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Godzilla is the King of the Monsters, but he does not actually have that regal title as part of his name. However, one of Godzilla's most iconic, dangerous, and fearsome foes is explicitly kaiju royalty. The golden, three-headed dragon King Ghidorah will battle with Godzilla one more time in the upcoming Legendary film, so here's the history of the ultimate evil kaiju.
Like Rodan and Mothra, two other classic Godzilla monsters that are crossing the Pacific for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, King Ghidorah is a fixture of the Japanese films produced by Toho. Rodan and Mothra made their first appearances in 1956 and 1961, respectively, in self-titled movies that were initially separate from the Godzilla franchise. Mothra battled with Godzilla in 1964's Mothra vs. Godzilla, the fourth film in the Godzilla series. The fifth film, released that same year, would add Rodan to the mix and introduce King Ghidorah to the world.
In Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, the titular monster crash-lands in Japan in egg form, ready to hatch and destroy Earth as it had destroyed all life on Venus thousands of years before. It takes the combined efforts of Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra to send Ghidorah packing, saving the Earth.
Later films would tweak and change Ghidorah's origins, but the essential elements of the kaiju were all there in his first appearance. Inspired by Chinese dragons and a Hydra-like dragon from Japanese folklore known as a Yamata no Orochi, Ghidorah stands taller than any other kaiju. Though the beast lacks arms, it sports massive golden wings that allow it to fly and unleash destructive, lightning-like "gravity beams" from its three heads. Ghidorah is so powerful and so evil that it usually takes more than one kaiju to defeat it.
The Three-Headed Monster marked the first time that Godzilla was ever "the good guy," the beginning of a transformation that would eventually lead Godzilla down some heroic and very goofy paths throughout the '60s and '70s. That's how bad Ghidorah was: He turned a walking metaphor for the horrors of the atomic bomb and nuclear power into the protector of Earth.
Ghidorah would return four more times in the '60s and '70s, in what's known as the Showa era of the Godzilla franchise. In 1965's Invasion of Astro-Monster, Ghidorah reappears, now under the control of an alien race known as the Xiliens who inhabit Planet X. The Xiliens initially pretended that they needed to borrow Godzilla and Rodan from Earth to protect them from Ghidorah, also known as "Monster Zero," but this was a ruse. Instead, they took control of the two Earth kaiju as well, and they came pretty close to conquering the world.
This was the first time that Ghidorah was explicitly under the control of some alien force, but it wouldn't be the last. In 1968, King Ghidorah appeared once more under the control of another alien race, the Kilaaks. Destroy All Monsters is basically the Avengers of Godzilla movies, because it brought almost every single kaiju from past films back, as well as adding some monsters who had previously only been in standalone films. It took the combined might of more than a half-dozen kaiju to beat Ghidorah this time.
Ghidorah made one final appearance in the initial run of Godzilla films, and it's the kaiju's least memorable one. Ghidorah doesn't even get top billing in 1972's Godzilla vs. Gigan, instead just appearing under the control of another alien race in order to fight alongside their new monster, a hook-handed cyborg chicken named Gigan. It was not Ghidorah's finest moment.
Ghidorah next appeared in 1991, in the third installment in the franchise's second era, known as the "Heisei series." In Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, the golden dragon isn't being controlled by aliens, but by time-travelers who use the atomic blast that originally created Godzilla to instead create King Ghidorah, while simultaneously taking Japan's biggest defender out of the picture. The plan doesn't work, as fate works in such a way that Godzilla still ends up being created — bigger and badder than ever. Godzilla defeats King Ghidorah, and is then in turn defeated by a cyborg version of Ghidorah's corpse brought back from the future by one of the good time travelers.
Different versions of Ghidorah also appeared in a series of Mothra films in the '90s, but Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah was the monster's last appearance in the core franchise until the next era of films, the Millennium Series. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, released in 2001, is notable because it is the only time that Ghidorah has ever been a good guy. In GMK, the kaiju is one of Japan's three guardian Monsters along with Mothra and a lesser-known kaiju named Baragon. Together, the three fight a scary, supernatural version of Godzilla powered by restless souls.
Depending on how you count, Ghidorah made one more appearance in the Millennium series in 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars. In that, a quadrupedal three-headed monster named Keizer Ghidorah did battle with Godzilla, once again under the control of a revamped version of the Xillien alien race. Ghidorah's final appearance in the Japanese films came recently, in the Godzilla anime trilogy. This too was not a typical version of the iconic kaiju, as Ghidorah was reimagined as an extra-dimensional dark god, and the anime only shows Ghidorah's three impossibly long necks emerging from a portal rather than the full creature.
The upcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters looks to be a return to form for Ghidorah — literally, because the design of the kaiju is much more in line with the monster's history than some of the wilder reimaginings seen in the past two films. The film will also make Ghidorah fight against the three kaiju it battled in its first appearance back in 1964: Mothra, Rodan, and Godzilla. Really, the biggest change is that Ghidorah does not appear to be a space invader, but rather a "Titan" who was on Earth well before humanity ever was.
Based on the trailers for King of the Monsters, it seems like King Ghidorah will once more be Godzilla's ultimate nemesis, which makes sense. No matter how Ghidorah has changed over the decades, a few things — like the three heads and gold scales — stay the same. The most important quality, though, is that King Ghidorah and Godzilla are natural enemies. And when there's a battle for the King of the Monsters crown, you can expect an epic showdown.