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'Godzilla' keeps coming back as 'The King of the Monsters'

Published: Thursday, May 15 2014 10:58 p.m. MDT

Godzilla gets the munchies during the morning commute in the 1954 creature-feature classic "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!" A new reboot of the film opens today.

Embassy Pictures

There's a new “Godzilla” in town, and he’s stomping high-rises and squashing city parks and kicking cars in traffic jams and munching on commuter trains at a theater near you. Or at least, that’s what he’s done in previous films.

Haven’t seen it yet? Neither have I. And yet, in a way, we have.

Really, how varied is the “Godzilla” formula from movie to movie? There have been 29 or 30 “Godzilla” flicks over the past 60 years, and unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool, tried-and-true uberfan of the big guy, can you really name that sequel if you miss the opening credits? I can’t. And I’ve seen a lot of them.

Of course, one could ask the same question about “Transformers” sequels or “Frankenstein” remakes or documentaries about bears or anything with Adam Sandler. And lately, any of the interchangeable superhero flicks.

Watching “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” last week, a strange sense of déjà vu began to wash over me, and not just because I’d seen the “Spider-Man” trilogy of a decade ago. All of that angst about absent parents and rescuing girlfriends and hiding secret identities and battling supervillains that used to be friends … comic-book movies really are getting in a rut.

And so it is, at least to some degree, with our friendly neighborhood “King of the Monsters!” — which was the hyperbolic subtitle of the first film, if you recall, complete with an exclamation point!

Despite the “Hulk smash” blueprint each film follows, however, the character itself is often shaken up. Godzilla is unsympathetic, then he’s sympathetic; he’s a killer, then a savior. And the movies’ scientists are never quite sure what he is biologically: a reptile, a dinosaur, a sea creature, a fire-breathing dragon, mythical, Darwinian?

In 1954, the Japanese black-and-white special-effects extravaganza “Gojira” (the character’s Japanese name) used Godzilla as a metaphor for nuclear warfare, just a few years after the A-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and during H-bomb testing in the Marshall Islands.

Two years later, a shortened, edited American version was released, featuring new footage that included inserts of pre-“Perry Mason” Raymond Burr as a reporter (named Steve Martin!) narrating the story, and “Gojira” was retitled “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!”

In that initial entry, Godzilla is a hungry, destructive creature from the deep that doesn’t pay attention to where he’s stepping and threatens to wipe out the human race (or at least Tokyo).

The original “Gojira” wasn’t accessible to American audiences until just a decade ago, and it is far superior to the Americanized version. Although, the U.S. cut is still fun for baby boomers like me who saw it (again and again) when we were kids.

As “Gojira”/“Godzilla” became an enormous success at the worldwide box office, a sequel was inevitable. And one sequel led to another and then another and then another. And somewhere along the way, Godzilla occasionally morphed into a good guy, sometimes of his own volition and sometimes because he was coerced or tricked.

He became a colossus rescuing mankind from other monsters, both earthbound mutants and space-age aliens. He battled a three-headed dragon, oversized crabs, a giant moth, King Kong and many others — even a mechanized version of himself.

As with any movie this successful, it also led to many rip-offs, similar monster movies that followed the template but without Godzilla. (Is Barney a “Godzilla” spinoff?)

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