7 Reasons Why Heroes Battle Heroes in Movies

By  · Published on May 4th, 2016

Why Good Guys Fight

Seven reasons why heroes battle heroes in the movies.

Movies pitting heroes against heroes is supposedly a big trend with comic book movies right now, but good guys fighting each other is not anything new. The scale might be different when you have Batman and Superman face off or whole teams of Avengers in opposition, but we’ve already seen Thor versus Iron Man, we’ve seen most of the Guardians of the Galaxy brawl before becoming a team, been treated to Raphael going garra a mano with Casey Jones, and we’ve even witnessed Superman battle his own alter ego.

And of course there have been plenty that aren’t superhero and comic book based. In fact, it’s easier in stories without such black and white separation of good and evil. And movies with antiheroes or bad guys as protagonists or anything where the US government is involved as a collective bunch of assholes. That last one makes the most sense, actually, since in the real world we’ve seen America develop special relationships with former enemies as well as, vice versa (vice versus?), fight wars against past allies.

In all the movies with these “civil wars,” there are only a few situations that trigger such conflict. Below is an outline of these reasons for friendly fire on screen – ranked in order of their justification.

1. Training Exercise

Once in awhile we get to see heroes fight in a recreational manner, and that tends to be good enough. As in the case of sports, martial arts training, etc., scrimmage is the best way to hone physical skill, and until we have robots designed for such a purpose, there’s need for one veteran hero, usually a teacher, to spar with a newbie, who usually is now the better fighter. In many circumstances, that pupil not only surpasses his master but turns against him and ceases to be a hero.

Even without such a switch, though, the match can get quite serious, to the point that it seems like it’s going too far. Even if they’re set in the digital fantasy realm of The Matrix.

2. Possession

When one of the heroes is under some kind of trance or mind control and is tasked with harming other good guys or civilians, the fight needs to happen. Many times the sober hero doesn’t understand why his or her friend has gone crazy and bad. Usually they hesitate to engage, out of a combination of confusion and loyalty. And even when they’re aware that brainwashing of a sort is involved, it’s hard for them to take up arms because their new foe is technically innocent beneath the possession.

While Captain America: Civil War does not deal in this more magical impetus for conflict, quite a few films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have dealt with bewitched characters, including Iron Man 2 (with a “possessed” suit rather than mind), The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

3. Mistaken Identity

Misunderstandings are a common way for good guys to go at it, especially when the challengers are strangers and they aren’t aware they’re on the same side. Or it can be a part of the possession reason, before it’s made clear the turned hero has been brainwashed. Usually, though, you find a fight of mistaken identity when good guys show up to a situation where they confuse a lone action hero for evildoer. Or it‘s simply a matter of prejudice, like the presumption a new step-brother can’t be also be a new best friend.

In many movies, the issue of mistaken identity is sorted out fairly quickly, but the mistaken identity centered “wrong man” sub-genre tends to involve a feature-length mix-up, such as in The Fugitive, which is rare in its keeping both adversaries fully heroic and opposed almost all the way through.

4. Tactical Disagreement

Maybe the good guys show up and recognize the lone action hero has good intentions but isn’t doing things as they want, or as the law requires. Then there’s strife between equal sides on the same path toward a common enemy and end game. Occasionally the more official side, despite an obligation to adhere to doing things by the book, winds up being proven wrong or turns out to be partially corrupt. Or the hero just manages to get shit done by himself despite the continued distractions and missteps of the authorities.

This conflict can be found in a number of cop movies, especially where a mismatched duo is made partners or there’s a rebel officer, as in Beverly Hill Cop. A less cliche example, though, is with the pair of heroes in The Rock, though it’s not so much a difference in tactic as interest in the mission. With that movie we could also probably include the main “villain” as a hero here.

5. Ideological Dispute

This is low on the justification scale despite it seeming to be what real life wars are made of. Some of them are, unfortunately, but many of the bigger conflicts are about a lot more than a difference of political or cultural beliefs between nations – and in the case of civil wars, within nations. Anyway, in the movies it can bring as few as two characters against each other in the name of, say, democracy versus communism, or in an active disagreement regarding what to do about the world’s mistreatment of your kind.

In many cases, one of these opposing figures is just made out to be the villain, as in the X-Men franchise and Rocky IV, typically by having their diligence lead to them killing someone. One of the things Captain America: Civil War does well is maintain the fundamental conflict between sets of heroes divided on an ideological matter. There’s also tactical concern involved, but the broader idea is kept consistently primary.

6. Romantic Rivalry

Sure, there are and have been love triangles and fights over women and men throughout history all over the world, but that doesn’t make them any less ridiculous. Especially in the movies, where they always seem rather immature and are carried out to illogical extremes and much of them time are just plain sexist. Best friends brawling over a woman they both like can wind up with them both losing, unless the movie manages to kill one off during a World War II combat sequence.

Or it can be a problem for two action heroes who should be focused on bigger battles if they let their egos and hormones get the best of them. Such as with the two childish CIA buddies who find out they’re dating the same person in This Means War.

7. Villainous Puppetry

Maybe in the real world there are some secret organizations pulling strings on how the world operates and why nations go to war, but otherwise this one is the stuff of comic book fantasy. And can be much more than a villain manipulating a hero through mind control (see #1). It’s an anarchist pitting boatloads of civilians against each other or a madman just wanting to see a literal clash of titans. Or it’s simply a hunter ordering his dog to kill the pup’s fox friend. Some villains are better than others with just how far they’ll go to put the wheels in place that will eventually get the gods going.

Or superpowers going, and that’s not to mean superheroes. There are a few too many movies, even if some of them are good, that feature a mastermind villain trying to start a nuclear war between the US and USSR/Russia or the UK and China. See The Sum of All Fears, Tomorrow Never Dies, Watchmen, and just recently Criminal. Heroes is a strong word for whole nations, however, so let’s focus instead on the more personal gladiatorial examples, including the territory-representing individuals made to fight to the death in The Hunger Games. Because in too few of the others, the heroes don’t realize as soon as they should that they’re being used.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.