I have seen two episodes of Daredevil, and two episodes of Jessica Jones, and I believe the fight scenes in those episodes of Jessica Jones, all one of them, are significantly better than the fight scenes in those episodes of Daredevil.
Yes, including the hallway scene.
If you’re still here, let me clarify my position.
Fight scenes are an art form all their own, with their own poetry, purpose, and tactics. Fight scenes can captivate, exposit, terrify, entice, seduce, break, reveal, and communicate. Anything art accomplishes, can be accomplished with a fight. There’s an invisibly thin line between cinema fight and dance—both forms convey emotion and narrative through movement, both involve intense flexibility and control, both serve as proxy languages for characters who can’t communicate any other way. I’ve written about this subject before, specifically about the fantastic fight scenes in John Wick, and what their economy can teach us about prose style. But that essay didn’t dig into the question of how fight scenes are used in cinema.
One thing a fight scene does, surely, is show off. Our heroes and heroines display athleticism and skill. But the raw *doing* of awesome stuff doesn’t satisfy for long. This is, after all, cinema. The question isn’t what you can do, especially in the special effects era. The question is, why should your audience care? Every minute has to justify its place in your script, or on your screen.
This is especially true if you pit your hero against mooks. The audience is smart. They know that if the show’s name is, say, Daredevil, Daredevil won’t die in episode two. If you put your hero in a life-or-death position, we know she’s going to win. This isn’t bad, actually! Because the question is, how will she win. You, the fight director, have a chance to show us what kind of person our hero is, or what kind of person she’s become. For example, here’s a great Hero v. Mooks scene with Jackie Chan—one of the most famous scenes in modern action cinema.
See how much character we get on Jackie Chan here? We learn, over the course of this scene, that he’s a great fighter, but he’s not invulnerable; we learn that he’s resourceful and terrified, that he has a sense of humor, that for a kung fu master he’s sort of goofy and flaily and eager. The scene doesn’t present all these attributes at once; rather, the scene develops Jackie from his initial desperation and terror (the hanging-from-the-balcony beat, for example), to frenetic enthusiasm, to cheery over-the-top confidence at the very end. Each stage progresses to the next with a mixture of sight gags and awe-inspiring physicality. The scene, in short, isn’t static: every beat moves us into a new circumstance, and shows us more about Jackie. We see the same dynamism in the following famous Hero v. Mook dojo scene from Bruce Lee’s The Chinese Connection (or Fists of Fury, depending on where you’re from).
Bruce Lee is, well, Bruce Lee. You can’t fault his technique—but it’s easy to overlook how much acting these scenes contain. In The Chinese Connection, Lee’s playing a martial artist seeking vengeance for the murder of his master. The anger’s all through him—the speed of his movements, their precision. Watch him stalk forward at 1:44. This is a human being who wants something. He wants his master back; he wants his life back. He wants to end the institutional racism and discrimination in the foreign concessions of Shanghai. Putting his fist in your face won’t help with any of that. He knows. But he’ll try anyway, just in case.
While Bruce Lee moves through a narrower range of emotion in the dojo scene than Jackie Chan in the ladder scene, nevertheless the emotion develops. As the dojo scene begins, Lee is a well-dressed, erudite man making an audacious challenge to a dojo he believes is connected with his master’s murder. He even has a sort of dry sense of humor about it: “we could fight one at a time, or all together!” But when the entire dojo rushes him, he loses that comic veneer. He swells—I’ll put that moment at 2:33 when Bruce Lee flares his lats against any shot in cinema. The Lee vs. Mooks scrum continues in a more-or-less good natured fashion until Lee gets the nunchucks at 3:24, whereupon the Shit gets Real, and the blood starts to flow. By the end of the clip, Lee isn’t even vertical any more. He’s not in this for honor or a fair fight; he’s breaking ankles from a prone position. He wants these mooks to suffer.
If fight scenes communicate this much by pitting characters against faceless mooks, they communicate volumes more when two principles are set off against one another. The fight scene, then, becomes a vehicle for life philosophies in conflict. The Tofu scene from Michelle Yeoh’s Wing Chun is a must-watch for about a billion reasons. Here, we have Wing Chun, whose father has forbidden her from fighting, confronted by a martial artist local toughs have hired to beat her up for the crime of being a woman and better than them at kung fu. The fun of this scene isn’t Wing Chun’s victory alone, or the acrobatics on display. Yeoh displays panache, honor, pride, and a vicious sense of humor, all the while simmering with rage against the system she confronts.
Again, watch the scene develop. Wing Chun challenges Master Wong to destroy the tofu; Master Wong’s first response is to deny her proposed challenge, and pledge he’ll win by beating her up directly. Then, when it becomes clear there’s no way that’s going to happen, Wong tries to destroy the tofu; Wing Chun doesn’t let him do that either, of course, but we see in this fight a microcosm of a form of sexist goalpost shifting that’s all too common in everyday life. Also I love the point when Wing Chun shifts from defending her own honor to showing off for her friend. Basically, Michelle Yeoh is the best.
Here’s another great scene with Yeoh, facing off against Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yeoh wants to convince Zhang, who has stolen Yeoh’s partner’s sword, to return it. Ang Lee’s contribution to martial arts cinema in CTHD wasn’t actually the athletic merit of his fight scenes—it was the subtlety of his characterization within them. The duel between Yeoh and Zhang simmers and sparks with a half-dozen kinds of tension. It’s a fight between genius and experience, between maturity and youth, between social decorum and freedom, between lover and loved, between someone who’s seen death and someone who doesn’t yet believe it exists, between an older woman who’s trying to convince a younger one to just goddamn listen for a moment and a younger woman who thinks the older has nothing to teach. It’s a dialogue between characters, and god, the sheer viciousness in Zhang’s voice at 3:30 when she says “????????????” (Go ahead. Choose whichever [weapon] you like. I’ll wait.) So many shivers.
Note how many times this fight scene changes. With each weapon Yeoh deploys, we see not only a different style of fighting, but a different side of her personality: the elegance of the double sabers, the singlemindedness of the spear, the invention and flexibility of the hook sword, the ferocity of the treasure staff, even her ambition and self-sabotage when she grabs that enormous monk’s spade at 2:26. And of course, at the very end, she brings out the two-handed sword, simple, unadorned, heavy and sharp and utterly willing to sacrifice itself. The fight peels Yeoh’s character back, layer by layer. Meanwhile, Zhang’s character, for all her technical perfection, is using a style that isn’t hers, a weapon she can barely control—though its raw power more than makes up for those faults. Yeoh keeps encouraging her to reason. Zhang, again and again, turns back, with increasing ferocity.
All the character development stuff I’m discussing here is actually more important than raw athletic achievement when it comes to making a fight scene work, in my opinion. Not that raw athletic prowess doesn’t help! I mean, if you can have Michelle Yeoh in your fight scene, obviously have Michelle Yeoh in your fight scene. But Yeoh doesn’t stand out from the crowd solely for her flexibility and skill—she stands out because she can display her flexibility and skill through the lens of character. Character and drama make fight scenes compelling even when you’re not dealing with athletic talent on the level of the folks I’ve mentioned so far. Consider, if you will, one of my favorite duels in cinema, the “like that!” sequence from The Court Jester. As background, you have to know here that Danny Kaye (blond) is a bumbling jester who Evil Angela Lansbury (yep that Angela Lansbury, only when she was like twenty) has hypnotized into believing that he, Kaye, is a master swordsman—which hypnotic trance is triggered by a snap of the fingers. Kaye begins the following scene out of his trance state. He’s dueling Evil Basil Rathbone. Yes, that Basil Rathbone.
Now, Kaye is a master of physical comedy, and Rathbone, who was a championship fencer and trained Kaye for the role, claimed that Kaye was one of the most natural swordsmen he’d ever met—but this scene doesn’t display nearly the athleticism of the Lee, Chan, or Yeoh scenes above. We’re seeing character movements supported and conveyed by physicality—not physicality for its own sake. And those movements are hilarious, and charming.
Having established all that, let’s look at Daredevil’s hallway fight, and compare it with the bar scene in Jessica Jones.
Okay, so, the direction here is really solid. And I love love love Daredevil’s use of foley in fight scenes, anchoring us to Matt Murdock’s sensorium. Outside of that, we get from this scene that Murdock is determined, but not immortal—that fighting tires him out, and his main strength is the ability to keep going. Which ain’t nothing, but it’s also pretty slender characterization considering we hit the same note at the end of episode one—and it’s especially slender when you consider that this repeated note is all the development we get for three minutes of screentime. (Which, for what it’s worth, is about the length of the actual fight in every clip above except the CTHD scene). For American audiences, the one-take aspect of Daredevil’s hallway fight is memorable, especially after a decade of quick-cut shakey cam action—but it’s hardly a strict novelty. Compare, for example, this scene from Oldboy (2008), a clear inspiration for the work in Daredevil:
Ain’t nothing wrong with inspiration, of course, I’d be the last to argue that—but setting the two side-by-side, the main innovation of the Daredevil fight scene is the camera’s embeddedness in the action. You have to imagine the camera dancing around the fracas, trying to keep the shot level. It’s a pretty neat achievement! But the fact that I’m sitting here talking up the camerawork indicates that we’re not really getting much exciting here in terms of character or story. Daredevil has to go through the hallway full of guys. So he does. At the beginning of the shot, we know that Daredevil is determined to go through said hallway full of guys, no matter what; at the end of the shot, we know little more. Now, granted, a fourteen-episode miniseries has more time to build character than a two-hour film—but still, that’s a pretty static three minutes.
Contrast the bar fight in Jessica Jones. Here, Jessica’s bad choices early in the episode have led to Luke being attacked by a rugby squad—she’s running to save him. What we know about Luke so far: he’s built, fastidious, physical, and private. What we know about Jessica so far, minimizing spoilers: we know she’s super-strong, and has a traumatic history involving physical assault. We know, because of this history, that she tends to hit first and ask questions later.
Look at how much storytelling occurs in the one minute and thirty eight seconds of this scene. To start, we have slightly naturalistic camerawork, suggesting we’re about to watch real violence, full of incomplete information and drunken flailing for advantage. And yet, that first punch thrown against Luke, he dodges and catches, as if it ain’t no thing. This isn’t stylized combat ballet—we’re looking at a professional in a world of amateurs. But we’re not watching from the professional’s perspective—note the way the camera relinquishes Luke as Jessica enters the bar, firmly grounding us in Jessica’s POV. (There’s a whole other essay to be written about camerawork and perspective in JJ, but I don’t quite have the film chops for it, or the time right now.)
When next we see Luke, he’s being piled upon by the rugby toughs—and, clearly, from his body language, he’s trying to get this done quickly, and painlessly, with as little damage to his bar as possible. He’s directing them to the wall away from any windows or breakable furniture. Which suggests that no matter the size of this crowd, no matter how pissed they are, he’s not worried. Which is your first hint, in this kind of a naturalistic barfight, that he’s either dumb, which he’s not, or he’s more than human. If you’re in this fight and don’t think “someone’s gonna pull a knife,” you have more trust in human nature than you should. And that’s even before Luke shrugs off this pile of guys.
Jessica’s clearly confused about the situation, but runs in to save Luke because she’s not sure he has it in hand—and here we get vital Jessica characterization. That she’s super strong, we know. That she hits first and asks questions later, we know. But where Luke’s careful with his super-strength and invulnerability, Jessica’s fighting style is pure vicious American Whackin’-Do. I mentioned the foley in Daredevil before, but notice what the foley in this JJ scene communicates—Luke slams like six guys against a bar with only a single broken glass sound effect. Jessica’s first act is to knock someone out; her second is to toss a dude through a table lamp into a wall, shattering the lamp and breaking the table and probably the wall. (Broken glass sound effect, natch.) Then she slams someone into the bar. (Another broken glass sound effect.) Then she *TEARS A PAY PHONE RECEIVER OFF A WALL AND HITS SOMEONE WITH IT*. Then there’s ANOTHER table lamp gone. (Broken glass sound effect.) (All of which, if you’re keeping score, tie into Jessica’s overall glass/broken glass thematics—mirrors, lenses, and tossing people through plate glass windows.)
Meanwhile, Luke casually knocks someone out with the back of his hand; they fall into the bar and break a glass. So Luke is careful to knock the next guy out so he doesn’t fall into the bar. More glasses are broken upon Luke than are broken by Luke in this fight; you can just see Luke tallying up the insurance report in the back of his head. Meanwhile, Jessica’s over there all “FUCK THAT LAMP. FUCK THAT BAR. FUCK THIS PAYPHONE IN PARTICULAR.” It’s a kind of vicious no-quarter-given combat that tells us everything we need to know about her and more—especially since someone with her super-strength doesn’t actually need that kind of cornered-rat ferocity.
And this isn’t even mentioning that beautiful, beautiful eyeroll at 0:50, which communicates in a few frames just how fed up with this bullshit Luke Cage has become (Mental tally: one bottle Heineken, $2…); it heightens our conviction that Luke is more than human, and conveys eloquently just how he feels about his more-than-humanity. And, just as we’re wondering how much more than human he is—he gets a broken bottle to the neck, and we’re informed.
The whole scene, punch-to-done, takes less than a minute, and we’ve learned so much about our two principals in that time. We know powers, life philosophies, approaches, concerns; we even know that Jessica doesn’t understand how much, really, Luke the Small Businessman cares about his bar.
Is this JJ scene as acrobatic or as athletically interesting as the Daredevil scene? No. But if you’re trying to distinguish your fight scene on acrobatic or athletic merits alone, you’re asking to be set beside the movies of Yeoh or Chan or Hung or Jaa, and the odds are you’ll not come out well in that comparison. The JJ barfight conveys information, builds character, and evolves in a way that the Daredevil scene, to my mind, just doesn’t. It’s better use of screentime. It’s better drama. And that makes it better television.
Now: if you liked the Daredevil fight scene, more power to ya! It’s doing cool stuff, much better than I see on the American small screen. But there’s more a fight scene can do—and Jessica Jones is doing it.