September 2017 is SYFY's 25th anniversary, so we’re using it as an excuse to look back and celebrate the last 25 years of ALL science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a time that has seen the genres we love conquer the world of pop culture. For us, that means lists! ALL THE LISTS! We’ll be doing two “25 greatest” lists per day all throughout September, looking back at the moments, people, and characters that shaped the last quarter century. So keep checking back.
Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains.
What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments!
Violence might be the last refuge of the incompetent, to paraphrase Isaac Asimov, but there are few things as enthralling as a well-orchestrated fight scene. We all enjoy a rich narrative and a compelling character study, but sometimes we just want to see a good brawl. As special effects and camera techniques have evolved, so too has the ability of genre filmmakers to get creative in how they execute a combat encounter. Whether you prefer a preponderance of explosions or choreographed fisticuffs, there is bound to be a fight on this list that will send your jaw straight to the floor.
Prison Transfer Chase – The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight is an unconventional superhero film, so it is fitting that its best action sequence is a bizarre deconstruction of a Hollywood car chase. The prison transfer chase sequence in Gotham’s lower fifth is exhilarating not because it is full of nifty explosions or fast-paced action – but because it dares to be slow. The scene has a nightmarish, surreal edge to it, perfectly showcasing the Joker’s unpredictability. But just as the sequence draws to a tense climax the truck driver exclaims, “I didn’t sign up for this!” The darkly humorous understatement gives the audiences some oxygen and sets them up to be bowled over one more time.
Buffy vs Faith – Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Buffy the Vampire Slayer has always had fun, zippy fights, but the all-Slayer grudge match benefits from the long simmering antagonism between its participants. The battle between Buffy Summers and Faith Lehane is Whedon’s first truly great action sequence. It’s a masterclass on using the environment creatively, at times almost feeling Jackie Chan-esque. The sequence surprises and delights from the moment Buffy appears out of nowhere and kills the music to the moment Faith lets herself fall into a conveniently passing truck.
Elevator Fight Scene – Captain America: Winter Soldier
Winter Soldier’s best fight has enough action to fill a football stadium despite taking place entirely within the confines of a crowded elevator. The build-up is almost as thrilling as the fight itself, with Steve Rogers having to put together what’s about to happen while keeping a poker face. It takes advantage of its limitations, filling the small space with far more people than fire hazard rules must allow. As Cap cracks, such tight quarters makes their fight to the death feel even more personal.
One Take Roaming Shot – Children of Men
Most directors rely on quick takes and fast-moving cameras to imbue an action scene with frenetic energy. Children of Men experimented in the opposite tactic, utilizing long, tense shots and resisting the temptation to cut away. There are many action set pieces in the film, but the climactic tracking shot is one of the best single takes in film history. Alfonso Cuaron famously tried to yell cut after the camera got soaked in blood, but the crew couldn’t hear him over the noise and chaos of the battle. Naturally, that blood-soaked take is the one that made it into the film. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki might not have won an Oscar for Children of Men, but his work continues to influence how people think about action scenes.
Superheroes Face Off – Civil War
The airport superhero battle in Civil War is the realization of every comic book fan’s lifelong dream. Even if you put aside the endless fan service, the revolutionary CG, and the fantastic performances, you are still left with one of the most entertaining fights ever put on film. Civil War is keenly aware that there is a unique joy in watching a fight where you’re rooting for people on both sides.
Treetop Battle – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
There is beauty to the bamboo forest swordfight in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The blades rarely clang against each other, and most of the action rests on the way Master Li and Jiao Long maneuver through the trees looking for ways to seize advantage. The sound design throughout the sequence is sublime, with groaning wood and gentle wind merging with steel on steel.
Hallway Fight Scene - Daredevil
Arguably the best choreographed combat scene in the entire MCU, the hallway fight in Season 1 of Daredevil feels grounded and real. The single take is mesmerizing, relying on perfectly choreographed stunt work and numerous moving parts. But what truly sells it are the moments where the action stops. Thugs slowly come to their feet. Daredevil catches his breath. Microwaves fly out of doors and onto heads. Most action scenes are obsessed with showing audiences nonstop thrills, but Daredevil lets the fighting be ugly and dehumanizing, setting it apart from the typical super-powered,CGI-ed fight scenes comic book adaptations are known for.
Opening Freeway Attack - Deadpool
Deadpool's hilarious opening battle on the freeway is a loud, clear thesis statement for the tone of the film. It would work on its own as a straight up action scene, but with the wit and fourth-wall shattering wisdom of Deadpool overlaying the action, it properly introduces the Merc with a Mouth to audiences. The innocuous sounding Angel of the Morning is the perfect juxtaposition to the outrageous violence, as Deadpool makes creative use of the vehicle’s cigarette lighter and counts down his bullets with a manic glee.
Battle of Helm’s Deep – The Two Towers
Helm’s Deep was one of the largest battles ever put on film, and its use of CGI was groundbreaking. The spectacle of throngs of rain-soaked Orcs and Uruk-hai scaling the walls is chilling, making it impossible to take your eyes off as the screen as the battle grows increasingly dire. Legolas and Gimli counting their kills adds an unexpected humor to a tense situation, and Gandalf arriving (precisely when he means to) is the type of cinematic moment that inspires audiences to shout out in triumph.
Battle of the Bastards – Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones has no shortage of epic fights, but none feel quite as intimate and personal as the Battle of the Bastards. Inspired by the Battle of Cannae (in which an outnumbered army of Romans was surrounded and slaughtered), the Battle of the Bastards depicts medieval warfare at its most horrifying, with the bodies of the fallen becoming a gruesome environmental hazard. The cinematography of Game of Thrones has always been exceptional, but the ninth episode of Season 6 is a high-water mark for the series. The shot of Jon Snow standing alone while Bolton’s army charges at him is badass enough to make up for his Leeroy Jenkins moment, and the first of numerous stunning shots over the course of the fight.
Loot Train battle – Game of Thrones
The loot train battle is a cornucopia of visual delights, featuring more stuntmen set on fire than any scene ever filmed for television. The driving force that makes this one of Game of Thrones' best action sequences is the conflicting rooting interests of the audience. Battles against the undead are fun, of course, but the show’s best showdowns happen between multiple beloved characters. Given Game of Thrones' notorious ambivalence when it comes to the life of any character not named Jon Snow, the battle teases audiences with the possibility of ending some major character arcs.
Zero G Hallway Scene - Inception
The rotating hallway dream fight in Inception is pure creative choreography. It’s one of the few modern action sequences to rely solely on practical effects, and it showcases Nolan’s talent for making the story of his fight scenes clear and exciting. The tense, taught sequence gets more thrills out of two actors and a smartly rigged camera than most blockbusters get out large scale, CGI enhanced epic set pieces.
The Incredibles vs. the Robot – The Incredibles
Pixar movies have the power to tug at heartstrings, but The Incredibles proved they can do superhero spectacle right alongside Marvel and DC. The family joins with Frozone to take down Syndrome’s Omnidroid and the resulting battle is gloriously egalitarian. Every character contributes something indispensable in the bid for victory, and it is exciting to see the family come together and use their powers as a team.
Into the Badlands
AMC’s Into the Badlands is one of the most underrated shows on TV. Compelling characters populate its fascinating post-apocalyptic world, but it is in its brutal martial arts fighting sequences that Into the Badlands achieves perfection. They are always a beautiful mix of style and substance, and the fight between Sunny and four of the Widow’s men in the first episode ("Chapter 1 - The Fort") sets the tone for the series.
Jessica vs. Luke: Jessica Jones
Neither Jessica nor Luke want to be fighting each other, which adds a complex emotional layer on top of a fantastic fight, resulting in the most exciting action sequence in Jessica Jones. After breaking every wall except for the fourth one (that’s Deadpool's lane), the brawl spills out from Jessica’s apartment to the streets. Jessica makes creative use of a police car door as a last-ditch shield before being forced to aim a shotgun at Luke’s face. She pleads with him to resist Kilgrave’s command, and Colter’s pained delivery of “do what you have to do” is deeply unsettling.
End Fight – Mad Max: Fury Road
Watching Charlize Theron’s Furiosa rip Immortan Joe’s face off is delight. The victory of the protagonist usually feels inevitable, but Fury Road lures viewers into thinking its heroes are about to be killed at any moment. We expect at best they’ll eke out a temporary escape. The sheer number of obstacles and complications thrown at Max and Furiosa make their hard-fought victory even more powerful.
Bullet Time – The Matrix
Though flow motion had been around long before The Matrix, the rooftop showdown between Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Agent Jones (Robert Taylor) took the visual effect to the next level. Bullet time evolved as the franchise continued and more technologies, like Virtual Cinematography and Universal Capture, became available. The technique was so integral to both The Matrix and Warner Bros. that the studio trademarked the term “bullet time” in 2005 in connection with the video game The Matrix Online.
Jack Sparrow vs. Will Turner Sword Fight – Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
There is an almost Buster Keaton-esque quality to the swordfight between Jack and Will, with loose floorboards and improvised weapons paving the way for witty banter and genuinely well-choreographed action. Bloom is particularly charming in the scene, providing space for both Depp (and the mule) to nab some laughs. The editing is splendid, milking every twist and reversal in the fight while keeping the pace swift and exciting.
Subway Fight Scene – Spider-Man 2
The subway showdown between Spidey and Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2 remains thrilling despite the effects showing their obvious age today. But what’s perhaps the most defining moment of this scene didn’t require any CGI. It was the commuters pulling together to protect Spider-Man moments after he’s saved them, showing that Spidey was truly one of their own and part of the neighborhood.
Rey and Finn run on Jakku – Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The return of the Millennium Falcon to the big screen highlights an epic battle at Jakku and is one of the most invigorating dogfights in any Star Wars film. When Rey and Finn’s first choice for escape vessel is blown up before they can even board it, they are forced to settle for “the garbage.” The Falcon has it where it counts though, and Rey and Finn are able to take advantage of the crashed corpse of a Star Destroyer to escape a pair of mighty persistent TIE fighters.
Michonne vs. The Governor – The Walking Dead
Despite being a vicious psychopath, the Governor truly loved his zombie daughter. When Michonne takes her out, he goes berserk. The fight between the two is a knockdown drag-out affair, resulting in broken glass and chomping zombie heads littering the floor. The intense sequence looks like the possible end of Michonne, until she manages to find the right piece of jagged glass and plucks the Governor’s eye out.
Train Fight – The Wolverine
Fights on top of speeding trains may seem like old-hat, but it’s because they work. The Wolverine plays with physics (and claws) more than the average rooftop train conflict, with the scene being less of a conventional grapple and more of a chess match between Wolverine and his final opponent as they attempt to read each other and the environment. It is a fight that highlights the mental side of combat, with Wolverine triumphing not because he’s stronger or tougher, but because he’s aware of his surroundings and knows how to force his opponent to make a mistake.
No Man’s Land – Wonder Woman
No Man’s Land was almost cut from the film completely. Thankfully, director Patty Jenkins won the internal struggle and saved what ended up being on of the film’s most memorable moments. The mythopoetic scene is much more than the reveal of Diana donning the Wonder Woman armor, it recalls a theme that has appeared in numerous paintings and sculptures throughout history: honoring a goddess that led an army of men into a battle for liberty.
Quicksilver Slow motion scene – X-Men: Days of Future Past
Quicksilver’s amazing slow motion sequence is a highlight of Days of Future Past. There is power in letting a song choice and a clever concept do the heavy lifting, and "Time in a Bottle" is an inspired bit of music licensing for the fight scene in the Pentagon kitchen. Evan Peters plays the scene perfectly, taking time to sample the soup as he tweaks the opening moments of the battle while listening to his (apparently also super-speedy) Walkman. The payoff of seeing Quicksilver’s adjustments play out in real time is a joy to watch.
Nightcrawler Opening Scene – X2
X-Men 2 opens with Nightcrawler making a gripping assault on the White House. Despite however useful, BAMF-ing had never felt particularly powerful in the comics, especially compared to some of the other mutant abilities. Singer’s brilliant choreography of Nightcrawler’s attack changed that. It even made Nightcrawler’s prehensile tail feel overpowered. This fight scene is the grandfather of many great action sequences which borrows the conceit of having some of the fight take place off camera to add tension.
These were OUR choices from the last 25 years. What are yours? Let us know in the comments which action scenes you’d put on your list!