The original Godzilla got two separate releases: the original Japanese version in 1954 (Godzilla; Gojira in the original Japanese), and an edited American version in 1956 (Godzilla, King of the Monsters). Incidentally, there was also a really weird Italian re-cut of the film. In terms of cinematic merit, the original Godzilla is probably the best in the series, because it’s a stone-cold serious horror movie and a pretty sombre, sobering reflection on the perils of the Atomic Age.
Sure, the special effects haven’t exactly aged well, but the original Godzilla still manages to be genuinely scary and upsetting in a lot of places. And, honestly, the appearance of the original Godzilla still really scares me.
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is notable for being the first appearance of King Ghidorah (duh), who’d go on to essentially become Godzilla’s primary antagonist. It’s also notable for being the first of many, many time Godzilla would team up with Mothra and/or Rodan. Most significantly, this is the movie where Godzilla first became a good guy, setting the course for Godzilla’s characterisation for basically the entire rest of the franchise.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah is really, really weird and probably made under the influence of something.
It’s got an expository theme song that’s almost like something out of a James Bond movie, bizarre animated scene transitions, and Godzilla using his Atomic Breath to fly around like a rocket.
It’s not even necessarily bad (especially not for an early 70s Godzilla movie), it’s just so singularly, unprecedentedly strange that it’s nothing like any Godzilla before or since. If nothing else, it’s entertainingly bizzare.
Notably, its director was initially expected to do a sequel, but was immediately fired by the higher-ups at Toho after the movie was released.
Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack! is
a mouthful a more recent Godzilla movie, from the so-called Millennium Era of the series (2001, specifically). Even at this point in the series, the movies (especially the dubs) never stopped being goofy and cheesy, but GMK is notable for being a rare return to Godzilla being a villain. For reasons that are never made entirely clear, the Godzilla that was destroyed in the 1950s (i.e. the original movie) is reanimated by the vengeful spirits of those killed the Pacific Theatre in World War II.
Subsequently, the three Guardian Monsters — Baragon (who didn’t even make it into the title for some reason), Mothra, and King Ghidorah (in his only appearance as a good guy) — awaken to stop him. With, uh, mixed results.
As a result of turning heel for the first time in decades, GMK Godzilla also gets a significant upgrade in this power levels, while the Guardian Monsters get a proportional downgrade, which means they spend most of the movie getting beat up by Godzilla. Though, on the other hand, the Guardian Monsters’ stated goal isn’t necessarily to beat Godzilla, it’s to help the humans help themselves stop Godzilla.
Shin Godzilla is the most recent Japanese Godzilla movie (unless you count the Netflix anime trilogy). Released in 2016, Shin Godzilla (shin being a Japanese word that means either “new”, “true”, or “god”, all of which the title is trying to invoke) is basically the 21st century version of the original Godzilla. He’s no longer a destructive protector god, and is once again an inexorable force of destruction.
Where the original Godzilla was a metaphor for the atom bomb, Shin Godzilla is a metaphor for the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster. Shin Godzilla himself is an absolute nightmare, even before he starts doing anything — and, man, when he starts, things start going south fast. He just looks so horrifying and wrong by every possible metric.
Shin Godzilla is also a fascinating satire of modern Japanese politics. Part of the reason Godzilla is able inflict as much destruction as he does is because the government’s response is held up by bureaucracy, red tape, and indecision, as observed and navigated by the film’s primary protagonist, a mid-level bureaucrat. And, honestly, he’s one of my favourite human heroes in the entire franchise
Finally, Legendary’s Godzilla movies, 2014’s Godzilla and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters are two of my favourite movies, like, ever. Legendary Godzilla is just that awesome. Also, Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe are along for the ride.
Now, they didn’t really do well with the critics, but I feel like critics expecting a proper work of cinema are unable to enjoy the simple pleasures of watching giant radioactive monsters kick each through buildings. If you like Godzilla, these are pretty much the perfect movies.
Also, King of the Monsters is clearly the best movie ever, because Godzilla goes Super Saiyan.