Reigning Supreme: Which Kong is the True King of the Big Screen?

This month brings Kong back to the big screen for his biggest battle yet against Godzilla. Before that happens, I want to look back at his previous adventures!

My love of Godzilla is well documented, but I love pretty much any and all monster-movie flicks. Hell, the film that made me fall in love with the genre was the original King Kong! That said, while I’ve watched the Godzilla films more times than I can count, I can’t say the same about Kong’s movies.

With him coming back to the big screen (finally) in just a little bit to battle my boy, Godzilla, I thought it was the perfect time to go back and watch all the live-action films, while sharing that experience with you all.

Many of these I haven’t seen in several years, while there were a couple I somehow missed out on completely! The thing that surprised me most, however, were just how few films the original movie monster have been in. Hell, there’s a full 29 year gap between films at one point while the bulk of the mainstream movies are remakes/retellings of the original.

Here, I’ll share my thoughts on how these films rank against one another and share some thoughts on the films in general. Let’s do this!

8. King Kong Lives (1986)

Despite King Kong (1976) being something of a flop for the studios, work on a sequel began pretty quickly, though it’d be another 10 years before it finally happened. Turns out, despite being shot to holy Hell and falling from the Twin Towers, Kong managed to SURVIVE the events of the previous film.

He was kept in a coma for the past ten years, but he needs an artificial heart to keep going. Now, however, he needs a blood transfusion in order to stay alive, and wouldn’t you know it, they managed to find a “Lady Kong” to be a donor! After a successful procedure Kong and his new love escape and cause all manner of destruction and mayhem.

Fun Fact: During the decade they were trying to come up with ideas for a sequel to King Kong ’76, the writer claimed two of the scripts developed were “King Kong in Russia and King Kong in Outer space.”

Once again the military intervenes and tries to capture/kill the giant apes. The end result is a Kong who dies (for realsies this time), shortly after his son is born. Thankfully, there’s a happy ending for Lady Kong as she’s returned to her island to raise their son in peace away from civilization…

It’s not great, friends. I remember watching it as a kid and in all those years (decades) since then, I was sure the film was a “made for TV” movie. Even as a kid I recognized the cheesiness of the story and VFX, and it wasn’t until this re-watch I learned it was something made for theaters. Finding a way to watch it was surprisingly difficult, and I think that’s because everyone has agreed to collectively block it from memory.

7. King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)

Nearly 30 years after Son of Kong, the iconic monster finally returned to the big screen. This time he would come up against the modern monster in the form of Godzilla. With Kong having helped birth the monster genre, it was the match-up of the century and something fans were eager to see, even back then.

Don’t be fooled, though, this isn’t the Kong we already know. Instead, a bulk of the film is essentially Toho’s take on the giant apes origins. In fact, the Godzilla element feels like something of an afterthought, thrown in to give Kong more purpose in the film.

By and large the film delivers exactly what it promises…and little else. While there are a handful of subplots centered on the humans, none of them add any real weight to the story, and a couple drop off entirely. I remember enjoying the film as a kid, but the re-watch made it clear my memories had betrayed me.

King Kong vs. Godzilla starts off with a news broadcast, and that level of detachment from the story remains throughout. In some ways it works to set up everything, but makes it impossible to care about any of the characters. That’s not to mention, despite featuring Godzilla, it has almost no real connection to any of the previous Godzilla films and just sort of sits apart. The action, corny even in the best Kaiju films of that era, doesn’t hold up and falls flat due to the disconnect between the story aspects.

6. King Kong Escapes (1967)

King Kong Escapes marks the second and final film of the Toho era for the iconic Ape. It’s a strange outing, and more in line with Toho’s other Kaiju films rather than something that fits into what audiences generally associate with Kong.

The film is actually loosely based on the old animated series that ran in Japan during the 60s, The King Kong Show. It even features the show’s dastardly villain, Dr. Who, who manages to build a giant Mechani-Kong in order to dig down into the Earth for the mysterious Element X. Why he needed a robot ape to do such a thing isn’t quite clear, but when it fails, Who turns to the REAL Kong to complete the plan.

It’s goofy, ridiculous, and even features a “love” plot in homage to the original Ann Darrow storyline. Despite its silliness, it manages to bring together a more complete story than King Kong vs. Godzilla and thus ranks a little bit higher. Don’t get too excited, however, as I still wouldn’t consider it “good” but feels like there was significantly more thought and effort put into it.

5. Son of Kong (1933)

If you think sequels these days have a quick turnaround, try Nine Months. The original King Kong, being a huge success, got a fast-tracked sequel almost as soon as it launched. The turnaround was so quick, Son of Kong managed to release within the SAME YEAR. That’s insane, and sadly, the rushed production is patently obvious throughout the film.

More than just the visual effects, which took a significant downgrade to the limited timeframe, the story itself struggled to feel comprehensive. The screenwriter herself, Ruth Rose, basically admitted she knew there was no way they could top the original in the time allotted, saying, “If you can’t make it bigger, make it funnier.”

There are ideas in the film I like, such as showing Carl Denham (played by the same actor) having to face actual consequences of unleashing Kong on New York City (even though he runs away), but the circumstances that brings him back to Skull Island are eye-rolling at best. Hell, they don’t even make it to the island/meet the titular Son of Kong until the last 20 minutes or so of the film.

All of the action is crammed into this shortened period of time, but even so, it’s obvious the shortcuts taken in the VFX. Within in the few minutes we meet the Son of Kong he sacrifices himself to save Denham. It’s a wholly unearned redemption arc for the character and only diminishes the poignant ideas of the original.

4. King Kong (1976)

Kong returned to American soil (and storytelling) with the first remake attempt in the 70s. Starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, the film takes a different approach to the story, while keeping much of its heart intact. It’s still ultimately a story about greed and the lengths people will go to, but the ’76 film pulls us out of Hollywood and goes for a more eco-friendly approach.

Instead of Carl Denham trying for one last big movie break, Fred Wilson (played by Charles Grodin) is an Oil Company executive who travels to Skull Island in a desperate search for oil no one has found before. Jack Prescott (Bridges) is a primatologist who stows away aboard the ship in hopes of deterring them from venturing to the island. Along the way they encounter Dwan, an aspiring actress, lost at sea and barely hanging on.

As you can imagine, once they get to the island, they learn not everything is as it seems and the story plays out almost exactly like the original. Dwan is captured by the natives and given over to Kong. Wilson captures Kong in an attempt to recoup lost profits, and New York suffers from the wrath of Kong.

In all, this really isn’t a bad remake and brings in some ideas I think make it fresh, but it has aged very poorly. I mean…whew boy, it’s rough. Somehow even rougher than the VFX of the film that came 40 years before it. Despite playing with more modern themes, the film does little with them, instead shifting entirely to be monster mayhem with none of the heart.

3. King Kong (2005)

A couple decades down the road, Peter Jackson would bring Kong back to the big screen in a sprawling epic filled with cutting edge VFX work. Unlike the ’76 remake, this one serves as a more faithful, and direct, remake to the original film complete with Carl Denham and Ann Darrow. While there are plenty of divergences from the original story (mostly expanding on ideas), it’s still very much the same story for better or worse.

My feelings on this remake have gone back and forth a few times over the years since it’s release. When I first saw it in theaters I remember having fun with it, though thought it was a bit long in the tooth. Upon further re-watches, however, whatever magic I saw faded more and more. That said, every couple years I’ll get the itch to watch it again and sometimes I’ll enjoy more than I remembered, while other times I feel worse about it.

Partly, I think this ambivalence depends on the mood I’m in. In truth, Jackson’s King Kong isn’t really a monster movie. It’s much more of a prestige film, that works more as an homage to classic Hollywood (both the industry and the films of that time). When you come at it from this perspective, it tends to work better, but of course the action scenes that come up kind of throw that feeling in flux.

Ultimately, regardless of the mindset going into it, this King Kong suffers from being…well, boring. Even when it goes full on into Monster movie destruction territory, it’s held back. The best example of this is the battle against the giant bugs after Kong throws them all down the ravine. It should be both terrifying and thrilling, but the score and overall vibe keeps it from being exciting and actually feels like it slows the whole section down.

While the Kong versus the V-Rex sequence still whips a great deal of ass, so much of this film just doesn’t click in the way you want it to. While it can serve as a fun look at old Hollywood (with some really great performances all around), it feels unbalanced and bloated. I want to love it, and I love parts of it, but even with so many solid elements, the film can’t quite bring them all together in a cohesive way.

2. Kong: Skull Island (2017)

12 years after Peter Jackson gave us a more “grounded” and emotional remake, Jordan Vogt-Roberts brought Kong back in spectacular fashion. Eschewing the typical remake process this time around, the film is still set in the past, but this time around the Vietnam War era. Instead of making movies, or searching for natural resources (like the 70s remake) this time our human characters travel to Skull Island specifically to find something supernatural.

Despite being firmly set within the “Monsterverse” Skull Island doesn’t fill up the screen with a bunch of unnecessary connections. While there are fun references to things we saw in the 2014 Godzilla, as well as hints of what was to come, it very much works as it’s own story.

Featuring an insane amount of over-the-top monster action, Skull Island manages to balance the human elements of the story in excellent fashion. Seriously, the angle taken with soldiers who were supposed to be on their way home from Vietnam, brings a surprising amount of depth to the story. More so, it helps anchor the film emotionally, and helps endear you to these characters (many of whom get wiped out) almost instantly. By the time the survivors escape the island, you feel like you’ve been through Hell right along with them.

And that’s not to mention the excellent performance from John C. Reilly. His role as Marlow, a soldier who’s been stranded on Skull Island since World War II is both comedic and informative. Through his interactions, we’re able to learn more about this specific Kong’s lore (which is quite a bit different from what we’ve seen in the past) and come to feel a kinship with the monstrous creatures who populate the island.

Most importantly, Marlow serves as an emotional core for the film; anchoring down the action and keeping the stakes on a personal level. His journey is satisfying and feels complementary to all the action taking place. Don’t get me wrong, I think the whole cast did an excellent job (and I’d love to see some sort of sequel using them), but Reilly absolutely shines.

Between the fresh approach, visually stunning action, and an impressive balance within the story, Kong: Skull Island seems to get better every time I watch it. Much as I love Godzilla, and his current movies, there’s no denying this is the gem (so far) of the current Monsterverse slate. It also manages to make pretty much everything else that came before it pale by comparison.

1. King Kong (1933)

It’s hard to top Kong: Skull Island and its pure badassery, but in terms of pure mythos and enjoyment, the original stays on top. I know, it may seem a little biased considering this is the film that kickstarted my love of monster movies, but I assure you, I’m pleasantly surprised.

It’s been quite a few years since I last re-watched King Kong and between all the recent monster movie action we’ve been blessed with over the past decade, I was worried about its ability to hold up. Thankfully, I didn’t have much to worry about as the film manages to still whip a surprising amount of ass.

Yes, the acting is a bit hammy and over the top (as is the case with many old Hollywood flicks) and the VFX aren’t up to the same standards. Even so, there’s no denying the magic happening in front of your eyes as you watch. Minute for minute, Kong manages to pack in more action than most modern films. From the moment we see Kong himself, the film is nonstop and still manages to evoke the same tense feeling nearly a century later.

It is still a marvel to see how they managed to bring the story to life, complete with battles against dinosaurs and more, using the technology of the time. The sheer amount of fore-planning that had to go into some of these scenes are unreal, especially for that time period. It’s a truly timeless film and still worth watching today.

Despite a shaky past, the future of Kong on the big screen feels brighter than ever. Let’s just hope that Godzilla vs. Kong gives the iconic monster even more room for adventures down the road. How would you rank all of the big screen King Kong movies?

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Editor-in-Chief: Writer and cartoonist who went to college for post-production, he now applies his love of drawing, movie analysis, filmmaking, video games, and martial arts into writing.