The Religious Allusions of Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “Nobody goes to Godzilla movies for the characters!” Such an oft-repeated refrain isn’t entirely without merit, to be fair, as what kaiju fan wouldn’t crave wildly entertaining monster mayhem over a quiet character study? However, there is so much more to director Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters than just kaiju-vs-kaiju set pieces.What allows this film to both have and eat its cake is in its handling of the human element. Not that anyone on paper is much more than a familiar archetype (this is a Godzilla movie, after all), but Dougherty and his writers are almost fervent in grounding their script with profoundly human perspectives on one of the story’s main running themes – namely, facing the consequences of our hubris and grasping at the possibility of redemption – to lend meaning to all the loaded religious allusions and mythic underpinnings found among the larger-than-life entities of King of the Monsters.

This is a Godzilla movie through and through, make no mistake. But perhaps it’s one that aims just a bit higher, intent on putting the “God” in Godzilla once and for all.

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The Key to Coexistence

“Sometimes the only way to heal our wounds is to make peace with the things who created them… because these moments of crisis are also potential moments of faith.”

The world is on fire. Humanity faces extinction. By all accounts, Godzilla is dead… at man’s own hand, notably. And his longtime nemesis, the three-headed alien Ghidorah, has assumed dominance and summoned other Titans from every continent to do its destructive bidding. In one of the most gleefully exuberant intersections between indulgence and theme you’ll ever see, Ghidorah ascends its ”throne” atop an erupting volcano to announce its supremacy for all the world to see, massive wings outstretched and all three heads soaring into the tumultuous skies as a lone crucifix looms in the foreground.

King of the Monsters isn’t very subtle. But then again, why should it be?

Buoyed by “good” kaiju Mothra’s unexpected arrival in all her bioluminescent glory, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) leads a desperate deep-sea mission to revive the apparently not-so-dead Godzilla, reawakening humanity’s last chance of survival – though not without providing Serizawa the chance to deliver the above quote to Kyle Chandler’s Mark Russell, a contemplative meditation on the nature of faith and atonement.

These musings on the power of belief and forgiveness – a pointedly Eastern outlook, at that – are treated very seriously. Serizawa’s above quote, drawing a direct parallel between crisis and faith, is far from the only instance of a character in this movie making a genuinely spiritual appeal to a higher authority. It might just be the most quietly moving one though, particularly considering Serizawa’s eventual willingness to sacrifice himself in a blaze of nuclear hellfire to restore Godzilla to full health (and more). But what’s most striking about his exchange is the fact that the subject of this tense, decidedly theological conversation regarding forgiveness is none other than Godzilla himself, the Titan indirectly responsible for the death of Russell’s young son.

Godzilla’s Greatest Fights

If Mark turns out to be a disappointingly passive observer to all the action surrounding him, at least his palpable sense of loss and subsequent rage against the god(zilla!) responsible for his suffering manifests in a number of rewarding ways. Not the least of these centers on his choice to take Serizawa’s words to heart, leave his pain to the side in order to complete their mission regardless of cost, and allow their newly risen champion a chance to unseat the usurping “false king” wreaking havoc with its army of kaiju-sized minions. Even as the film raises questions about what role humanity could play in a world ruled by monsters, this appears to be the answer. As Serizawa intones at one point, “He’s not only proof that coexistence is possible. Godzilla is the key to it.” It might just require a bit of an ego check on our part.

Godzilla: Friend or Foe?

But as much as this movie’s narrative drive rests on his seeming acts of salvation, don’t mistake Godzilla as a protagonist or New Testament Messiah (“Good thing he’s on our side,” one character remarks to another following Ghidorah’s final defeat. “For now,” comes the ominous reply.) The previous film in this series may have ultimately painted him in such terms, complete with grand “Savior of our City?” proclamations, but King of the Monsters cleverly recontextualizes the straightforward good/evil dichotomy of Godzilla’s past triumph over his foes in that film, the MUTOs (even if, in actuality, their greatest crime was simply wanting to bone).

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This time around, the emphasis is placed on Godzilla’s role as an elemental avatar and protector of the Earth itself. Not coincidentally, the belief system of finding a balance between man and nature finds its roots in Buddhism, Confucianism, certain sects of the Hindu diaspora, and indigenous traditions throughout the world. Ziyi Zhang’s Dr. Ilene Chen best sums up this idea of harmony when a comment about searching for clues in the annals of mythology to kill Ghidorah inspires her response: “Slaying dragons is a western concept. In the east, they are sacred; divine creatures who brought wisdom, strength, even redemption.”

With that in mind then, it’s amusing to note that humanity barely even seems to register in the mind of the great beast. At every turn, we are either minor nuisances to be put up with, actively detrimental, or simply hastening outcomes that were already inevitable. No, all our efforts pale in comparison to Godzilla’s instinctive drive to bring about nature’s balance and order the only way he knows how: kaiju-wrestling and -suplexing any wannabe contenders into submission.

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