The problem, though, is that superheroes and villains these days can endure too much. Their strength is too long-lasting, as is their ability to take a beating. By the time we see any sign of weakness, we’ve long reached our empathetic limits. Few of us actually know what it’s like to get beaten up, anyway, and tough guys (and now tough gals) too often only seem emboldened by pain.
Pain can work in a showdown if you don’t overdo it, but what suggests vulnerability more convincingly is effort. Sweat counts more than blood. It tells us that the characters are being depleted, that they are pouring all their psychic and physical gifts into the moment but can’t keep doing so forever. This is something we can all relate to, whether trying to gut out that extra mile or rep, or struggling to tread water. Depletion helps undercut the emotional stoicism of the typical badass, and leads to a more interesting place, genuine fallibility.
(It should be noted that nakedness also works, whether it’s astronaut Bowman sans helmet or a literally naked Viggo Mortensen surviving a brutal knife attack in a London bathhouse in Eastern Promises.)
As with 2001, there are many reasons the duel in The Empire Strikes Back is a classic, but an overlooked and crucial contribution is Mark Hamill’s performance. He sweats. He looks at times like he can barely catch his breath. It helps sell the whole thing. Luke begins the duel with a brittle shell of confidence, but as we see his physical exertion, we see that shell shatter. In his effort to match Vader, Luke grows more and more aware of his desperate position. We see it in his face. He is in over his head. Yoda was right; he should have stayed on Dagobah and finished his training. He won’t be able to save his friends or himself. Indeed, he winds up on a gantry that leads nowhere, over a bottomless pit. He’s overwhelmed, and this is before he loses his hand and learns the truth about his father. Within moments he has passed from physical and mental fatigue, through to one severe experience of bodily trauma, then onto to an even greater emotional trauma. The only way he can save himself is to fling himself towards death.
In a good showdown, confronting your vulnerabilities is not a one-time event where you see the stakes, gather your courage, swallow hard, and dive in. It’s a constant unfolding. In The Matrix, Neo’s subway-station showdown with Agent Smith works marvelously because the whole movie has seen Neo gradually gain more power and more belief that he can beat the seemingly unbeatable agents who police the Matrix. And yet as the showdown progresses Neo is forced to summon more resolve—far beyond what he thought he was capable of—just to fight Smith to a draw.
An early showdown from Troy perhaps best illustrates the power of vulnerability. The young prince of Troy, Paris, a playboy, has run off with Helen, the wife of Greek King Menelaus. Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon, bring a massive army to the shores of Troy to get her back. Hoping to stop the fighting, Paris summons up what little courage he has to challenge the much stronger Menelaus to a duel, thinking that if he wins, the Greeks will withdraw their forces.
Paris, played by a reedy Orlando Bloom, is no match for Menelaus, played by the bearish Brendan Gleeson. We see some of the action through Paris’s helmet as Menelaus pounds away at his shield, and we feel like Paris does, small and breakable. Paris puts up a poor fight; he is slow, clumsy, weak and afraid, and he is quickly defeated. A single sword slash across his thigh cripples him and carries more weight than a dozen slow-motion blows in a lesser contest.
And what tops it off? Instead of dying with honor—this duel was his idea, after all, and even his father, King Priam, urges his son to fight (and die)—he crawls back to his brother, Hector, as the whole city watches. We are simultaneously ashamed by his cowardice and sympathetic with his naked desire to live. Hector saves him by slaying Menelaus, but it’s an unsatisfying victory.
Obviously, then, a good showdown continues to propel the story forward. The principals don’t simply stop and beat each other up for five minutes. Character is exposed, revealed, tested, transformed. If there are any ideas the film has been cultivating, they should come to fruition here.
But there are other qualities that need to be in play. Some great showdowns would be impossible without special effects, but most suffer because of them. Why? For one, when heroes and villains dash around too much, it’s hard to follow the action. Two, as scenes become too elastic and insubstantial—and rapid-fire editing exacerbates this—so do the characters. We wind up with nothing or no one to hold onto.
Good showdowns tend to constrict themselves to a single or handful of distinct locations. Think of the courtyard duel in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon between Michelle Yeoh’s Yu Shu Lien and Zhang Ziyi’s Jen Yu. It moves, yes, and people fly about, but the clean camera work and quietly propulsive score bring the conflict down to earth. Or recall the claustrophobic setting for Batman’s beat down at the hands of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. This fight successfully borrows bits from Empire: Part of the fight takes place on a long and narrow gantry, and sound effects create a moody atmosphere. There’s nowhere to run, and gradually Batman is ground down.
Even a weak film like The Hunted benefits from two terrific face offs between Benicio del Toro’s Special Forces commando, who has snapped and is killing hunters, and the man who trained him, played by Tommy Lee Jones. They duel twice (here’s the first) and the tight choreography gives the scenes a powerful sense of coiled energy, as if these two guys had been put inside a very small box. (Also, it doesn’t hurt that del Toro’s eyes convey tremendous vulnerability even in the midst of the brutal knife play. He’s seeking both to best his mentor and reach out in anguish for a father figure to save him.)