Great Movie Showdowns: Too Rare

Luke and Vader, Batman and Bane, The Bride and Bill: Done well, cinematic fights elevate their pulpy surroundings. What makes for a good one?
The evocative cinematography and emotional stakes make The Empire Strikes Back showdown one of cinema's best. (Twentieth Century Fox)

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.

Paramount Pictures

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 moviesthat 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.

1. Anticipation

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.

Miramax Films

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.

The Kill Bill films are best thought of as a four-hour greatest hits collection of quippy, bloody showdowns. No fight scene capitalizes upon anticipation as effectively as the final showdown does, when Uma Thurman’s Bride confronts her old lover and boss, Bill (played by a rascally David Carradine), who left her for dead. It’s a conversation. They’re seated. Bill rather unapologetically explains why he tried to kill her. The sense of menace builds. Eventually even these folks will run out of things to say. When the fight finally starts, both Bride and Bill remain seated, and Tarantino stages a short and wittily choreographed fight, which culminates in the Bride deploying her five-point palm exploding heart technique. Then they resume their conversation, now with a new sense of affection—Bill is impressed she has mastered the technique, and it’s clear he appreciates her as his better for the first time—until his heart explodes a moment later and he dies.

But beware: Anticipation can set the stage for a great showdown, yet as Tarantino surely knows, it is always just a step away from overindulgence.  

2. The Weight of the Moment

Anticipation helps make the big moment big. But that “moment” must also stand on its own. How?

For one, the opponent must be formidable. The villain should be equal or superior to the hero—no minor minions—and the odds should at least slightly favor him. We can like the villain or fear the villain, but we must respect him: his skill or charisma or ruthlessness, his tragic dimension or his utter lack of human empathy. Villains can believe what they are doing is just, or they can know they are rotten bastards. They can be witty and urbane or cold and silent, but we must find them worthy foils. Moreover, the hero must find them worthy, too. Villains often seek respect from heroes, (“You and I are much alike,” “Surely you can understand the necessity of my plan,” etc.) and I find that when the hero reciprocates even a little, if in action if not words, then the showdown becomes more personal, almost intimate.

Further, the stakes must be right. The fate of the town/country/world by itself is not necessarily the right stakes. Those are abstractions. We must care first about specific people. We care about the heroine. What we are relating to in a showdown is the idea of a character who, in facing a nemesis, is really facing herself and the choices that define her life. The right stakes test the heroine’s character, her soul. (The Bride both wants revenge on Bill, but she still loves him.) The threat is not her death but her failure to live as well as she could have. The characters, somewhere along the way, should understand the stakes.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

One of the great showdowns is the meticulous scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where astronaut Dave Bowman, in a space pod and without his helmet, tries to gain access to the spaceship Discovery, against the wishes of the computer HAL, who has possibly gone insane and just murdered the crew. HAL knows Bowman had been plotting to deactivate him, so he refuses to let him back on the ship. The scene is great for any number of reasons—the convincing verisimilitude, HAL’s brilliantly dismissive indifference, the audaciousness of Bowman’s plan to blow himself back aboard through an airlock. That audaciousness is the whole point. There’s human pride, naturally, a determination not to be bested by a computer. That’s actually enough, but the way I read it, the stakes are bigger. Heretofore the humans we’ve seen in the movie have been deliberately presented as bland bureaucrats with little personality, charisma or character. The film has left us subtlety starved for drama, conflict, something to happen. And suddenly, Bowman is forced to shake off that blandness, to reclaim humankind’s capacity for daring, original action, the kind that proves the species is worthy to transcend to a higher level.

3. Vulnerability

You might think of a good showdown as simply being about strength. But it’s about weakness, too. Most showdowns show us the hero’s physical vulnerability as he gets his ass kicked—and as he gets to his feet one last time, bruised and bloodied and never say die, we stand and cheer his resilience.

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.

Twentieth Century Fox

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.

4. Tangibility

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.

Warner Brothers

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.)

Fantasy and sci-fi movies can convey enough reality to make us buy in through tangible staging. Would you rather watch this overblown fight between Khan and Spock on top of a moving hovercraft in a towering cityscape, at the close of the baffling mash up Star Trek Into Darkness—or the comparatively static, but tactile and infinitely more satisfying showdown between Khan and Kirk in Wrath of Khan? You like the grandiose and splendidly digital showdown in Avatar, between a villain in a power suit, and a blue digital Na’vi riding some exotic digital animal? I’ll take Ripley’s real-world exosuit as she faces down the alien queen in Aliens. (Thirty years later and even James Cameron can’t make an exosuit that feels as believable as this one.)

5. The Iconic

Lastly, the best showdowns do not overextend themselves. This is in part a question of length. Neo and Agent Smith duel across an entire city over six minutes in The Matrix Revolutions, and at some point you start checking your watch. The same can be said of Superman and General Zod’s fight in Man of Steel, (here, here, and here). Allowed to go too long, a showdown, no matter how good, wears out its welcome.

But length is not really the issue, at least in showdowns when the fighting is less frenetic. What we want is a scene that somehow pares a confrontation down to something visually essential. Most showdowns are at best visually indistinct and suffer for it. Think of the smoky blues and oranges of the carbon freeze chamber in Empire, and of that magnificent ten-second shot of Vader and Luke on the gantry. Now think of the Emperor’s drab grey throne room in Return of the Jedi, where Vader and Luke duel a second time. It’s a far more mundane location and weakens the scene. The recent Captain America: The Winter Soldier ends with a good showdown between the two titular characters. It checks most of the boxes, but it falls short of being really good because it’s a little too busy, a little too generic, right at the moment when it needs to be streamlined and iconic.

The greatest of all movie showdowns is probably the exquisitely composed duel between Charles Bronson’s unnamed hero and Henry Fonda’s blue-eyed killer Frank in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone takes his time, giving us long close ups of Bronson’s granitic face, static shots of the two men facing each other, like old trees trunks, stripped of branches and leaves. Ennio Morricone’s mesmerizing score suffuses the screen. It’s an unapologetically long buildup (again anticipation flirts with going too far), interspersed with the tragic flashback that reveals Bronson’s motivation. But the duel itself concludes in a moment, and despite the stately pace, our overall impression is one of crisp, perfectly controlled timing. It’s both a knowing pastiche of great western duels and something more—the physical manifestation of the end of the west. In a real sense both men are facing the same fate, obsolescence, and so both lose.

It’s magnificent filmmaking. And it demonstrates the fundamental contradiction of the showdown. Less is more, but more is more, too. Showdowns allow us to imagine ourselves as bigger, stronger, faster. Better. And yet a good showdown is essentialized to the struggles of vulnerable, fallible, fragile beings, too. They remind us of our smallness, and force us to confront our fears, our inadequacy, to reckon with who we are at that very moment we try to be more.

So showdown greatness comes not from making the stage bigger. It comes from making the stage denser, by plowing more feeling, more theme, more craft, more emotion, more soul, into a smaller, simpler frame. That’s the challenge of the form. When a movie pulls it off, it’s an event.

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T.R. Witcher is a writer based in Las Vegas. 

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