Godzilla vs. Kong: A Functional Morphologist Uses Science to Pick a Winner

Yves here. I’m in the mood for a silly post, but a collection of stuck ship memes is now yesterday’s news. So how about Godzilla (and Kong)?

First, we have used Godzilla as a reference point, by sometimes describing brawls between big uglies as Godzilla v. Mothra. But second, I’m fond of Godzilla. Even though Ray Harryhausen is only Godzilla-adjacent (he got a lifetime Oscar award for doing special effects in the days when special effects were no good), I have a soft spot for all dinosaur-like monsters by virtue of my brother, the first published author in our family, having written The Dinosaur Films of Ray Harryhausen, a classic for B-movie fans. He was invited to speak at sci-fi and horror film conferences after his book came out. Third, Godzilla is cute. He made for a very nice lighter I had to buy when it showed up at my local newspaper stand (not only did flame shoot out his mouth but his eyes lit up). Fourth, most people underestimate the size of the fanbase for these, um, classics. What TV show can you name that has been on the air for over 50 years? In the US, we have the cable channel MeTV (Me = “Memorable Entertainment”) currently featuring Svengoolie, which has run weekly since 1970 (initially just on Chicago local TV), featuring sci-fi and horror classics. This is simply brilliant. The show costs almost nothing to produce, clearly has a loyal followers, and the current Svengoolie has been in the role since 1979!

And if this movie Godzilla gets to spit fire (or as the post indicates “atomic breath”) like my little lighter of many years past, that look like it tips the balance. Yes, that lighter did go to my brother, as much as I wanted to keep it.

By Kiersten Formoso, PhD Student in Vertebrate Paleomorphology, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Originally published at The Conversation

The 2021 film “Godzilla vs. Kong” pits the two most iconic movie monsters of all time against each other. And fans are now picking sides.

Even the most fantastical creatures have some basis in scientific reality, so the natural world is a good place to look to better understand movie monsters. I study functional morphology – how skeletal and tissue traits allow animals to move – and evolution in extinct animals. I am also a huge fan of monster movies. Ultimately, this is a fight between a giant reptile and a giant primate, and there are relative biological advantages and disadvantages that each would have. The research I do on morphology and biomechanics can tell us a lot about this battle and might help you decide – #TeamGodzilla or #TeamKong?

Larger than Life

First it’s important to acknowledge that both Kong and Godzilla are definitely far beyond the realms of biological possibility. This is due to sheer size and the laws of physics. Their hearts couldn’t pump blood to their heads, they would have temperature regulation problems and it would take too long for nerve signals from the brain to reach distant parts of the body – to name just a few issues.

However, let’s assume that somehow Godzilla and Kong are able to overcome these size limitations – perhaps because of their radiation exposure they have distinctive mutations and characteristics. Based on how they look on the big screen, let’s explore the observable differences that might prove useful in a fight.

Kong: The Best of Ape and Man

At first glance, Kong is a colossal primate – but he’s not simply a giant gorilla.

Kong has a mix of both gorilla and humanlike physical traits. Cliff/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

One of the most striking things about Kong is his upright, bipedal stance – he mostly walks on two legs, unlike any other living nonhuman apes. This ability could suggest close evolutionary relationship to the only living upright ape, humans – or his upright stance could be the result of convergent evolution. Either way, like us, Kong has thick muscular legs geared toward walking and running, and large free arms with grasping hands, enabling him to use tools.

Humanity’s bipedal, upright posture is unique in the animal kingdom and provides a slew of biomechanical abilities that Kong might share. For example, human torsos are highly flexible and particularly good at rotation. This feature – in addition to our loose shoulder girdle – makes humans the best throwers in the animal kingdom. Throwing is helpful in a fight, and Kong could probably throw with the best of them.

Kong is also, of course, massive. He absolutely dwarfs the largest known primate, an extinct orangutan relative called Gigantopithecus that was a bit bigger than modern gorillas.

Kong does have many gorillalike attributes as well, including long muscular arms, a short snout with large canine teeth, and a tall sagittal crest – a ridge of bone on his head that would be the anchor point for some exceptionally strong jaw muscles.

Strong, agile, comfortable on land and with the unparalleled ability to use tools and throw, Kong would be a brutal force in a fight.

Godzilla’s upright posture is unique among lizards and dinosaurs. Figure depicts what he’d look like with a dinosaur posture. Kenneth Carpenter/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Godzilla: An Aquatic Lizard to be Reckoned With

Godzilla appears to be a giant, semiaquatic reptile. Like Kong, Godzilla has the traits of a few different species.

Recent Godzilla movies show him decently mobile on land, but seemingly much more comfortable in the water despite his lack of overt aquatic features. Interestingly, Godzilla is depicted with gills on his neck – a trait that land vertebrates lost after they emerged from the sea about 370 million years ago. Given Godzilla’s terrestrial features, it’s likely that his species has land-dwelling reptile ancestors and reevolved a mostly aquatic lifestyle – kind of like sea turtles or sea snakes, which can actually absorb oxygen through their skin in water. Godzilla may have uniquely reevolved gills.

Dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex had huge muscles that connect their powerful tails to their hips and upper legs. Dr. Scott Hartman, CC BY-ND

Godzilla’s tail is what really separates him from Kong. It is massive, and anchored and moved by huge muscles attached to his legs, hips and lower back. Dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rexstood horizontally and used their tails for balance and to help them walk and run. Godzilla, in contrast, stands vertically and keeps his tail low to the ground, probably for a different type of balance. This vertical posture is unique for a two-legged reptile and more resembles a standing kangaroo. Godzilla stands on two muscular, pillarlike legs similar to those of a sauropod dinosaur. These would provide stability and help support his gargantuan mass but would also bolster the strength of his tail.

In addition to his powerful tail, Godzilla carries three rows of sharp spikes going down his back, thick scaly skin, a relatively small head full of carnivorous teeth and free arms with grasping hands, all built onto a muscular body. Taken together, Godzilla is a terrifying and intimidating adversary.

Kong is faster and could use tools, but Godzilla is stronger and has armored skin. Tim Simpson/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Ready, Fght!

So now that we’ve looked a little closer at how Godzilla and Kong are built, let’s imagine who might emerge victorious in battle.

Though Kong is a little bit smaller than Godzilla, both are more or less comparably massive in size and neither has a clear advantage here. So what about their fighting abilities?

Godzilla would likely favor his robust tail for both offense and defense – much like modern-day large lizards that use their strong tails as whips. Scale up that strength to Godzilla’s size, and that tail becomes a lethal weapon – which he has used before.

However, Kong is more comfortable on land, faster and more agile, can use his strong legs to jump, and possesses much stronger arms than Godzilla – Kong probably packs a walloping punch. And as an ape, Kong would also likely use tools to some degree and might even capitalize on his throwing ability.

Both would have a gnarly bite, with Kong likely getting a slight advantage. However, Godzilla’s bite is by no means weak, and all of his teeth are flesh-piercing, similar to crocodile and monitor lizard teeth.

On defense, Godzilla has the edge, with thick scaly skin and sharp spikes. He might even act like a porcupine, turning his back to a rapidly approaching threat. However, Kong’s superior agility on land should be able to offer him some protection as well.

I will admit I am #TeamGodzilla, but it’s very close. I may give a slight edge to Kong in broad terrestrial battle ability, but Godzilla’s general mass, defense and tail would be hard to overpower. And lest we forget, the tipping point for Godzilla is that he has atomic breath! Until researchers find evidence of a dinosaur or animal with something like that, though, I will have to reserve my scientific judgment.

Regardless of who emerges victorious, this battle will be one for the ages, and I am excited as both a scientist and monster movie fan.

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  1. petal

    This is awesome. When I was a little kid, my mother would make popcorn in an old pot on the stove and we’d all sit down and watch the Saturday afternoon Godzilla movie on tv. He is still a favourite character of mine.

  2. Dr. John Carpenter

    I attended G-Fest (the annual Godzilla fest) several years ago and one of the lectures I took in was essentially the science of Godzilla the creature. It was a lot of fun. So thanks for sharing this one. I dig this kind of stuff a lot.

  3. Basil Pesto

    last year Criterion released a big box set of the older Godzilla films. Not my sort of thing but may be of interest to some here. This isn’t the first Godzilla v Kong rodeo either, as it turns out. I was just checking out the special features and a name that might be familiar to the commentariat turns up as well ;)

    1. cocomaan

      I don’t “need” a stimulus check but I also don’t “need” this DVD collection. But I do want it.

    2. Alex Cox

      Surely Godzilla’s ability to breathe radioactive fire would be the deciding factor! Meaning no disrespect to Kong.

      Regarding their upright posture, I imagine that is because, in the Toho movies, both are played by human actors in suits. Whereas the original Kong was an animated model created by Harryhausen’s mentor, Willis O’Brien. The original Kong had a more traditional, ape-like carriage.

  4. cocomaan

    Article is good.

    However, as my wife pointed out when I made her sit with me to watch Godzilla movies, Godzilla is a “middle aged monster.” He has large thighs and glutes but there’s a good chance it’s not all muscle down there, as described by the scientist in the article.

    I do agree with him that Kong could probably put up a good fight, perhaps an even better fight than, say, Mothra, who has always struck me as being too squishy to be a real threat. But Kong would not be as deadly as Gidorah.

    The fire breath is a game changer for Godzilla, also allowing him to fly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlDnXRw2VIA&feature=emb_title So there’s that.

    My favorite Godzilla movie of all was Godzilla Vs the Smog Monster. It’s very much a product of the 1970’s and features trippy animation, Rachel Carson rolling in her grave, and a hilariously awesome monster. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGYEG_Ss3A4

    1. Riverboat Grambler

      Yes, Godzilla Vs The Smog Monster (or Godzilla VS Hedorah) is one of the best. Alot of trippy, weird and goofy stuff in there. I love the nightclub scene, plays out just like the one in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.One of the few in the series I force my friends to watch.

      I also really like the original Godzilla VS MechaGodzilla, the human plot is very fun with people running around shooting ape-aliens disguised as people and the kaiju fight at the end really delivers.

      1. cocomaan

        YES, MechaGodzilla is just great. It’s one of the few where the human plot is as much fun as the Godzilla plot. Usually the human bits are extremely boring but Mechagodzilla kept my attention even as a little kid.

  5. Mr Grumpy

    My family surprised me with a DVD of the original Godzilla vs King Kong several months ago. This one is the only movie I will venture back into a theater to see. Hopefully the fight scenes will not be so dark and full of closeups which make it impossible to figure out what’s going on or fully appreciate the fabulous enormity of the monsters. My big beef with the last two movies.

  6. KLG

    On Mothra: One of the funniest things I ever heard…Yeah, that “tattoo on her lower back” is a cute butterfly now. But when she gets to be my age it will have turned into Mothra.

    Sorry. I’ll be leaving now.

  7. juno mas

    And the winner is – – – ?!!!

    After luring him into the the constraints of Fifth Ave., King leaps from above onto Godzilla’s back, reaches around from behind with his long strong arms and gouges the eyes of ‘Zilla. Now with no vision he is abandoned by Kong to the lifeless streets of the City that does not Sleep.

    (Contrary to some reports ‘Zilla is not undefeated.)

  8. John C.

    One of my (now) teen-age sons has been living, eating, sleeping, breathing, existing for Godzilla for most of his life so far. Tomorrow night is Zero Hour for buckets of popcorn and the basement TV for father and son.

    Harryhausen: the Greatest. Pretty much the entire “Jason and the Argonauts” still haunts my dreams…..

  9. Fritzi

    Kaijus, I love em.

    Not as bleak as cosmic horror, as usually defined (there can be overlap, of course), but it is still one of the few genres of popular “speculative” fiction where our species in it’s entirety is (most of the time) shown to be humbled, in stark contrast to the eternal “Humanity, fuck yeah!”, that pervades most other genres, most of all science fiction, but the others too.

    America may have produced the first giant monster movies, but I suspect that it is not by chance that the genre hit it big primarily in Japan first.

  10. Howard Beale IV

    While Chicago had Svengoolie, Cleveland and Detroiters had The Ghoul, who did a much better job in dubbing in various sound effects to the horror movies he showed, overdey….

    1. ambrit

      New Orleans had “Morgus The Magnificent,” played by Sid Noel, who I and Phyllis knew slightly, (he being a local “character” on the Northshore of the N’Awlins metro region,) when we lived north of New Orleans. Sid was a real ‘functional oddball.’ He worked on local television and sci-fi and horror projects most of his life.
      Miami had “M T Graves” hosting the usual horror and sci-fi films, and occasional old serials, from his dungeon cell “deep underneath” the station’s broadcast tower. I remember watching the show on Saturday afternoons. This being Miami, how they kept those basement rooms dry was an unanswered question. The fictional “Mr. Graves” was played by local on air personality Charlie Baxter. True to form, Baxter did numerous television ‘personalities’ and also occasionally, the news, weather, and ‘odd jobs’ in the studio for several different stations over the course of his working life.
      I’ll wager that most local television areas had similar “on air personalities.”

      1. WobblyTelomeres

        Cassandra Peterson (Elvira) was local to Los Angeles when I lived there. She didn’t go global until later. I remember Morgus, too.

  11. Solideco

    I fondly remember watching The Ghoul as a 12 year old in Detroit. I never understood the obsession with Froggy but I was all for seeing things being blown up.

    1. ChiGal in Carolina

      Yup, it’s his profound humanity that gets me in his corner. A sensitive soul beneath all the bluster. The original movie was the best “monster” movie ever made imho. The remake with Naomi Watts was the best retelling imho.

      Kong was a tragic hero undone by a woman in both of those. Like Victor Mature playing Samson to Vivian Leigh’s Delilah, your heart goes out to the big lug.

  12. hemeantwell

    Much to love about the Raymond Burr vs. Godzilla original. For some reason the martial music played when the Navy is out chasing the lizard really got to me, one listen and I had an earworm. Just now did a search and discovered that the composer, Ifukube, had composed for the military during the war. For him, Godzilla didn’t represent the US and its strategic bombing of Japan, but rather served to represent a kind of chthonic Japan rising from the ashes.

    1. Riverboat Grambler

      Love the military march theme. Here’s a link to a youtube vid with all (most?) of them. The one from the original G VS King Ghidorah is basically the original but a little faster, great stuff.


      1. hemeantwell

        Thanks for that! I found a site that lists the original album tracks, and there the earworm — the opener of the youtube — was dubbed the Frigate March, which fits with the scene in the movie. You wonder if it says anything about shifting appreciations of the military that on your youtube it’s call the Army March. Stirring stuff, I wish I had an understanding of how it works on a person, the psychoacoustics of fascism.

        1. cocomaan

          Boy, this brings back some memories. You’re absolutely right about military marches. Who would have thought that Godzilla music could turn me into a raging authoritarian?

    2. occasional anonymous

      What a trajectory. He believed in technology until it become clear the US completely outclassed Japan in terms of tech, then petulantly rebelled against the promise of technological advancement, composing for a cheesy monster movie because he saw it as being about ancient mysticism triumphing over man.

      Ultra-nationalism is a hell of a drug.

  13. howseth

    I remember as a kid, sitting in the movie theater – early summer – watching this film – and the kids in the audience seemed to be on Kong’s side. I thought Kong was obnoxious – (I word I just likely had learned) Godzilla was ornery – and not as clever as Kong – but I rooted for Godzilla – and was disappointed.

  14. Riverboat Grambler

    When I was four or five my dad sat me in front of Godzilla VS Mothra and it made me a lifelong fan, definitely had a big impact on my taste in cult movies. I remember getting a VHS double-park of the original plus G VS Megalon when I was six or so. I put in the original first (of course) but found myself disturbed by the opening scenes of nuclear devastation with wailing children in the background. I put in VS Megalon instead and it was much sillier.

    The last few months I’ve been slowly working my way through the 90s-era films that I haven’t seen. For me Godzilla is like Star Trek, Bond films, or Friday the 13th movies: comfy stuff to put on even if you’re puttering around the house and not actively watching it.

    Obviously Godzilla’s atomic breath would roast Kong, plus Kong needed to be upscaled for the recent movie to even be in the same weight class. Also if you watch the trailer closely (or look at the youtube comments) there’s a pretty big spoiler in there that I’m excited to see.

  15. Team Kong

    Kong, definitely.

    Watching Peter Jackson’s version of Kong v T-Rex fight, for me, cemented in my mind why upright primate were evolutionary so successful.

    Provide equal strenght, Kong’s highly articulate body and opposable thumb trumps Godzilla’s atomic breath.

  16. chuck roast

    I begged off KP for a couple of hours back in the day to see Mothra vs. Godzilla. In this latest iteration, I’m guessing that Kong delivers the pain and Godzilla slinks off into the Sea of Japan to his secret island. Kong dies a sad and painful death from his wicked injuries. Tokyo is demolished again for the umpteenth time, but the now deceased Kong is greatly mourned because he is “almost human” and in the end he displayed the traits of a guy you might want to play golf with.

    Tokyo will be rebuilt in all its glory maintaining full employment and aggregate demand with moderate inflation. Meanwhile, Godzilla will nurse his wounds and begin to develop new and astonishing weaponry. He will return in the year 2030 to again begin his assault on Tokyo. But he has a fatal flaw…he is susceptible to guys shooting M-1s riding around in Willys jeeps. Tokyo is again almost destroyed, but the virtuous cycle continues.

    1. cocomaan

      Tokyo will be rebuilt in all its glory maintaining full employment and aggregate demand with moderate inflation.

      This made me laugh out loud.

  17. vlade

    a show running >50 years? Dr. Who (although it didn’t run every year since 1963 it run season 1, so total seasons is actually ‘only’ 38).

    That said, somehow, I didn’t really warm up to Jodi Foster as the latest Doctor. Especially when the previous three were IMO just excellent, I can’t decide which one was better..

    1. John Anthony La Pietra

      I’m sorry to hear you haven’t enjoyed Jodie Whittaker’s time as the 13th Doctor; I think she’s done a very good job, and if the recent reports of her departure at the end of new Series 13 are true, I’ll miss her. (Jodie Foster would have been an interesting choice, too.)

  18. John A

    I confess I have never seen any Godzilla films. However, as a lizard, would Godzilla shed its fearsome tail when in flight mode, as ordinary lizards do, to put a predator off scent? If so, Godzilla would be even more vulnerable, like Superman and kryptonite, until the tail grew back.

  19. Harry Lime

    Yves, I was amused that you gifted your very cool lighter to your brother. Several years ago, I gifted my brother, a movie monster nut, with Roy’s book, having no idea of your relationship. He recommends it to all fans of the genre.

  20. Stephen Taylor

    The article and its speculations are good, but I’m more impressed by Yves showing us this unexpected side of her. I can almost imagine her lighting up a cig with that Godzilla flame-thrower, standing there taking a few drags, then blowing smoke in someone’s face before flicking the butt on the ground and grinding it out with her boot, and then finally walking away down a shadowy street while Godzilla’s roar echoes faintly off in the darkness. Very cinematic.

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