A Quick History of Godzilla and His Giant Pop Culture Footprint on the World

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Summary

  • Godzilla is a pop culture icon with a long history, spanning 70 years and multiple movies, TV shows, comics, and video games.
  • The original Japanese film, Gojira, used Godzilla as a metaphor for the nuclear fallout experienced by Post-War Japan, highlighting the historic loss and consequences of atomic discovery.
  • The Shōwa Era introduced iconic monsters and set the tone for the series, while the Heisei Era rebooted the continuity and explored the biological and genetic elements of Godzilla’s mythology. The Millennium Era took a more standalone approach, and the Monsterverse brought Godzilla back to American screens in a more serious tone.


Godzilla is a pop-culture icon of almost universal recognition and acclaim. The giant monster has spawned a multitude of incarnations across movies, TV shows, comics, and video games. Considering the original Japanese film released in 1954, it’s incredible to think of the different highs and lows the franchise has hit to become the longest-running film franchise in history, completing 70 years in 2024 (and still going).

Of all the giant monster movies of yore, there is little surprise as to why Godzilla remains at the top, considering his roots are so tied to the history of his home country of Japan. The first film, Gojira, is anything but the traditional monster movie. Centering its themes around the nuclear fallout experienced by Post-War Japan, director Ishirō Honda uses Godzilla as a metaphor for the historic loss and horrific consequences of humanity’s atomic discovery. The film is a sober and beautiful story, placing interpersonal relationships between its leads front and center, and Godzilla as the unstoppable natural disaster that gets in the way.

So much of the iconography of the destruction is intentionally reminiscent of Japan’s time rebuilding itself during one of its darkest periods in history. There’s so much that can be said about Gojira, about how the filmmakers’ intent was to always talk about this difficult period in time, but have humanity survive this tragedy through compassion and holding each other strong. This film laid the groundwork for much of the Godzilla mythology (less so the tone) and deserves its spot in our cultural history.

Here’s a quick history on Godzilla and the pop culture footprint he has left on the world.


The Shōwa Era (1954-1975)

Traditionally, what fans want out of a Godzilla movie all started in the Shōwa Era. This era was named after Japan’s emperor at the time, which should be a fairly sobering indication of just how long-lasting this series really is. Becoming a franchise with a sequel just a year after 1954’s Gojira, Godzilla Raids Again introduces the monster-versus-monster combat that fans have come to expect and enjoy out of Godzilla movies. Almost immediately ditching the somber tone of the original, this sequel is a much more fast-paced, action-packed story that introduces one of Toho’s iconic monsters, Anguirus. (If you’re unfamiliar with any of Godzilla’s foes, get ready for lots of weird names because this era is largely responsible for building all the lore for the series.)

Considering Godzilla’s popularity, the franchise had a few films release across borders in the United States, albeit with some strange new edits. Godzilla: King of the Monsters! is just the original 1954 film dubbed in English, and with the inclusion of American character Steve Martin, played by Raymond Burr, for no inexplicable reason other than painting the Americans in a more favorable light than the Japanese version.

The Shōwa Era of Godzilla movies is the guiding light for almost all stories, and is the reason for his dramatic shift from being a brutal force of nature to humanity’s hope and moralistic superhero. This tone change only got wackier with each subsequent entry, first establishing Godzilla as a force for good, then giving him a son, and, in 1969’s All Monsters Attack, changing course entirely by posing as a strange anti-bullying PSA.

That said, this era of films has given birth to a multitude of infamous Godzilla moments, and features some of Godzilla’s most iconic fellow monsters, like Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidorah, and Mechagodzilla, along with a number of additional tertiary antagonists and monsters, some of whom had films of their own.

Every Godzilla Movie in the Shōwa Era

Year of Release

Godzilla

1954

Godzilla Raids Again

1955

King Kong vs. Godzilla

1962

Mothra vs. Godzilla

1964

Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster

1964

Invasion of Astro-Monster

1965

Ebirah, Horror of the Deep

1966

Son of Godzilla

1967

Destroy All Monsters

1968

All Monsters Attack

1969

Godzilla vs. Hedorah

1971

Godzilla vs. Gigan

1972

Godzilla vs. Megalon

1973

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla

1974

Terror of Mechagodzilla

1975

The Heisei Era (1984-1995)

The second era of Godzilla films, the Heisei Era serves as a reboot to the original continuity rather than continuing where the story left off. The Return of Godzilla picks up right after the 1954 film and establishes a more straightforward continuity in the series, ignoring the Shōwa era films and birthing direct sequels (whereas the Shōwa Films were more loosely tied together).

What’s evident in the Heisei era is that Toho seems to have learned their lesson and taken the monster back to its more serious roots, discussing the more biological and genetic elements to the monster’s mythology. Thanks to the linear nature of the era, the Heisei films established a distinct timeline in the most unconventional way possible.

Godzilla vs King Ghidorah, for example, features a time-traveling alien race that goes back in time and removes an un-mutated “Godzillasaurus” from Monster Island and replaces him with three small creatures called Dorats, which are then exposed to radiation in place of the Big G, giving rise to Godzilla’s arch nemesis in the three-headed dragon, King Ghidorah. The film quickly answers its own paradoxical question by showing a second Godzilla that was born elsewhere, implying good’s will to overcome evil despite any odds.

The Heisei era was a significant marker for the series in terms of updating the design for all its monsters, modernizing each look and actually setting a benchmark for the more animalistic appearance present in the monster designs from here on out. The Heisei films also take the bold step of killing off Godzilla in the final film, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, which was supposed to mark 40 years of Godzilla since his inception.

Every Godzilla Movie in the Heisei Era

Year of Release

The Return of Godzilla

1984

Godzilla vs. Biollante

1989

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah

1991

Godzilla vs. Mothra

1992

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II

1993

Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla

1994

Godzilla vs. Destoroyah

1995

RELATED: 15 Fun Facts About Godzilla

The Millennium Era (1999-2004)

It is impossible to discuss the Millenium era without first talking about America’s 1998 blockbuster disaster that soured the relationship between Hollywood and Toho Pictures for almost two decades. 1998’s Godzilla is a Roland Emmerich monster-disaster movie that stars Matthew Broderick as a meek but spirited journalist who teams up with a group of misfits to help the U.S. Army take down a giant irradiated ignuana wreaking havoc on New York City.

The film was a critical and commercial failure, taking more inspiration from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park than its source material, which is reflective even in the creature’s design. Naturally, Toho Pictures was not pleased with the outcome of the film (especially how unrecognizable the creature became) and renamed the titular creature as “Zilla,” saying the film “took the God out of the name.” The entire production process and fallout of the film could make for a story of its own.

As a response to America’s missed opportunity, Toho rebooted the iconic series a second time, starting with the film Godzilla 2000 (which ironically released in 1999 in Japan), dramatically redesigning the creature while still maintaining its original roots, and employing some additional VFX to help enhance the feel of the monster’s size and speed.

Taking a page out of the Heisei era series, the Millennium films also take place right after the 1954 original, but instead of focusing on a single continuity, they act more as standalone features with little connective tissue outside the monster itself. Only the films Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and Godzilla S.O.S. share direct continuity with one another.

The Millennium films ended with Godzilla: Final Wars, completing a 50-year run for the franchise, after which the character was put on hiatus for some time. Thanks to the long run of the series, the Millennium Era has fewer new iconic monsters to add to the already rich history of Godzilla rogues, although Godzilla: Final Wars features a fairly pointed jab at the American movie, by bringing Zilla back for a few short minutes.

Every Godzilla Movie in the Millennium Era

Year of Release

Godzilla

1998

Godzilla 2000: Millennium

1999

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus

2000

Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack

2001

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla

2002

Godzilla: Tokyo SOS

2003

Godzilla: Final Wars

2004

Related: Every Godzilla Movie Where He’s the Main Villain, Ranked

Monsterverse / The Reiwa Era (2014/2016-Present)

Starting off in 2014, Legendary Pictures and Toho Pictures collaborated to bring Godzilla back to American big screens in his second Hollywood incarnation, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. The project was teased for years and went through a number of different changes before Edwards’ outing, but was an unprecedented success upon its release.

Sticking as close as possible to the tone of the 1954 classic (clearly a significant benchmark for the series), the 2014 movie paints Godzilla as humanity’s hero and original-monsters called MUTOs, as the allegory for nuclear power and the potential destructive fallout that relying on such power can cause. The 2014 film’s success led to a 2019 sequel, titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters, in which Toho licensed the characters of Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah to have their Hollywood debuts as well. The Monsterverse has been slowly trudging along in the background of Hollywood’s “next big cinematic universe” contest and winning by taking each step at a time.

Much like the Shōwa Era, the Monsterverse films have veered pretty quickly into the campy monster fights territory, culminating in 2020’s Godzilla vs Kong (with more than a few references to the 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla), which was a critical and financial success at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite Legendary’s plans to initially shelve the Monsterverse after the 2020 outing, the strong fan response helped push the series to new avenues, first with the announcement of the next team-up film, 2024’s Godzilla x Kong: A New Empire, as well as branching out into an Apple TV+ prequel series titled Monarch: Legacy of Monsters.

Meanwhile, Toho Pictures has been hard at work themselves, putting out a new Godzilla film in Japan for a new era: 2016’s Shin Godzilla. Once again taking a page out of the 1954 original, Shin Godzilla paints Godzilla as a freakish monster borne out of humanity’s tampering with genetics and nuclear testing. Drastically redesigning the creature to look more like some sort of burned and mutated monster, the film takes out the monster-versus-monster combat and satirizes Japanese bureaucracy, painting the Government as inept and slow pencil-pushers, even in a world-ending scenario like this one.

The following two years, Toho Pictures teamed up with Netflix to create a trilogy of 3D-animated Godzilla films, this time taking the titular monster outside of our planet and focusing more on blending sci-fi and mythology to create a unique kind of eldritch-Godzilla monster. The films opened to mixed audience reception, with fans clamoring that there weren’t enough Godzilla scenes to warrant a full trilogy, and the human story lacked significant character that could hook one in.

In the winter of 2023, Toho Pictures released yet another Godzilla film in the vein of the original with Godzilla: Minus One, which has opened to rave reviews across the world, making headlines with its unexpected commercial and critical success, and seemingly another iconic entry into the rich tapestry of this historic film series.

Every Godzilla Movie in the Monsterverse Era

Year of Release

Godzilla

2014

Kong: Skull Island

2017

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

2019

Godzilla vs. Kong

2020

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

2024

Every Godzilla Movie in the Reiwa Era

Year of Release

Shin Godzilla

2016

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters

2017

Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle

2018

Godzilla: The Planet Eater

2018

Godzilla Minus One

2023

We are now at a strange place in time with regard to Godzilla movies in that there seems to be an endless supply of it. There’s something to be said about the longevity of this character and its ability to be interpreted in so many different forms by both Japanese and American cultures that its ironic the original started off as an allegory about the most historically significant clash of the two countries.

Whatever the case may be, global audiences now have the reach and historical context to be able to watch and appreciate all Godzilla stories across various mediums. Who knew a giant lizard could be so comforting?

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