A monster is a style of rage. Every monster kills people — if they didn’t, they’d just be mythical creatures — and most cause destruction. None of them precisely abides by the social contract. Your monster, the one that speaks to you, is about the kind of destruction you cause; it’s the clause of the contract you strike before you sign.
You can be a liar, a user, someone who seduces and discards, like a vampire or a siren. You can be a werewolf, perfectly nice until something sets you off. You can be a faerie, demanding people play by impossible rules and punishing them for every mistake, or a ghost, rehashing your trauma endlessly, determined to visit your own pain on anyone you meet. You can be so Other that even looking at you drives men mad or turns them to stone.
But my monster — the thing my rage looks like; the destructive, anti-social being I most deeply understand — has never been subtle. My rage is big and old and it sleeps until somebody wakes it up. My rage swims up from a murky depth and rises, the size of a skyscraper, indifferent to the fate or feelings of anyone in its path. It’s primal. It’s unstoppable. You see the fin in the water first. Then all you see is fire.
Not everyone loves Godzilla. This was driven home for me, cruelly, in Godzilla vs. Kong, a movie whose title conveys a false sense of even-handedness. King Kong is pretty clearly the movie’s hero. His presence is accompanied with the smooth sound of golden oldies. He has a touching friendship with a little girl who teaches him sign language. He knows sign language; Kong can talk.
Granted, Kong also seizes a helicopter in his fist and crushes it like a Natty Ice can, but he’s humanized, and since humans have a pretty high opinion of ourselves, we’re meant to like him. Kong sits on chairs, uses tools, throws punches like a dude would, from the shoulder; his motion-capture performance, as Matt Zoller Seitz points out, is modeled on Bruce Willis in Die Hard. There’s a distinct aura of Regular Schmoe to King Kong, a recognizable Bruce-ish bafflement on his face as he confronts the 393-foot water lizard who is, for some reason, mad at him about something.
Godzilla is mad because he’s awake. Godzilla is angry every moment he’s not at the bottom of the ocean, because the only reason Godzilla ever leaves the ocean is that somebody fucked up. “Godzilla only fights when he’s provoked,” people say many times in Godzilla vs. Kong, but there have been fifty-seven movies exactly like this one because no-one will stop provoking Godzilla.
Godzilla is a natural disaster, a hurricane with a face. Godzilla is what happens when you go too far.
Godzilla famously began as a metaphor for Hiroshima — the monster awakened by nuclear testing, the consequence for humanity’s splitting of the atom. Godzilla is what happens when you go too far. Humanity’s offense could be bombing, or strip-mining, or, in Godzilla vs. Kong’s entirely avoidable case, it could be the creation of an even bigger Mecha-Godzilla, but Godzilla always surfaces in response to hubris. “Nature has an order, a power to restore balance,” a scientist says, in the 2014 Godzilla. “I believe he is that power.”
King Kong is a person in a fur suit. Godzilla is a natural disaster, a hurricane with a face. Kong is violent when offended, and kind when treated kindly, but what makes Godzilla terrifying is his indifference — like a tsunami or a forest fire, he destroys cities, not because he hates them, but because they’re in his way.
There’s nothing “likable” or “relatable” about Godzilla. There’s no way to humanize him. But there’s a word for a being like this, something huge and ancient and all-powerful, a cosmic lawgiver who smites the proud and the wicked. It’s in the name, the thing you say right before -zilla, and in that 2014 movie, the scientists spell it out for you: “It’s a God.”
Rage feels like this for me: Cosmic and inexorable, a response to the world being out of alignment. Rage is the hard no, the hit limit, the proof that any action has its equal and opposite reaction. If your fist takes action to meet my face, my fist swings back.
Maybe that’s why I root for Godzilla. Or maybe it’s that Godzilla is trans. I’m being literal — to the extent that an imaginary radioactive sea dragon can be transgender, Godzilla is. He has a vagina; he’s been pregnant; he’s extruded other, smaller Godzillas from his body, albeit in egg form. Whole movies have revolved around these processes. Top-notch special effects teams have sculpted his vag onto their models. Godzilla’s pronouns are gender-neutral, in the original Japanese, or male in American translations; the King of the Monsters is a they/he, and what are you going to do? Give him shit? Send Abigail Shrier to write a thinkpiece? The last person who got between Godzilla and what he wanted is a stain on the bottom of his foot, and that stain will wash off.
I’m sometimes tempted to see Godzilla as a supersized Tom Joad, manifesting whenever a marginalized person rages on behalf of something larger than themselves. A riot is the language of Godzilla, bringing cities down in flames and broken glass because injustice has been done there. Greta Thunberg has tremendous Godzilla energy.
I want to be able to hold that kind of power; to always be angry for the right reasons, at the right people, to operate firmly and implacably, not out of malice, but because destruction makes room for the new. I want to arise from the depths only when necessary; I see the way Godzilla moves, the smoking trail of wreckage he creates as he passes through the world, and I understand part of my life through that image. I want to rage like Godzilla. Sometimes I do.
Godzilla is a supersized Tom Joad, manifesting whenever a marginalized person rages on behalf of something larger than themselves.
But I also know what I think of people who perceive their own rage as holy, which is that they’re jerks. We are not gods. We have no right to divine vengeance. As righteous as our anger feels, we can only operate with a limited, human perspective. Godzilla can be indifferent to humanity because Godzilla is separate from humanity; everyone else exists within a community, and if we want to protect the people we care about, we have to care about the other people, too.
You can try to make yourself into Godzilla. You can build that armor, strap yourself in, and maybe you even get to do some stomping and some flame-breathing before it all goes to shit, but the act of becoming Godzilla is hubris, and we all know who shows up when hubris abounds. Sooner or later you, the self-styled “force of nature,” will find yourself up against the real thing. It has teeth.
In the 19th century, people looked at paintings of shipwrecks to get perspective. This is the only fact I know about Art; it was impressed upon me by a heavily accented German professor who made me read Kant, and I barely understood her. To see a tremendous, state-of-the-art structure like a ship torn apart by the elements, to see corpses piled on a raft with terrified survivors, was to be reminded of the raw power in nature, and your own powerlessness. It was a way to remember how small you were.
In this century, I watch monster movies. The best — and this decade’s Monsterverse movies are among them — contain moments of nearly religious dread. Consider the sight of pilots parachuting down through the clouds of a city’s wreckage, red flare smoke trailing like blood, toward the jaws of something bigger than any building; consider the monster’s blue radiation glare pulsing in the black ocean, like a heartbeat made of lightning. The terror I feel, in these moments, conveys a truth: I am insignificant. Godzilla doesn’t register the people he kills, just as the universe will not register your death, or mine. A person is one tiny part of the ecosystem, and some parts get sacrificed to the whole.
If we matter, it’s only in terms of that bigger picture. Our anger has value only when we wield it in service of something larger. No matter how big or important we think we are, if we knock the world out of balance in pursuit of power, something will knock us back into place. Like the man said: You’re going to have to serve somebody. Even King Kong gets the shit kicked out of him by an enraged 393-foot lizard now and again.
I’m not Godzilla. I don’t have to be. Sooner or later, the polar ice melts, the VC cash runs dry, the insurrection fails, the women speak, the cities burn, the gender reveal party leaves a crater where your house should be; one of these days, the thing you’ve been pushing will push back, and the laws you broke will break you. It’s going to be a disaster, but don’t think I won’t enjoy watching it happen. I’m rooting for Godzilla. I just hope I don’t get in his way.