For a group of people endowed with either superpowers or fantastical technology, the superheroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe spend a lot of time fighting hand-to-hand. In real life, every advance in weapons technology allows humans to kill each other more efficiently and from greater distances. Iron Man would be flying around Sokovia shooting bad guys, but Tony Stark would be in a trailer in Nevada operating the suit by remote control. That’s smart warfare, but it’d make for a really boring movie.
We all want to watch the hero and the villain look each other in the eye and test each other in solo combat, which works in movies about gladiators, samurai, knights, or even Old West gunfighters. The climactic fight unfolds over several minutes, with its own narrative arc, as hero and villain trade verbal jabs or reveal hitherto unknown secrets about their family tree. It’s tough to talk trash if the fight lasts only long enough for one person to sneak up behind the other and shoot him in the back of the head — that’s why missiles and automatic firearms tend to be used mostly on anonymous henchmen, not the Big Bads themselves.
The MCU’s penchant for punching isn’t the problem — it is, after all, a more dramatic and elegant expression of cinematic violence than firearms. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s description of blasters (i.e. guns) as “clumsy or random” in Star Wars: A New Hope applies to film as well as space combat. And in a story where one of the primary heroes is a talking tree-man from space, realism isn’t exactly job no. 1.
The problem is that MCU fight scenes suck.
Great fight scenes tend to be either extremely pretty or extremely ugly. The pretty ones focus primarily on the virtuosity of the fighters, their lightning-fast hands or exquisite weapons skills. These fights look like dance routines, and balletic fighting motions are often paired with bright colors and stirring music. Pick any five-minute stretch from Hero and you’ll see a good example, and the MCU could also take some lessons from Star Wars. In a fortunate coincidence for a franchise in need of relatively bloodless PG or PG-13 violence, lightsabers cauterize the wounds they create, so fights that look brutal for Star Wars — specifically the climactic Empire Strikes Back duel and the throne room fight in The Last Jedi — aren’t particularly gory.
Contrast the vivid reds of the Last Jedi throne room battle or the graceful “Duel of the Fates”–backed Phantom Menace fight with this, from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This fight, which features a nearly “I am your father”–level reveal of its own, is a total mess. It’s all drab colors, from the overcast gray sky to the dark costumes, and with the camera so close to the action and cutting as frequently as it does, you can barely see what’s going on.
With superhero fight scenes, it’s tough to showcase fighting skill in characters who range from genetically engineered supermen to aliens to gods — the whole point is that they’re capable of physical feats beyond what normal people can pull off. Weirdly, when Captain America stabs a hole in a van or throws someone through a window, his abilities diminish how cool that looks — Captain America is a different kind of fictional than Jason Bourne or even Luke Skywalker, and that goes double for Drax or Thor.
Or for T’Challa, who wears a suit woven out of one of the strongest metals in the fictional world, and if you hit it, the suit can store the energy from the impact and spit it back out. Black Panther — which contained two of the MCU’s better fight scenes: Killmonger’s art museum heist and the casino brawl — was thrilling, beautifully colorful, and thoughtful. Except for its nominal climax: the train tracks fight scene between Killmonger and T’Challa, in which the film discarded its soaring wide shots and gorgeous color palette for two CGI dudes scrambling around in the dark.
Speaking of CGI, take a gander at the opening of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The movie’s first battle starts with an unbroken, minute-long shot that establishes the heroes and their fighting styles, which is pretty tidy storytelling, but the special effects are so flashy they don’t look real. The long take is a useful tension-building device if you can pull it off, but mostly it’s a way for directors to show off. Having a long take that’s mostly CGI feels so much like cheating you wonder why director Joss Whedon even bothered.
Contrast that long take with the stairwell brawl from Atomic Blonde, which is a perfect example of a great ugly fight scene.
The reason humanity has spent the past 70,000-plus years devising increasingly sophisticated weapons is that it takes a lot of hard work, and a lot of commitment, to beat someone to death with your bare hands. It’s dangerous, too — in order to get close enough to stab, bludgeon, or strangle someone, you have to get close enough for them to stab, bludgeon, or strangle you right back. Hand-to-hand combat is exhausting and scary, and great ugly fight scenes capture that.
Such fight scenes can also inspire awe at the virtuosity of the fighters. Atomic Blonde director David Leitch is one of the best at blending brutality with jaw-dropping stunts, and after directing the second unit on Captain America: Civil War, he has a superhero movie of his own in Deadpool 2. But Leitch’s fight scenes are exceptional, and an action sequence doesn’t have to be beautiful to move the audience. Sometimes, quite the opposite.
The bathhouse fight scene in Eastern Promises is gut-wrenchingly unpleasant to watch, but it drives home what it takes to stab someone to death. The fight scene I think about more than any other comes at the end of Saving Private Ryan, when a German soldier stabs Mellish while Upham cowers outside the door. There’s nothing to that scene — it’s just two guys rolling around and shouting — but you appreciate how much effort goes into a literal life-or-death struggle.
The violence of the MCU, for the most part, is super-sanitized, even by Hollywood’s standards. The combatants, even those who can bleed, usually don’t. They don’t even bruise. Bullet wounds are all clean, stab wounds are all bloodless, and minutes-long fistfights end with our heroes barely having to adjust their hair. I cut myself while making dinner last week and bled more than Captain America did after his fistfight with Thanos.
In the climactic battle at the end of Infinity War, one of Thanos’s henchpeople is thrown into the path of a flying machine that resembles a gigantic circular saw, which one imagines would turn a person into a mist of viscera like the wood chipper at the end of Fargo. We don’t see that, and just a few drops of blood end up on Black Widow’s face — less liquid than the average person would have to wipe off after eating a plate of wings. But she stops to comment about how disgusting her enemy’s end was nonetheless.
Not showing the physical consequences of violence cheapens it, and the MCU’s extremely clean and extremely glib brand of violence isn’t entirely the product of it being a movie made at least partially for kids. Superhero movies can convey the brutality of hand-to-hand combat. Deadpool and Logan did, although they were both were rated R. However, just about every big-budget PG-13 action franchise these days is more willing to engage with the brutality of a fight scene, from Daniel Craig’s James Bond movies to the Bourne movies to Mission: Impossible. You don’t see arterial splatter or swords cleaving flesh from bone in those films either, but you appreciate how hard it is to beat someone to death, and you appreciate the intense adrenaline-fueled anxiety of those moments, rather than twiddling your thumbs and waiting for the next round of exposition.
The trick is wrapping up that tension and anxiety in a package that isn’t going to scare kids to death. Despite its PG-13 rating and two-hour, 29-minute run time, the showing of Infinity War I attended this weekend was full of kids — before the trailers started rolling, the theater sounded like a playground at recess. Nobody’s taking their 8-year-old to see Bond or Bourne, so the sanitized PG-13 violence in those movies doesn’t have to be quite as sanitized as the violence in an MCU film. It’s difficult but not impossible, as Star Wars proves. And perhaps we’re not giving kids enough credit — Infinity War subjected them to countless deaths, including a massacre of unarmed innocents, and discusses genocide openly. Perhaps they’d be able to handle it if Captain America ran out of breath or Spider-Man picked up a bloody nose.
The lack of physicality or stakes might not be so big an issue if anyone believed the MCU’s heroes could lose a fight, let alone die. The worst offenders were the last two fight scenes in Civil War, specifically the Leipzig airport brawl, in which about a dozen superheroes fight without even wanting to particularly hurt each other, let alone kill each other. Perhaps that’s changing now that Infinity War has threatened to clear the decks, but the knowledge that more Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man movies are in the works turns genuine shock into annoyance at having to wait a year to see how it all shakes out.
Maybe this is just an appropriate kind of violence for a post–Gulf War viewing audience that’s used to war as a TV event that can be conducted from a safe distance. Maybe it’s a consequence of turning stand-alone movies into serialized cogs in a commercial empire, planned so far in advance that while we don’t know how the film will end, we do know who has to live long enough to star in the sequel. And maybe the more vibrant visual tones of Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther will bleed into future films’ action sequences, and the post–Infinity War MCU will feel like there’s real peril.
But for now, it’s mystifying that movies this expensive and this fussed-over can’t seem to land this particular punch.