An on-screen fight between two disparate and opposed entities is just a movie, but a fight between Frankenstein and the Wolf Man or Billy the Kid and Dracula is an event (both very real films). These are ‘versus movies’ and they’ve existed as long as audiences have been purchasing cinema tickets.
Now when we talk about the combinations of characters we’d like to see do battle on the big screen, it’s often pure fan-service for our amusement. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could have Ash Williams from the Evil Dead series in the same frame as Hellraiser’s Pinhead? It’s typically a genre thing. To my knowledge, no one is lining up to see the Good Will Hunting/A Beautiful Mind team-up film. Since the shared universe of Marvel Studios has become the go-to franchise structure, these crossovers no longer sound so outlandish or unrealistic.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) is one of the earliest and most celebrated versus movies, though the title suggests the Wolf Man (played for the nth time by Lon Chaney Jr.) is simply inviting friends around for tea. They are hardly seen together at all until the castle-set finale, with the Wolf Man taking on an anti-hero role and defending the human characters against Bela Lugosi’s monster. In typical fashion, it’s an even fight, as the Wolf Man’s agility clashes with the monster’s pure strength until they both perish in a climactic flood. Well, until House of Frankenstein (1944).
In 1962, Japanese studio Toho (at the time most famous for producing giant monster films like Godzilla) brought King Kong back from a thirty-year slumber for the first time in colour to fight Godzilla in King Kong vs. Godzilla. You would assume, considering Kong’s height of 25ft against Godzilla’s 167ft, that it wouldn’t be a fair fight. Anticipating this fatal flaw, the filmmakers bring Kong up to Godzilla’s height and eventually imbue him with lightning. The final showdown between the two rubber behemoths on the slopes of Mt. Fuji consists mostly of clumsy rock-throwing, tail-slamming and Kong’s use of a tree as a choking hazard. He’s clearly the underdog of the fight, and yet even after the two plummet to their underwater doom, the film’s conclusion features the ape swimming home as the humans speculate Godzilla’s survival. A fair fight indeed.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) is maybe the complete antithesis of the versus film. In fact, it features no physical fighting of any kind. Focusing on the parental custody battle between Ted and Joanna Kramer (Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, respectively) for their son Billy, this battle takes place in the courtroom and went on to win the Best Picture Oscar of that year. There is no final showdown here, only a terrific final scene set in an elevator that may as well be a tail-slam on the summit of Mt. Fuji.
In the same tradition as King Kong vs. Godzilla, Freddy vs. Jason (2003) is a kind of meta-commentary on the rivalry between the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises during the mid to late ‘80s. Why are the two horror icons Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees fighting? In one sense, well, they just are – the fans demand it. However, the film explains Freddy’s grudge with Jason: he keeps stealing Fred’s potential victims. Like Kong and Godzilla, the villains return here as anti-heroes the audience can root for, even as the body-count rises. The human characters don’t matter, because the film (rightfully) focuses instead on set-pieces with iconic characters brawling in iconic locations. It’s a knowing tribute to the Universal clashes of yore.
Alien vs Predator (2004) is also definitely a thing that exists, based on a ‘90s comic book and video game of the same name and pleasing only those hardly old enough to watch it. Its 2007 sequel AvP: Requiem would go on to be so dimly-lit as to be considered a shadow-play. Aliens (1986) director James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) would later compare AvP to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. “It was like Universal just taking their assets and starting to play them off against each other…milking it.”
Even now, combining all of your assets into one film is hugely profitable. Just look at The Avengers – all properties adored separately and admired even more so as a whole. And yet many films have scuppered this from the off, producing films surviving solely on fan-service and serving neither audiences from which it spawned. The crossover is inherently dumb and fun and contrived. All I ask is that they use the tail-slam and lightning-King Kong in 2020’s Godzilla vs. King Kong.
Don't miss Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, now showing at FACT.