The audiences who crowd theaters in the summertime know they can expect one thing from any given “event” movie: a showdown. As in, badass hero faces badass villain in a fight to the death. As in, impressive stunt choreography, wire works, or judicious photo-realistic CGI. As in, good guy dishes out punishment, bad guy returns same, and (spoiler alert) at the last possible second, perhaps with the help of a just in-reach weapon, good guy vanquishs his rival. (Optional: stirring music of the Williams/Shore/Zimmer variety.)
It’s a cliché. But it’s a worthwhile one. Roger Ebert called movies machines for empathy, and a good showdown is one of the chief fantasies for which viewers turn to the movies. These scenes give form to the forces in the world that challenge us, and they create a stage where we try to overcome those forces. It’s a potent dream, because life rarely spells out so clearly what we’re up against.
Most genres feature some kind of showdown, be they westerns, martial arts movies, sports movies, courtroom dramas, or musicals. Even purportedly “serious” movies borrow the language of the showdown when they pit stars of equal reputation and skill against each other to see who can outact the other. You can see showdowns across popular narratives, of course, from movies to TV shows, video games, and comic books. But they're also there in hip-hop, sports, politics, and business. They reflect a need for us-versus-them distinctions, for “bad guys” to muscle up against and smack down in some moment of self actualization. Further, they speak to our sometimes naïve desire for closure, to fashion our lives into coherent narratives with clearly marked dramatic episodes that begin and end.
At the same time, the showdown reflects the kind of unpretentious craftsmanship and pleasure that marks the best American movies. They’re a way in which art can deepen our understanding of the world while still entertaining.
So, showdowns matter. Yet despite $200 million budgets and A-list actors and auteur-ish directors and world-class composers, editors, set designers, and writers, these scenes rarely thrill. In fact, they generally disappoint.
Check the record on the big franchises. Eight Harry Potter movies work toward an ultimate good-versus-evil showdown between the boy wizard and Lord Voldemort, but by the time we get there it proves an underwhelming finale. Sound and fury, etc. There is such a thing as too much build up, too many minor confrontations along the way. Or maybe it’s the way Voldemort becomes less menacing and more prissy as the films go on.
The recent Marvel movies? Thor and Loki? Captain America and the Red Skull? Iron Man and a bald Jeff Bridges, tatted up Mickey Rourke, or fire-breathing Guy Pearce? Come on. The Avengers versus—who were they fighting, again? Loki and some aliens from another dimension? No showdown with the meager Loki will ever be any good. In fact, the best Marvel showdown is probably when the Avengers tee off against themselves. But we know that no one’s going to really get hurt.
How about the James Bond movies of the Daniel Craig era? Certainly the films are the franchise’s best since the early ‘60s, but with an actor as physical and charismatic as Craig, they’ve yet to provide an antagonist who fully measures up. We need a showdown like the train fight between Bond and SPECTRE heavy Red Grant in From Russia With Love, where Robert Shaw not only convinced us that he was Sean Connery’s mental equal, but also looked like he could kill him with his bare hands.
As for the X-Men movies, they are built on the rivalry between Professor X and Magneto—whether played by Stewart and McKellen or McAvoy and Fassbender—but the films mostly skip a direct showdown between the two and instead spin them, and their attendant philosophies of accommodation and separatism, wearily around each other, forever unresolved. And why is it that Wolverine, one of pop culture’s great antiheroes, has yet to face even one antagonist worthy of him?
And what to say of the Star Wars prequels? People waited two decades to see what should have been the greatest showdown of all time: Anakin Skywalker versus Obi Wan Kenobi. Three movies of build up, best friends turned enemies, the galaxy hanging in the balance, a battle on a volcano planet, and it just cannot achieve anything close to the greatest of all modern blockbuster showdowns, the feverish Cloud City duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.
The showdown is like a jazz ballad. We all know the tunes, but a good artist should nevertheless be able to connect with us. Some movies still can, often by tweaking the showdown or our expectations. Sherlock Holmes and arch-rival Moriarty stage a clever battle in the otherwise average Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, in which they comment on their fight as its taking place. The Dark Knight can be understood as a movie about the Joker’s refusal to engage Batman in a traditional physical showdown, because he knows he will lose, instead trying to run a counter showdown designed to corrupt Batman’s ethical code. For all the traditional heroics of The Lord of the Rings movies, the real showdown does not involve Aragorn or Gandalf, but culminates in a tiny little fight between Frodo and Gollum, both corrupted by the ring and fighting each other to the death over it. The day is saved only by chance as Gollum, having gotten the ring by biting off Frodo’s finger, accidentally falls into a lake of lava, destroying both. Frodo lives, but never really recovers his soul.
But these are the exception far more than the rule. What is the problem here?
Below, I’ve tried to sketch out some thoughts on what a showdown should contain. I doubt the points that follow constitute a comprehensive list—and a good showdown may only lean on a few of these—but really good showdowns appear to display many or all of the traits. I define a showdown as a direct and major confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, physical and psychological, that meaningfully impacts the characters or the story. It’s an imprecise definition, but the point is to say that there are many awesome set pieces, shootouts, fights, and chases—other staples of these kinds of movies—that are not really showdowns as I’m considering them.
It’s true that plenty of good showdowns feature in otherwise mediocre movies. And plenty of good movies feature weak ones. But a great blockbuster? I think it needs a great showdown.
Moviegoers rarely watch big-budget films in a two-hour sitting anymore. Instead we ingest bits and pieces for a year or two: behind-the-scenes footage, gossip, speculations, trailers, until the movie we’ve built in our heads is almost always better than the one we finally see.
Nevertheless, anticipation built within a film can be effective. A showdown is made sweeter by talking up the villain and delaying his entrance, or by allowing hero and villain to engage in a preliminary showdown that ends in a draw, and most especially by slowing down the moments before the final confrontation begins. Showdowns are highly ritualized, and good ones will allow that nice long pause, that full breath in and out, to let audiences savor what is about to happen.
No one pushes the idea of anticipation to its limits quite like Quentin Tarantino. His characters talk and talk and talk. They insinuate and surmise, bluff and counterbluff, threaten and defend, and then they talk a little bit more, and the pressure is building all the while, until a violent reckoning at last arrives.