'King Kong vs Godzilla' and the History of Versus Movies

What's better than one thing we like? Two things we like fighting each other.

Ever since Abbott and Costello met Frankenstein in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, moviemakers have been pitting popular characters against each other, more often than beneath marquees with the letters “VS” in the middle. Over the decades, the versus genre has emerged as a reliable go-to for lazy creatives looking to capitalize on sensational titles. The films themselves have been a mixed lot, but uniformly compelling in a “This actually exists!” sort of way.

And the genre isn’t going anywhere. In fact, the biggest versus movie of all time is set to debut in a year or two, when Guillermo del Toro returns from Skull Island with footage of King Kong vs. Godzilla (and arguably with Captain America: Civil War as well). That film will be a remake, but also an homage to the demented movies that have been pitting fan-favorite monsters against each other for the last 70 years.

Here’s a highlight reel of heavyweight cinematic bouts.

Film: King Kong vs. Godzilla

Year: 1962

Why the Fight Mattered: The first Godzilla vs. Other Monster film (or more accurately, __ vs. Godzilla) was the third installment of the original Godzilla series and the first in color. The franchise went back to the well on “Vs.” flicks no less than 15 times.

Who Won: In the climactic battle, Godzilla has the upper hand until an electric shock beasts up King Kong’s strength, at which point both engage in a stalemate grapple and fall into the sea. King Kong is seen to emerge, but don’t forget that Godzilla lives in the sea. It’s a tie for now, but we’ll see if the round two remake gives either the upper hand.

Film: Gamera vs. Gaos

Year: 1967

Why the Fight Mattered: The versus genre is hardly allergic to knock-offs, which explains how Gamera, a large, genetically mutated turtle, achieved popularity in Japan 10 years after the launch of the Godzilla series. Gamera will live forever thanks to the cult show Mystery Science Theater 3000, which riffed corny movies on Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Network before going off-air in 1999.

Who Won: Late in the game, Gamera hits Gaos in the mouth with a rock and then appears to bite him to death. But as Joel and the Bots point out, it’s a little hard to tell if anyone wins. The audience certainly does not.

Film: Dracula vs. Frankenstein

Year: 1971

Why the Fight Mattered: While the ‘50s and ‘60s saw a steady dose of Big Horror Figure X Meets/Battles Big Horror Figure Y, none can touch this 1971 exploitation anti-classic for awesome badness. It pitted the classic vampire against the patched-up monster back from the dead. The whole thing is available for free Youtube viewing if you have a hipster Halloween party to curate, or two hours to kill and all the weed.

Who Won: It’s a bit difficult to make out the climactic scene thanks to some shoddy lighting, but it appears Dracula dismantles a poorly-sewn together Frankenstein before succumbing to the ravages of the rising sun.

Film: Kramer vs. Kramer

Year: 1979

Why the Fight Mattered: Though not a versus movie in the traditional sense, this smart, melancholy meditation on the slow drift of divorce is by far the most accomplished “Vs.” film of all time. Not only did it win five Oscars in 1980, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman and Best Supporting Actress for Meryl Streep, it was a breakthrough role for Streep. And it started the rumor that Dustin Hoffman is a bit difficult to work with. (In Hoffman’s defense, the actor was going through his own divorce during filming, meaning the material truly hit home.)

Who Won: Joanna, Streep’s character, receives custody of the Kramers’ child, Billy, but ultimately allows Ted (Hoffman) to live with him, saying that’s where his home is. But it’s a divorce, so nobody really wins.

Film: The People vs. Larry Flynt

Year: 1996

Why the Fight Mattered: This film about Hustler founder Larry Flynt was destined to come across as hagiographic because Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of the oily-looking porn personality and founder of Hustler magazine had to be palatable to put butts in seats. The film chronicles Flynt’s run-ins with the law and his climactic legal battle against Jerry Falwell, whom Hustler portrayed satirically in a cartoon.

Who Won: This is a close one, but you got to say Flynt. The magazine founder won the obscenity case, but was paralyzed by a bullet from Joseph Paul Franklin, a racist would-be assassin who was protesting Hustler’s depiction of interracial sex (and who was executed in 2013 having confessed to no less than 11 murders). Health problems disrupted Flynt’s subsequent relationship and put him in near-constant pain. Meanwhile, The People, a euphemism for the government and the religious right, not only lost the case but made Mr. Flynt into something of a free speech hero. Porn endures.

Film: Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever

Year: 2002

Why the Fight Mattered: Following a star turn in Spy Kids, Antonio Banderas was slowly crawling back into the nation’s good graces when this universally-reviled piece of shit made its debut in 2002. The bizarrely-titled spy flick stars Lucy Liu as Banderas’ foil in a convoluted plot about corruption in a national intelligence agency. The $70 million dollar film grossed just $14 million domestically while spawning two successful video games.

To truly grasp the utter disregard the film shows for physics concepts like gravity and inertia, one must look no further than the above clip.

Who Won: Ecks and Sever set aside their bizarre beef and unite for a final battle sequence against The Larger Enemy, the crooked Director of the DIA (there’s always some evil suit in heavily-laden action flicks), whereupon evil is defeated and Ecks and Sever ride off into internet ignominy.

Film: AVP: Alien vs. Predator

Year: 2002

Why the Fight Mattered: The long-awaited and much-imagined comic book scenario was beyond disappointing when it was released in 2004 and tanked at the box office. Who was the audience supposed to identify with? These humans on their Antarctic expedition to find natural gas? Lame.

AVP arrived before audiences at least 10 years too late. It had 1992 blockbuster written all over it. It’s the kind of movie Hollywood made 10 at a time before 9/11. After the fact, we just didn’t want to see this kind of violence any more. We wanted Alien and Predator to talk it out.

Who Won: After wasting a good amount of aliens, the flick’s main Predator suffers a mortal blow and, in a moment of predictable foreshadowing, births an alien planted in its chest earlier in the film. Apparently Predators are not into performing Ultrasounds.

Film: Freddy vs. Jason

Year: 2003

Why the Fight Mattered: The movie that moved the versus genre back towards horror flicks, this plotless nightmare was an obvious creative failure. The characters always want to split up, never turn around in time, and commit every other typical horror film faux pas — all things that muck up the enjoyment of the funny, frightening Freddy and the unkillable Jason.

Who Won: Freddy and Jason are the quintessential examples of unbeatable monsters whose supposedly bodies immediately disappear the moment someone takes an eye off them. So parsing out the fight between them in the traditional sense is the wrong way to go about it.

Film: Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus

Year: 2009

Why the Fight Mattered: This straight-to-DVD clunker was the subject of a mini-Youtube phenomenon when its trailer went viral—the modern equivalent of the sensational marquee. Though widely panned, it has the requisite low-quality brilliance and an irresistible headline. The schlocky low-budget flick is back.

Who Won: In what has now become a vs. movie trope, the two descend deep into the sea and out of the screen still locked in a mortal, pugilistic embrace—the ideal circumstance for spawning innumerable sequels.

Film: Mongoose vs. Cobra

Year: 2014

Why the Fight Mattered: The temptation is to insert any animal-against-animal video here (wolf spider versus scorpion? lions versus honey badger?), this is the highest achievement the modern “versus” film can aspire to: Youtube-length, produced by the Smithsonian, and answering the ancient question, mongoose or snake, once captured so eruditely by Rudyard Kipling in his short story, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.”


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