I was disappointed to see the same obsolete trope in not one but two big budget Hollywood films this month. In The Protégé and in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings we see a man and a woman in an all-out mixed martial arts fight. In both, the male character is extremely dangerous, definitely on the side of evil, responsible for many deaths. The women are, in the terms of the movie, the good guys. Okay, in The Protégé she is a paid assassin. But she loves rare books and is devoted to her mentor, who is also a paid assassin, and he assures her that they only kill people who deserve it. The people we see her kill are criminals.
At least comparatively speaking, in these two very intense, full-on fight scenes, the women are the good guys and the men are extremely dangerous killers. And in both the fights are concluded not with one combatant defeating the other but with the couple having sex. In The Protégé the character played by Michael Keaton interrupts the beat-down to say something like, “I don’t know if we should fight or [have sex].” Cut to them post-coital, in bed. In Shang-Chi, a crime boss with a record of death and destruction over centuries (really) is intent on invading an idyllic land. He fights with the woman who guards it. Cut to their happy home and two adorable children.
Come on. I’m well aware of the long tradition of depicting love as what Shakespeare called “a merry war.” As a character says in Bringing Up Baby, “the love impulse in man frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict.” That is “man” as in “human.” It applies equally to all genders. One of the reasons for the eternal popularity of classics like Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, Pride and Prejudice, and less-classic stories like Sam and Diane on Cheers, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Adam’s Rib, and Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, John Raitt, or James Garner in an assortment of movies. Together, another movie that came out this month, begins with a couple telling the camera in detail about how much they hate each other before they spend the rest of the movie, spoiler alert, hating each other a lot less.
There is a reason for giving movie and television characters immediate conflict before letting them fall in love. Like the other popular set-up for movie romances, a lie or misunderstanding, conflict is a convenient shorthand and intensifier that stands in for the otherwise hard-to-depict uncertain path to intimacy. It is the ultimate narrative convenience. It immediately captures our attention. There’s a conflict! Whose side am I on? Plus, it is a lot of fun to watch. The scenes that introduce us to Beatrice and Benedick and Petruchio and Kate are marvels of witty wordplay that show us what they show each other; each has finally met someone who speaks the same language, who understands them, who will always challenge them. Hurray for the merry war!
Physical interaction can be very powerful in conveying a strong romantic connection on screen. The characters played by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were far more eloquent with their dances than with their words. Their choreography was a conversation, each seeing through the other’s steps that they had for the first time met their match. The moves are seductive, a step closer, a step back, an arm around a waist, a trusting lean back. They were instantly in sync with each other. The fight scenes in The Protégé and Shang-Chi are choreographed like a dance, with some of the same sense of seduction. But the threat is unequal, with the man attacking, the woman defending.
In The Protégé, the fight is preceded by two scenes of flirty conversation, including another overused movie convention signifying a romantic spark: they know the same poem. In Shang-Chi, the couple fight as soon as they see each other. In both cases, the idea that the women would make themselves so vulnerable because they connect to the men they are fighting is so discomfiting it takes us out of the world the movie wants to create.
There are movie fight scenes that are closer to the Astaire and Rogers dances because they do not have life-or-death stakes and both characters are equally appealing. Director Martin Campbell might have been trying to create his The Mask of Zorro fight-as-flirtation scene in The Protégé But in Zorro Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones played characters who were both “good guys” and who had already set off some romantic sparks. The fight scene was not really dangerous and they were not striking each other but fencing. Each was showing off the kind of skills that were a continuation of their advance-and-parry verbal sparring. In Hobbs & Shaw, Dwayne Johnson and Vanessa Kirby have a fight scene that is somehow not hostile. We know that they are both “good guys” though they may not be sure. But as he tells her when it is over, you learn a lot about someone in a fight. He could see she was not a killer. Their fight does not end with an embrace. They never kiss in the film. But there are hints of romance that pose intriguing possibilities for a sequel.
Romantic conflict is better suited to fights with words and ideas. It works when one is labor and one is management (The Pajama Game) or when they squabble over a telephone party line (Pillow Talk). Not so much for actual physical combat, especially when one of them is a ruthless killer who has killed or facilitated the killing of many people. We’re on board with Doris forgiving Rock for stealing clients from her advertising agency by plying them with booze and girls in Lover Come Back (at least as long as they stay safely in the early 60s) or Katharine Hepburn admitting she made a wrong argument to defeat her husband in court in Adam’s Rib. In an intimate conflict the stakes cannot be so dire that we are asked to believe a woman would find hand-to-hand combat with a killer to be foreplay.
Unlike the movie couples, it’s time to put this tired cliche to bed.