us, not letting us see the thing we want to see until it's almost unbearable, and then erupting in one huge burst of action all at the end.

Moviegoers, however, vigorously and angrily disagree with me: Godzilla had some of the weakest box office holds of the decade, barely doubling its opening weekend take over the course of its theatrical life. This is as good a proxy as we have for "it pissed people off, and they told their friends not to see it". Not that we need the numbers to prove it: go just about anywhere on the internet, and you'll find people deriding the film for reasons that are honestly pretty irrefutable, issues of taste notwithstanding. Well, Legendary Pictures was listening, because King of the Monsters tries to answer all of those reasons, and in the process makes everything worse. Hated that Godzilla had one uncharismatic lead? Well, now there's several, and they all have painfully worked-out character arcs that don't actually give them any personality, but the film sure does posit that they have personality, which is way worse than just riding along with Aaron Taylor-Johnson's meat puppet from the first film. Hated that you barely see Godzilla? Well, now you see it a lot. It doesn't do anything until the last 15 minutes, but you sure do fucking see it. Meanwhile, the one absolute shining strength of the 2014 film, its ungodly, weight sense of scale, has been largely ignored except in one or two shots.

The really big problem, though, is that King of the Monsters isn't just a sequel to Godzilla: it's also a sequel to 2017's Kong: Skull Island, at which point we really can't keep talking about "sequels" at all, and need to own the fact that yeah, they're calling this the MonsterVerse, and it's just an interconnected network. Which is sort of true of the Japanese films where Godzilla first stomped around in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, but those movies didn't have even the meanest pretense of continuity or series mythology. King of the Monsters has plenty of both. By way of analogy to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is just like that franchise's third entry, Iron Man 2: it's way, way more interested in laying out the rules of how its mythology works than it is in telling a clean, self-contained story that's fun and exciting on its own merits.

Instead, it's sluggish and droning, showing not a scintilla of the macabre humor that director and co-writer Michael Dougherty brought to his other two movies, the horror films Trick 'r Treat and Krampus. Which shouldn't be a surprise: part of the whole deal of big-budget franchise filmmaking in the 21st Century has been to take promising low-budget and indie directors, give them the keys to a big movie, and then riding them hard to make sure no molecule of directorial personality makes it into the finished project. We see this happen all the time. I am just very sorry for it to have happened with a filmmaker whose work I've enjoyed as thoroughly as Dougherty's.

But anyway, the plot of the thing: King of the Monsters spends a huge portion of its running time exploring the intra-group dealings of Monarch, the international collection of scientists working to figure out what the hell is up with Godzilla and the other "Titans", unfathomably ancient, unfathomably giant creatures (for whom the honorable, longstanding word daikaiju is apparently too dressy) who've been inexplicably starting to reappear going back the great, great ape Kong showing his face in the '70s. We've already met Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins, obviously unhappy that she signed a multi-picture deal) back in 2014; now they're joined by Dr. Ilene Chen (Zhang Ziyi) and Dr. Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford), as well as various assistants, military attachรฉs, and other hangers-on like Sam Coleman (Thomas Middleditch), Colonel Diane Foster (Aisha Hinds) and Chief Warrant Officer Barnes (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.). It doesn't really matter what any of these people do; mostly they're just there to populate the control room and declaim technobabble. Although the film still has the blatant indecency to expect us to be emotionally invested in their fates. But nevermind that, the real focus here is on the Russell family: Emma (Vera Farmiga, doing that "salvaging something marginally human from a train wreck of a character" thing she's called upon to do so often), whose reaction to losing her son in the 2014 Godzilla attack on San Francisco was to double-down on the biometric Titan-control device she and her ex-husband developed in grad school; that same ex-husband, Mark (Kyle Chandler), whose reaction to that same tragedy was to drink heavily and go off to study wolves in the Rocky Mountains; and Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), who's really only there to serve as a pawn between her parents. Emma and Madison have been kidnapped by eco-terrorist Jonah Alan (Charles Dance), and Monarch has turned to Mark to help find her, before the terrorists can use Emma's wonderful device to awaken a certain extra-terrifying Titan they're calling Monster Zero, a three-headed, two-tailed golden dragon. Fans of Godzilla's long history in Japan will have very little reason to doubt that this dragon will indeed be thawed from his Antarctic tomb, and that he'll prove to be a far bigger threat to Godzilla than the MUTOs were back in the last picture.

But anyway, back to the point: we spend a simply dreadful amount of time watching Monarch people look at computer screens and urgently report what they find there, while Chandler looks around sweaty and angry and nervous. I say that the problem here is the film's investment on setting up mythology, though strictly speaking, the mythology isn't new. For one thing, it's basically just H.P. Lovecraft's cosmology, done as action rather than horror. More to the point, focusing on an all-purpose anti-kaiju agency that formed in response to concerns about when Godzilla would return from presently unknown locations is a longstanding part of the franchise: we see it in 1993's Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, and in somewhat different form in 2000'sย Godzilla vs. Megaguirus and in different form still in 2002's Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, and I won't even pretend that those films are free of packing the background with lots of cluttered detail and exposition. Indeed, King of the Monsters doesn't feel so qualitatively different from the '90s era of Godzilla, save that it runs 132 minutes (a new franchise record), whereas the other three films I mentioned have running times between 88 and 108 minutes. They're crisp and punchy, throwing out a lot of plot detail and then racing through it. King of the Monsters never races. It lingers over every single little bit of foreshadowing for this film and for 2020's impending Godzilla vs. Kong and any number of other movies that, at this point, are very unlikely to see the light of day. It lingers over the family drama of the Russells. It lingers over the motivation of the eco-terrorists, read out in a very long, detailed, and hectoring villain monologue that has to be a candidate for the very worst scene in a popcorn movie in 2019.

If the goal here was to combat the seriousness and gravitas of the 2014 Godzilla with something peppier and more fun and zippy in its sci-fi hijinks, the effort has gone profoundly wrong. King of the Monsters has none of Godzilla's portentousness and grandiosity, but it does have all of its heaviness; instead of feeling (arguably) purposeful, it's just dull and aimless. Oh, sure, there are monster battles; really darn good monster battles, too. Besides King Ghidorah, the film brings in giant moth Mothra and giant pterosaur Rodan, and does good things with two of them (Rodan is completely wasted, and given a somewhat distressing new redesign on top of it). The last 20 minutes or so of the film are a slugfest between Godzilla and King Ghidorah that make a strong argument that, yes, CGI versions of these characters are a good choice, for the increased flexibility it allows to the fight choreography. Godzilla films have known for over fifty years that a bit of good monster fighting spectacle is enough to at least somewhat offset tedious screenwriting. Still, King of the Monsters has a lot of tedium to spar, and even though it very self-consciously shows more of its monsters than the 2014 film, it generally shows them doing not much other than staring with menace into the camera, while being obscured by darkness and particle animation. It transparently wants to be the "fun" Godzilla movie, which is fine and all, but it comes with the obligation to be fun. This isn't: it's not very pleasant to look at, it invests way too much in the character arcs of its blank cast, and it still does the thing the 2014 film got dinged for, where it made us wait until the very end for actual monster fighting. There, it had some kind of purpose, even if it's a purpose you don't like. Here, it merely adds to the feeling that this movie never figured out its own purpose, and just kind of plopped itself into existence. There are worse Godzilla films - there are worse Godzilla films where King Ghidorah is the primary antagonist, even - but it's still enormously rude of King of the Monsters to have promised razzle-dazzle and still ended up so lifeless and perfunctory.