I was initially careful not to divulge too many third-act details when reviewing Godzilla vs Kong, but it’s been an entire year since it first premiered so I don’t mind spoiling it now. The only reason Adam Wingard’s kaiju smash-em-up is the best American Godzilla film to date is that the monster fights promised in its title felt exceptionally tactile & novel for a modern CG blockbuster. And what really launched those fights over the top was the WrestleMania-style surprise entrance of Godzilla’s mechanized doppelgänger Mechagodzilla in the third act, injecting an excessive rush of adrenaline into a movie was already plenty entertaining before the bionic monster’s arrival. The delight of that last-minute surprise really leaves audiences on a fist-pumping high, forgiving all the mundane humans-on-the-ground storytelling it takes to get there.
Looking back at the delightful surprise of Mechagodzilla’s most recent onscreen appearance, I can’t help but wonder if the robo-monster should always be presented as a last-minute swerve. At the very least, I can say for certain that its first franchise appearance in 1974’s Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla would’ve been greatly improved if its existence weren’t teased in the title & poster. There’s a brief, glorious moment in the film when Godzilla is being framed for mayhem he didn’t commit by the mechanized imposter, frustrated that other kaiju and the citizens below believe he has turned heel. The film could have been an all-time classic if that conflict was allowed to drive the plot, delaying the reveal of the “space titanium” under the faux-Godzilla’s “skin” as late in the runtime as possible instead of immediately degloving it. Basically, I wish Mechagodzilla was the Gene Parmesan of the series.
There is plenty of novelty to be found elsewhere in Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla without that surprise reveal. While Mechagodzilla is almost always a manmade weapon in subsequent films (including in Godzilla vs Kong), it arrives on Earth as space alien tech in its first appearance. The sub-James Bond espionage antics that thwart that alien plot can be a little dull (an unfortunate holdover from the previous entry in the franchise, Godzilla vs Megalon). The aliens themselves are amusing knockoffs of the Planet of the Apes creature designs, though, which adds a post-modern mash-up quality to the premise. The film also doesn’t entirely rely on the novelty of Mechagodzilla to freshen up its monster roster. It also features appearances from Anguirus (a spiky armadillo) and King Caesar (a personified Shisa statue) in its Royal Rumble rollout of surprise combatants. It’s a fun picture as is, even if it had much greater potential as a kaiju whodunnit.
To be fair, I’m not sure Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla needed to be especially novel to be worthwhile, considering that it was already arriving fourteen films deep into the Godzilla canon. Fifty years and twenty-two Godzilla movies later, there have been plenty of boring, uninspired kaiju duds with way less to offer than this standard-issue monster flick. At the very least, it attempts to establish its own playful sense of style between the kaiju battles in its cave-painting illustrations, Brady Bunch news-report grids, and double-exposure shots of religious prophecies. It’s no Godzilla vs Hedorah in that respect, but few movies are. Most importantly, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla gets by on the exact same merits that made Godzilla vs Kong such a delight: the inherent entertainment value of its pro-wrestling style kaiju fights (which are often shockingly bloody in this case, imagery that was often softened in its American edits). I just can’t help but wish that it also held back Mechagodzilla for as long as possible in the same way Godzilla vs Kong did, though. It could have been an all-timer instead of just another good’n.