If you hated what Joel Schumacher did to Batman with 1995's Batman Forever and (especially) 1997's Batman & Robin, the Christopher Nolan trilogy that followed didn't just offer good movies; they were cathartic release, a reclamation. This buffoon had taken one of the great characters in the American pop-culture cosmology and turned him into an S&M theme-park clown, and it took a masterfully conceived, all-brooding nerd-out take on that same character to wash the taste from our collective mouths.
But, if you will, try on this hypothetical. Imagine that Arnold Schwarzenegger (the villain of Batman & Robin in multiple senses) showed up, without explanation and in full Mr. Freeze regalia, in the midst of 2012's Nolan-trilogy-capping The Dark Knight Rises. Imagine he managed to get out one awful, temperature-related pun ("Iced to see you, Batman") before Christian Bale kicked him in the dick and threw him off a rooftop—just beat his ass down in no time and with a minimum of effort. Imagine how simultaneously gratifying and ludicrous a scene like that would've been. Because that's pretty much what happened to the last American version of Godzilla.
In 1998, as their post-Independence Day victory lap, the team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin gave the world their version of Godzilla, which was and is an irredeemable piece of shit. The list of Godzilla's crimes is long and baroque: the constant forced attempts at zany humor, the barely there Matthew Broderick lead performance, the prolonged late-movie stretch where tiny Godzillas show up and it turns into a bald Jurassic Park ripoff, the not-minor character who exists entirely to mock Great American Roger Ebert. But the biggest problem with this new Godzilla was that it wasn't motherfucking Godzilla at all.
This was the pre-Comic-Con era, back when nerd-pandering was still not an important part of any studio's major summer-movie rollout. As a result, Devlin and Emmerich's version of Godzilla, created by special-effects guy Patrick Tatopoulos, was essentially just a big, stupid, knobbly iguana with a Dick Tracy jaw. In 1954, Godzilla's Japanese creators had imagined the creature as nuclear fears come to life, as a mass of crags and spikes and death. As the character evolved over dozens of movies into a reliable low-budget good guy, it kept its heavy, solid spiky-diesel form and became an actual character.
This new Godzilla wasn't either of those things: It was a trapped animal and nothing more, reduced to that angry-creaking-door scream. It didn't breathe blue nuclear fire now; instead, it had, like, hot breath that would somehow cause a tank to burst into flames. It also spent vast chunks of the movie running and hiding (successfully) in the middle of New York City, which sort of defeats the purpose of being a gigantic nuclear-revenge monster lizard in the first place. As Godzilla "rampages" through town, it does way less actual damage than the dumb-shit throwaway-character soldiers who attempt to shoot it and miss.
Among American dorks who'd grown up watching Godzilla movies on UHF channels or primitive cable, the reaction was a very familiar sort of impotent arms-thrown-up annoyance, the exact same thing we'll see when Michael Bay's ass-ugly CGI Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comes to theaters this summer. In Japan, though, outrage took on different forms. If anything, this new Godzilla was even more hated over there, because Emmerich and Devlin's version had completely missed the entire point. Godzilla was born less than a decade after the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a gigantic roaring metaphor. And even as the monster became a B-movie icon, it still kept that weight of history behind it. Over the decades, over all its iterations, the Japanese Godzilla kept its galumphing long-necked shape, its wounded-pride rage, its primal mass. The new Godzilla had none of that. People were pissed.
Toho Studios, the Japanese company that produced every Japanese Godzilla movie, had to approve Emmerich and Devlin's new design of the monster. And even though they were reportedly taken way aback the first time they saw that design, they gave it the go-ahead anyway. They may have regretted the decision. In 1999, Toho brought Godzilla back to Japan with the surprisingly kick-ass reboot Godzilla 2000, retelling the old stomping-Tokyo story with brutal efficiency. Near the end of the movie, Godzilla fights a giant lizard-y thing named Orga, and even though Orga doesn't look much like the American Godzilla, one moment feels like a cinematic subtweet. Orga bites Godzilla's arm, starts draining his power, and gets some of the ripply green color that the American Godzilla had. "Look at that," says one of the inevitable boring human characters. "It's trying to become a Godzilla clone." Orga then turns into a giant webbed parasite thing and attempts to swallow Godzilla whole. But Godzilla simply breathes a shit-ton of fire, blows Orga to pieces, leaves it as a lifeless husk, stands tall, and screams. Message clear: You can't be a Godzilla clone.
In 2003, due to some copyright-law shuffling, Toho came to own the design of the American Godzilla. To keep the rights, Tri-Star, the American studio, would've had to make some sequels, and the first movie flopped, so they never did. In 2004, Toho released Godzilla: Final Wars, supposedly the character's retirement movie. A chunk of that movie is given over to Godzilla stomping across the planet and fighting other monsters, friends, and foes from past movies, all of them brain-controlled by an invading alien race. And as he's crossing Sydney, Godzilla finally meets his American imitator, who's been rechristened "Zilla" because, according to producer Shogo Tomiyama, the American version "took the 'God' out of Godzilla." Zilla gets a big entrance: a CGI teleportation beam, a show-off-y spin, a burst of unbelievably shitty Sum 41 music. And then this happens:
The fight ends with a flick of Godzilla's tail and a burst of fire-breath. Zilla ends up impaled on the Sydney Opera House, and then blown up. That's it. No more Zilla. This isn't just a reference to that other movie. It's the actual monster, trademarked and everything, annihilated in less than a minute. It's the shortest and most one-sided monster fight in any Godzilla movie, and I can't think of one moment where a filmmaker offered a fuck-you this direct and devastating to another filmmaker, ever.
On Friday, we'll see what happens when Hollywood tries this whole Godzilla thing again. The promising British director Gareth Edwards is at the helm of the 2014 American Godzilla, and he's got a great cast (Bryan Cranston!), a strong point of view, and a monster that actually looks like Godzilla. The trailer looks fucking badass. But if Edwards somehow fucks this one up, Japan (and Toho Studios especially) won't forget.