In a world that is so dominated by iconic characters, it seems strange that the big studios never want to see them fight to the death anymore. The concept briefly brought a few huge films to life with mixed results, but it seems like the countless fan suggestions will never see the big screen.
Versus movies take a couple of beloved characters from existing film franchises and see them meet as enemies. It’s a special kind of crossover that lets icons of a genre meet while also scratching the same itch as shows like Deadliest Warrior or Death Battle. Though it’s rarely about who would win, the fun of the fight speaks for itself.
Arguably, the origin of the versus movie concept began way back in the 40s with the Universal Monster movies. Comic book superheroes had made cross-overs and clashes between icons common, but that phenomenon rarely made its way outside that medium. After a few successful horror films, Universal put out Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which saw werewolf Lawrence Talbot seek out Frankenstein’s monster. That film ends with a battle between the two classic horror figures, and it inspired several other “Monster rallies” of its kind over the following few years. The third of these films was originally entitled Wolf Man vs. Dracula but was eventually released under the name House of Dracula. The idea of horror movie monsters doing battle was made popular here and only grew larger over the years.
The next big development in this film concept was unquestionably the kaiju boom that followed Godzilla. Ishiro Honda’s 1954 horror classic about the existential peril of the atomic bomb was followed by several comparable giant monster movies with much kinder tones. Honda went on to direct Rodan in 1956 and Mothra in 1961. As the films went on, Honda started seeing his creations do battle on the big screen. Mothra and Rodan are now seen as secondary characters in Godzilla’s stories. Beyond crossing over internally, the third film to feature Godzilla saw him meet the monster that largely inspired his creation, King Kong. Godzilla and King Kong went on to represent the two divided halves of the Monsterverse franchise, the centerpiece of which was Godzilla vs. Kong. This is effectively the last vestige of the versus movie trend, and it only still occurs thanks to one company buying the rights to both characters.
The golden age of versus movies was the early 2000s. In 2003, the 16-year collaboration between New Line Cinema and Paramount Pictures finally resulted in the release of Freddy vs. Jason. The negotiation eventually resulted in Friday the 13th reverting to its original owners, who immediately sold it to New Line. This allowed the production of the film to take place and for audiences to finally see their two favorite slasher villains fight to the death. Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox set to work adapting the 1989 Aliens versus Predator comic series. Aliens director James Cameron compared the idea unfavorably to the aforementioned monster rallies, but, after seeing it, called it his third favorite film in the franchise. Both of these films are a lot of fun, despite the myriad of ways in which they aren’t great films. More than a decade later, Sadako vs. Kayako hit the screen, pitting the ghost girls of The Ring and The Grudge against each other. Despite a variety of outcomes between these films, these are essentially the only examples of this trend.
At their worst, versus movies can feel like a company reducing their characters to marketable brands and throwing them together to make a quick buck. Four or five big corporations own every character the average film fan has ever heard of. They love to slam their action figures together and expect applause for every outing. This is often true, but the question worth asking is whether the treatment of those brands is any better outside of versus films. Were Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Alien, or Predator being treated as the pieces of art they were? The slasher boom gave way to endless interminable sequels, the later Alien films have ruined almost everything worthwhile about the first two, and the Predator franchise just had its first great film in over 30 years. These companies are going to grind everything worthwhile out of the things we love one way or another, giving a fan the chance to do something fun could keep the spark alive.
Fans of franchises taking over their production isn’t always a winning strategy, but having love for the things that came before can help a creator put what they love on screen. Versus movies don’t work because of the recognizable names, they work because fans want to see them and to make them. People worked for years to get Alien vs. Predator and Freddy vs. Jason off the ground because they wanted to see them as much as the fans did. They’re a strange trend with a long history and a short lifespan, but versus movies could still have a place in modern cinema.