Which means it was, in some ways, an inevitable letdown. But (and I'm really happy I can say this) only a slight
First of all, the marketing for this film was incredibly misleading. Those coming into this film expecting to see Godzilla's return to his villainous roots as the embodiment of nuclear holocaust are going to be disappointed. This film is steeped in homages to the old films of the Toho franchise, but not quite the ones we were expecting. See, while Godzilla began as a malevolent force of nature in his debut films, he steadily evolved into an anti-heroic defender of mankind before becoming a full blown hero in the likes of later films such as Godzilla vs. Gigan and the Terror of Mechagodzilla.
Yes, in a surprising twist of our expectations, the Big G is the hero of this film. Or, at least, the far lesser of two evils, because he didn't come alone. The new film also introduces a pair of brand new kaiju, called M.U.T.O's (Mysterious Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, or something along those lines), bizarre insect-like creatures that are the natural, ancient enemy to this universe's version of Godzilla. Feeding off of nuclear energy and emitting powerful EMP blasts (rendering such devices as fighter jets completely ineffective against them), the M.U.T.O's cause mass amounts of destruction in their attempts to reach each other and build a nest for their offspring.
And that leads me to one of my favorite bits about this movie: these monsters have a lot of character. Despite the fact that the M.U.T.O creatures are utterly bad news for us and need to be stopped, the male and female express a great deal of tenderness towards one another that elicits a surprising amount of sympathy. The female creature's roars of anguish at their nest being destroyed is pretty damn heartbreaking. They don't utter a single line of dialogue, but the M.U.T.O monsters are some of the most multifaceted "villains" I've seen in a summer blockbuster in a long time.
That's not to say Godzilla himself is a slouch in the characterization department either. This version captures the essence of the heroic Godzilla from the 1970's, but not at the cost of making him campy like many of those films did. Godzilla is not a nice dude; he doesn't go out of his way to harm any people, but he doesn't seem bothered by the tsunami that heralds his arrival to shore killing several civilians. Many disappointed fans have also expressed disappointment at Godzilla's limited screen time (around 20-25 minutes, and most of it is in the climax), but for me it works. The teasing glimpses we get of him throughout the film build up the suspense wonderfully, before it all comes to an extremely satisfying conclusion as he dominates the climactic battle. It's not even something new to this genre: ALL the old Godzilla movies used the big guy himself sparingly, utilizing the main human plot to set up the climactic showdown between monsters.
Speaking of the humans, if there's one area that is weak, it's there. Which is a shame, because we all know that the people who weren't seeing this for Godzilla himself were seeing it for Brian Cranston. Well, folks, I have some bad news for you on that front: Aaron Taylor Johnson's character (Cranston's son) is the protagonist, with Cranston only having a significant role in the first half hour. Johnson does fine with the material he is given, but his character isn't as interesting as Cranston's and the shift in focus perhaps happened to soon. The rest of the cast does a fine job; all the characters are likable, just not especially deep.
But honestly? Everyone knows that you don't watch a kaiju movie for the humans. With the exception of the original Gojira/Godzilla, and perhaps Gamera 3: Revenge of Irys, none of these films have compelling human plots. They just waste time until the real stars of the show turn up. The fact that these characters carried the plot along without being annoying or out of place makes this film a lot better than others of its kind.
So, at the end of the day, is this a perfect film? No. But it is incredibly entertaining, and the best kaiju film we've gotten in years. I'm hoping it's the start of a brand new era for the Monster King in cinema.