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Jason Michelitch On Superhero Fight Scenes
posted November 29, 2010

H, Tom. Thought I'd chime in with a few thoughts re: your Ip Man-inspired superhero fight sequence musings. I'm doing this from memory, so some of the scenes I mention might not actually hold up under scrutiny. However, since I think a defining feature of a fight scene of the type you're looking for is that it sticks in the memory, I think it'd be important that any scene held up for contention come to mind unbidden, to be confirmed via the page as a second step.

I do want to say that I can't think of ANY fight sequences that succeed 100% on the level you're describing. Thinking back over the history of super-hero comics (as filtered through what I've read and can remember), it honestly doesn't seem like the fight-as-musical-number really applies. A lot of the earlier Superman and Batman comics are about solving a puzzle or challenge -- what clues can we discern from the Joker's nursery rhyme costumes to determine where he'll strike next? how do we convince the bad guys that Superman still has his powers? -- so much so that the release in the story's tension is in the puzzle being solved, rather than in a fight being won. The reward the superhero gets for solving the puzzle is he gets to plant a single uppercut on the villain and tie him up -- the fight itself isn't as important, narratively. Flash and Green Lantern stories are all about using their powers in clever ways so they don't have to resort to fisticuffs.

The early Lee/Ditko Spider-Man stories actually come to mind as a counter-example. As part of the ongoing theme of "Spider-Man gets his ass kicked, considers giving up, then resolves to kick ass in return," Ditko choreographed some clear and harrowing fight scenes that had narrative purpose and emotional resonance. The first Doctor Octopus story and the first Vulture story come to mind specifically. True, in both those stories Peter Parker ultimately triumphs through scientific ingenuity, but there's a real focus on the physical struggles as well (and if memory serves, he devises the scientific solution in the Doc Ock story while in mid-fight). I suspect that there are those who don't find Ditko's art viscerally charged enough to make for an effective fight scene, though in my mind's eye they play like gangbusters.

Oddly enough, no Kirby really pops to mind. When I think of Kirby fights my mind always flashes to a particularly powerful image, rather than a choreographed sequence. Kirby always seemed like he was rushing to get on to the next idea, the next visual concept, the next universe, and didn't have time to stop and deal with a single battle longform. A possible exception that comes to mind would be the first fight in The Avengers, where the Hulk is dressed up as a clown and Iron Man spins him in the air using his feet. That was a fun fight, but not really the kind of scene you're talking about.

I actually think an effective, resonant fight, in my memory at least, was the Robotic Hulk vs. Pointy-Rock Thing vs. Gray Hulk three-way in an issue of Peter David's Hulk run. I remember that fight scene (which I remember as taking up most of the comic, but that could be a misremembering) being infused with a real sense of tension and confusion as the Thing goes from triumphant to discovering the green Hulk is a robot to being beaten near to death by the gray Hulk. I'm using the internet to look up the issue now -- looks like it was #350, with Jeff Purves as penciller.

The fights in Dark Knight Returns actually come to mind, in their individual execution as well as the escalation of them -- from gritty street fight, to brutal mud-wrestling, to all-out ground war; to groping, final deathmatch with the Joker; to posturing, bloody knock-down fight with Superman. Interesting that Miller would have almost certainly have found Lone Wolf by the time he drew Dark Knight, and would have been drawing on the clarity and power of Kojima's fight scenes in his own work.

It seems like there's some kind of half-assed theory of a progression of violence that could be worked up here -- in the Golden Age the violence was perfunctory, an end result of the real meat of the story, which was the solving of puzzles; in the Silver Age, the physicality of artists like Ditko and Kirby as well as the page layouts with larger panels led to a focus on the physical movement of the fights; then by the Bronze Age, "superhero comics are about fights" is simply taken as a given, and so the violence is kept at a dull constant, always breaking out but not for any really good reason and not really going anywhere. Fight scenes less as musical numbers and more as just general business, the way a film director shooting a romantic comedy might have two characters walk through Central Park while delivering lines that have nothing to do with walking in a park, just because it gives them somewhere to be and somewhere to do while the script does the heavy lifting of storytelling.

I don't know, I'm just kind of making this all up on the fly. It's probably nonsense. But it's what your post put me in mind of, so I thought I'd share. Feel free to do whatever you want with this, including discarding it and ignoring it completely.