A few days ago I found myself disappointingly underwhelmed while watching the battle-royale that marked the season finale of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. At first, I wasn’t exactly sure why I felt this way—whoever designed that fight sequence was certainly trying hard to impress. The music was suitably epic, the choreography was certainly top-notch, the blood was certainly…plentiful…and they even threw in a ring of fire, because, hey, why not? Yet for some reason this battle left me feeling cold. I couldn’t really get into it, no matter how many people got stabbed. For a while I pondered this conundrum. And then, at last, enlightenment came. The problem was that this fight was irrelevant to the story, and all the ominous Latin chanting in the world couldn’t convince me it was important. Thing is, the main story line of the show had already been resolved. The fight could have been a great climax, maybe, but it wasn’t–it was anti-climax. It wasn’t about anything important (why should I care whether the protagonist Gannicus becomes arena champion? He doesn’t even seem to care.) And, since the story was a prequel, there wasn’t even the suspense of wondering who would live or die to keep me engaged in the carnage.
All of which leads me to my main point—a fight scene is only as good as the story it’s a part of. Music and choreography is important, of course (otherwise you get scenes that look like this), but emotional relevance is just as important. That’s why so many of the action movies that come out summer after summer fade into obscurity, despite their well choreographed fisticuffs—those movies like the character drama to make us care. I’m surprised filmmakers haven’t figured this out by now. It’s hardly rocket science. It’s analogous to the difference between watching a football game between two teams from schools you’ve never been to and watching one where your home team is playing. You’re likely to pay a lot more attention to the latter. What drives the suspense of that game—and a good fight scene—is that we care how it ends. For that to happen in a film, we need a character we can get behind, root for, and we need the fight to have a place in the larger story, rather than be crudely tacked on in order to satisfy the bloodthirsty teenage male demographic.