In the digitally and tonally updated “Godzilla,” opening on Friday, Hollywood again tries to put its own stamp on the venerable Toho Productions creature-feature icon — in part by importing him from Tokyo to San Francisco. Never mind whether the scenery shift messes with the character’s status as a Japanese cultural mascot, or his origins as a nuclear-anxiety metaphor. (It’s an allegorical function that, sadly, feels like it could have a new application in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima power plant disaster). As pure escapist spectacle, the sight of Godzilla stomping and chomping on the Golden Gate Bridge and neighboring landmarks has monster-size potential.
But here’s a seldom-remembered Godzilla-geek fact: Technically, this isn’t the overgrown lizard’s first trip to the Bay Area. He made an earlier quake-simulating visit in Marvel Comics’ “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” a licensee venture that had a brief two-year run in the late ’70s. (San Francisco was the setting for issue #3, cover dated October 1977; the character’s transcontinental tour also featured stops in Seattle — yum, Space Needle — Vegas, and New York.) If you’re still trying to wrap your head around the idea that Marvel superheroes have found a way to share a screen universe in “The Avengers,” how about this one: The Avengers have hung with Godzilla in print. Hey, it’s no more fanciful than Godzilla’s eventual Japanese evolution into a cuddly good guy.
The behemoth-busters in the San Francisco story are actually the Champions, a wannabe Avengers outfit whose roster includes the Black Widow (yep, that Black Widow), a pair of ex-X-Men, and Hercules. (The latter is another product of the Marvel mythology-appropriating predilection that turned Thor into a superhero. A little goofy, but it makes for some priceless dialogue here: “By the cloven hooves of Pan! ’Tis some form of mammoth dragon!”) If only the group weren’t distracted by a pissy jurisdictional clash with S.H.I.E.L.D., whose Helicarrier-based Godzilla Squad is on the case throughout the series.
All the sparring produces a none-too-super result, with Godzilla living to rampage another day. Hercules hurls a shattered section of Golden Gate pavement at his target, clips the Helicarrier instead, and sends the great airship nose-diving into the bay — decades before the Helicarrier-grounding finale of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” speaking of history repeating.
Even back then, Marvel had a knack for highlighting the brand. The splashiest illustration in the story isn’t the image of Godzilla looming over the downed ship, or rising up under the Golden Gate and rending it in two, in an oddly undersize panel. It’s the full-page image of Marvel’s Toho rental being impossibly toppled by Marvel’s company-copyrighted mythological hero, and instantly demolishing four square blocks around Fisherman’s Wharf. Insert “Herculean task” pun here.
What the mayhem in the new “Godzilla” might bring to mind more immediately is what a rough few years it’s been for San Francisco onscreen. The city has long been prone to popcorn-movie devastation, but lately it borders on ridiculous. To float another Marvel connection, in “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006), Ian McKellen’s Magneto uses his mutant powers to tear loose the Golden Gate and reroute it to Alcatraz. In “Monsters vs. Aliens” (2009), the title combatants duke it out with the bridge right in the middle, in a spot-on cartoon simulation of classic genre action. In “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011), damn dirty you-know-whats overrun the Golden Gate on their path to revolution. And just last year, Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” had Toho-inspired “Kaiju” trashing the span, while “Star Trek Into Darkness” showed a crashing Starfleet ship taking out Alcatraz.
It’s almost enough to make us wonder whether there’s some ominous meaning we should be attaching to “The Lone Ranger” (2013) and its understatedly cool effects shot of the Golden Gate under construction circa 1933. Come to think of it, Godzilla’s Marvel run did include an issue with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Fantastic Four getting him out of their hair using a time machine . . .