What a thrill it was to watch the series finale of WandaVision and see the show’s two exciting, powerful adversaries face off at long last! Yes, the evil spellcaster Agatha Harkness and Scarlet Witch Wanda Maximoff finally did battle and … they shot colorful lightning at each other from their hands.
Boring! Maybe it would have been exciting if we hadn’t seen it the previous week, when, in flashback, Agatha killed her mom with, yes, purple lightning. Or if we hadn’t watched nearly a decade’s worth of Harry Potter movies, culminating in Harry and Voldemort standing 10 feet away from each other, their colorful wand bolts meeting halfway in between them. What is it about magical battles that make inventive directors and special effects artists throw up their hands and say, “Sheesh, I dunno, I guess we’ll just do some lightning laser zaps here”? Look, I know that it’s my own fault for subjecting myself to 10,000 hours and counting of children’s entertainment dressed up as must-see cinema for adults, but if you’re going to give me wizard fights, I wish they’d at least be fun to watch.
The key to a good fight scene, any director or stuntperson worth her salt will tell you, is gags. A gag is a single sequence within a fight scene that has some particular payoff. Gags can be comedic (the guy with the swords threatens Indiana Jones; Indiana Jones shoots him) or dramatic (Michelle Yeoh pins Zhang Ziyi against the table with a spear, but Zhang spins away as the table breaks). Many gags are both at once, like basically every gag in a John Wick movie. Most good fight scenes involve countless gags strung together like lights on a wire; this Jackie Chan scene features scores of gags, each one carefully choreographed and inventive in its own way. Every gag delivers to the viewer a little jolt of excitement, danger, and wit.
What should, in theory, be fun about a battle between magicians is that there are no limits to what weapons and tactics the fighters can employ. They’re magicians! In the very silly yet thoroughly enjoyable wizard duel from Roger Corman’s 1963 Edgar Allen Poe adaptation The Raven, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price sit in their comfy wizard chairs and engage in a chess match of magical powers. Karloff brings gargoyles to life; Price turns them into puppies. Karloff shoots a magical cannonball at Price; Price explodes the cannonball into confetti.
Yet the very freedom that wizardry offers Corman seems also to have trapped him; how can either of these sorcerers ever prevail if magic can do anything? By the end of the battle, there they are, shooting wizard lasers from their hands.
How did we get to this dismal place, where the wonders of magic are reduced to two actors grimacing constipatedly as special effects shoot from their hands? (TV Tropes has a great collection of such showdowns, which it calls Beam-O-Wars.) I haven’t watched every otherworldly adventure ever made, but it seems to me that the trope of magicians fighting exclusively via colorful lightning bolts came into broad use following Return of the Jedi. In that 1983 movie, Emperor Palpatine demonstrates his mastery of the Force by, yes, shooting lightning from his hands at poor Luke Skywalker. It seems like it really hurts!
Just a few years later, in 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China, the sorcerers Lo Pan and Egg Shen fight each other with swordsman avatars—generated, of course, by each of them shooting colorful beams of light from their hands.
Everywhere you look, wizard fights are boring as hell. Dark City? Magical lightning. Once Upon a Time? Magical lightning. Stardust? Magical energy bolts. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic? Magical lasers. Even Peter Jackson couldn’t figure out a way to make a wizard duel interesting; Gandalf versus Saruman is just shot after shot of each elderly actor pointing his staff at the other, followed by a stuntman falling down. The last few Harry Potter movies were the absolute worst on this front, just wizards zapping at each other while the shrapnel flies, basically scenes from a middling war movie but with wands instead of guns. By the end of the final film, as the fate of the wizarding world hung on whether Harry’s beam of light was more powerful than Voldemort’s beam of light, it was sure hard to care.
The bad news is that we’re probably in for a lot more magical lightning, since Wanda is next due to appear in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie. The good news is that Disney, and all future auteurs of fantasy stories, have the perfect model right at their fingertips, hiding away in a silly 1963 animated feature now streaming on Disney+.
The duel between Merlin and Mad Madame Mim in The Sword in the Stone is a textbook example of how to make a duel between sorcerers fun. (Here’s a version with video game healthbars added by an enterprising YouTube editor.) The two wizards state the rules of their duel ahead of time—and Madame Mim makes it clear she’s going to cheat—so the duel is a battle of wits, with the wizards transforming into animals that do battle with each other. Move is followed by countermove: Merlin becomes a walrus, Mim becomes an elephant, and Merlin finds the perfect solution to the threat:
Great gag! And the battle is full of them, right up to Merlin transforming into a germ that infects Mim with a bad flu. (It’s a perfect payoff to the movie’s running joke that Merlin can’t believe that no one in the Dark Ages understands basic science or medicine.) I’m not saying that Marvel’s magical duels need to involve sorcerers turning themselves into big purple elephants, although I’m hard-pressed to imagine a Marvel movie that would be made worse by such a scene. But I am begging the Marvel brain trust to find more interesting ways for the Scarlet Witch to use her powers. Let her be creative! Let her opponents surprise her! Let duelists execute move and countermove! They’ve shown flickers of inventiveness before, as when Doctor Strange transformed Thanos’ attack into a flock of butterflies. More of this, please! Magical lightning should not strike twice.