Godzilla vs. Kong went live on HBO Max (and in theaters) on March 31. And if you’re in agreement with us that it delivered on its simple premise, you might be raring for more. Having been well-trained by endless cinematic universes, multiverses and cross-media branding enterprises, you’re now wondering what else within the world of giant monsters is worth your time.
The Godzilla franchise consists of 36 films, but thankfully, unlike the MCU, the connections between films veer between nonexistent to only mildly consequential. You can pick and choose at a whim, which is partially a blessing because there are a lot of duds in that lineup of 36.
This list will leave off the current canon of films that began with 2014’s perfectly adequate Godzilla reboot since c’mon, that’s too easy. But you can read our King of the Monsters and Skull Island reviews if you’re on the fence.
If you’re looking to really get into Godzilla, welcome. At the best of times, they’re the right kind of preposterous to accompany a lazy Sunday afternoon. At their worst, well, this list will steer you from the worst so don’t worry about Minilla.
The two best Godzillas to start with
Let’s start things off with the most Japanese Godzilla film, which manages to combine a brutal condemnation of bureaucratic ineptitude and kaiju body horror. Directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, it’s a far cry from the Godzilla you’ve seen delivering tail kicks or trying to prevent Charles Barkley from dunking.
Recapturing the magic of the original, Godzilla is something truly horrific, and it’s less of a question of when another monster will come to combat Godzilla and more a matter of whether there’s any hope that humanity can be competent enough to do anything. If that directing duo doesn’t ring any bells, they’re two of the minds behind Neon Genesis Evangelion. And the film was inspired by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami aftermath, which included the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. That’s the kind of film you’re signing up for, and it’s perfect for the film snobs too good for those tail kicks. Plus,.
We’re starting out grim here but, all things said and done, these are the Godzilla movies that can be appreciated without a hint of irony. First off, queue up Godzilla, not Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The latter film is a recut that crammed in Americans (sorry, Raymond Burr) to try to appeal to a non-Japanese audience and is likely the reason why you don’t remember the original Godzilla being great. Godzilla left a permanent mark on pop culture for a reason. The emotional trauma of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings is felt throughout and combines the ridiculousness of its monster with the horrible effect such an entity would have in the real world. Plus, its stark black and white palette masks the now-rudimentary special effects to make for a vision that’s still effective almost 67 years later.
Now you’re done with the movies that are actually good, let’s go through other highlights that are easy to boot up thanks to the Criterion Collection, which decided that wrestling matches between monsters deserved a slot next to Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. Whether you subscribe to the Criterion Channel or have access to a select library from the channel via HBO Max, you have some choice Godzilla movies to choose from…
- Mothra vs. Godzilla, 1964: The introduction of the fan-favorite Mothra is one of the last times Godzilla would be an antagonist for a couple of decades and, somehow, plot points introduced in this film return for entries stretching to 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
- Invasion of the Astro-Monster, 1965: Who knows why the decision was made to not have Godzilla’s name in the title, or why the twist is spoiled in the HBO Max description, but recurring villain King Ghidorah’s second appearance makes for one of the most watchable classic Godzilla films.
- Destroy All Monsters, 1968: It takes awhile to get going, but what starts with the ridiculous premise of a nature preserve housing the world’s monsters escalates into a global tour of destruction and a final all-out brawl that’s one of the series’ high points.
- Godzilla vs. Hedorah, 1971: Godzilla goes green in a strangely surreal entry that beats you over the head with its environmental themes, but the stellar design of Hedorah makes for some creative, ridiculous fights.
- Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, 1974: I’ll admit my bias, having worn out my VHS copy of this entry as a kid. But it has the three things every good story needs: heel turns, monkey aliens and a robot antagonist. The sequel, Terror of Mechagodzilla, continues the story but lacks the punch of the first.
Going deeper with the Godzilla’s Heisei era
The series of continuities and semi-reboots that fill the Godzilla franchise is too convoluted to cover here. But, if you’re down with everything you’ve seen so far, it’s time to dive into the set of films that revived the franchise in 1984 after nearly a decade of dormancy.
The Heisei films added a swiftly-decreasing amount of realism after the cartoonishness of the preceding Shōwa entries, which include films between 1954 and 1975. Gone was Godzilla, protector of children and friend of this guy. Instead, the special effects became a bit less ridiculous, Godzilla was back to being a jerk to humanity and eventually…the Heisei era had the guts to kill its golden Godzillasaurus in 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destroyah. But, its two best films are a bit more difficult to find via streaming.
- Godzilla vs. Biollante, 1989: The entire franchise is notorious for having human plots that make you scroll through your phone until you hear a monster sound. But 1989’s Godzilla vs. Biollante is actually propelled by an effective, tragic human element, and the design of the titular plant + Godzilla monster has yet to be beat. And though it hasn’t been released internationally since 2014, you can watch it via Archive.org here.
- Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, 1991: It’s amazing it took the franchise this long to reach time travel plot devices, but better late than never. Like most time travel plots, it’s a mess, but Godzilla’s nemesis King Ghidorah has never been better, despite a weird new origin. You can watch it via iTunes, and the bad English dub is on YouTube.
Destroy these films with radioactive breath
Unless you’re now really getting into Godzilla, don’t even think about wasting your time with…
- Any of the three Godzilla animated films available on Netflix: That is, unless you’re in need of a sleep aid.
- Ebirah: Horror of the Deep, Son of Godzilla, All Monsters Attack: Why.
- Godzilla: Final Wars: This is on the list with a big caveat — it’s a fantastic entry for fans who will cheer over every cameo and redesigned monster. For 99.9% of the world, it’s an incomprehensible mess. But, it’s free on Crackle.
All that said, if you run into a film you don’t like, don’t worry…there are an infinite number of alternatives to pick from. As this wise tweeter posted, a true Godzilla fan is always grateful that, for some reason, enough people keep watching these to keep the dream alive.