But like many viewers, I was able to look past the darkness of this origin story as I devoured the countless other Godzilla movies that were released during the ’60s and ’70s. The Japanese-made films of the 1970s had the creature fight an assortment of foes, including the kindly Mothra, the pteranodonlike Rodan, the giant spider Kumonga, the gargantuan lobster Ebirah, the robotic doppelgänger Mechagodzilla, and the living sludge of contamination and decay named Hedorah. The most fearsome—and by far the coolest—was King Ghidorah, the three-headed, electricity-spitting alien leviathan that will have a starring role in Godzilla: King of the Monsters when it opens Friday. Each new iteration of Godzilla became more charmingly ridiculous: In the 1973 Godzilla vs. Megalon, Godzilla rides along the ground on his tail, hitting his foe square in the chest with his feet.
The truth is, I’ve never quite been able to resolve these two versions of Godzilla: one a destroyer of worlds and a reminder of the horrible truth of nuclear war; the other a gentle, stern, and sometimes silly father figure. In almost all of the Godzilla movies after the 1954 original, the nuclear-war symbolism is barely an echo. The most recent work to tackle the issue head-on is the remarkable and deeply serious 2016 Toho Studios film Shin Godzilla, in which a devastated Japan must give the United States permission to drop an atomic bomb on Tokyo to destroy Godzilla. Shin Godzilla makes the bold assertion that maybe Gojira movies shouldn’t be fun at all.
Gareth Edwards’s 2014 Godzilla, the first film in the current American franchise, made an honest attempt to return Godzilla to his roots as a purely inscrutable, almost godlike entity. Like the original movie, Godzilla doesn’t have the titular monster make a full-bodied appearance until deep into the story. (As in the 1954 version, the creature is first spotted in the distance from the main character’s point of view.) It’s one of a half-dozen striking moments in an otherwise serviceable movie. The film occasionally references American nuclear testing, and the overarching plot involves radiation-eating monsters that Godzilla has to battle. But once Godzilla begins fighting, there’s little to separate this version from earlier iterations—except that the dinosaur is a beautiful CGI rendering and not a man in a lizard suit. What the film does do, however, is clarify how paradoxical the character of Godzilla is. The audience is meant to cheer him on, no matter how dangerous he might be.
The monster has evolved too far from his original metaphor to be obliged to return there. Godzilla endures as a pop-cultural force today in part because he has come to represent the idea that what can destroy humanity can, in turn, also liberate it. What made the early Godzilla films so strange was how this pure annihilating force could also express a temperament. Even in Gojira, in which Godzilla is a stand-in for human scientific hubris, there is still an odd anthropomorphic quality to him, which adds to the elegiac impression of his death. Godzilla projects the essential fear of not knowing whether humans will be the ultimate liberators or executioners of the planet. Like Godzilla, humanity is suspended in this dichotomy. So if audiences are going to cheer when they see King of the Monsters, let it be not for the thrill of the spectacle, but because, at the last minute, Godzilla teaches viewers, like Minya, how to be both fierce and benevolent, to do whatever is needed to save one another.