Who doesn’t love an epic battle? When moviegoers see a film title that contains the word “versus,” it’s almost like an invitation to a prize fight. Who’s gonna win? Who’s gonna lose? And how many blows to the head will be landed before it’s all over? A feeling of catharsis is a must-have experience for movie audiences, so it makes sense that film buffs are drawn to stories about the triumph of good over evil, whether it’s a struggle between monsters, machines, or your neighbors down the street. Here are some of the most entertaining movies with “vs.” in the title. They may not all be award winners, but they’ve all got something uniquely appealing that make them stand out.
Wife vs. Secretary (1936)
Not only is this Hollywood golden age film one of the first to use the “vs.” title, it’s also one of the first to examine the fragility of relationships and the dangerous power of rumor and innuendo on people’s lives. And while the movie’s title certainly makes it sound like audiences are in for a claws-bared, knock-down, drag-out fight between a virtuous lady and an immoral man-stealer, Wife vs. Secretary is actually a surprisingly honest look at three individuals who become unwitting victims of whispers and aspersions.
Clark Gable plays publishing magnate Van Stanhope, Myrna Loy his loving wife Linda, and Jean Harlow his dutiful secretary “Whitey.” Stanhope is working on a secret merger deal that requires him to tell his wife tall tales about his late nights at the office with Whitey, which leads his betrothed to believe her husband is having a tryst with the young woman who takes dictation. Gossip ensues, rumors fly, and before Stanhope can get in front of the salacious blather, it becomes a foregone conclusion that he and Whitey are involved in a torrid affair. To further complicate matters, Whitey, who already has a boyfriend of her own (Jimmy Stewart, in one of his first film appearances), begins to realize she does indeed have feelings for the boss. Harlow, absent her platinum blonde hair and brassy, sexy persona in this film, is particularly effective in her role. Not only does she behave with maturity and wisely choose not to make a messy situation messier, she bucks the “dumb secretary” stereotype. Whitey is key in helping Stanhope successfully negotiate his publishing deal, an intelligent woman with good ideas and an assertive personality, a rare portrayal of a woman in the 1930s. Wife vs. Secretary is an interesting film that handles its subject with unexpected sophistication.
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966)
With a title like this, who could resist? A likely inspiration for 2012’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, this 1960s camp fest helmed by William Beaudine (famous for directing episodes of The Mickey Mouse Club and The Adventures of Spin and Marty in the 1950s) stars horror movie staple John Carradine as the 1870s incarnation of the sinister blood sucker who travels to the American West to stalk his prey. In this one, Count Dracula takes on the identity of the deceased uncle of a wealthy family of landowners in order to get closer to the family’s daughter, the beautiful Betty Bentley (Melinda Plowman), and make her his eternal bride.
Fortunately for Betty, she’s engaged to reformed outlaw Billy the Kid (Chuck Courtney), who quickly becomes suspicious of this uncle who’s suddenly arrived at the Double Bar B Ranch. Thanks to some tips and tricks from German ranch worker Eva (Virginia Christine), who’s dealt with her share of vampires over the years, Billy starts holding up mirrors in front of the Count, looking for a reflection. Come for the not-so-intricate plot, and stay for the big finale that takes place inside a mine shaft, with Billy saving Betty from a horrible fate courtesy of a good old-fashioned Wild West shootout and a wooden stake driven through the Count’s heart. Producers were intent on scoring big box office returns by trying to marry the horror and western film genres with this one, but Billy the Kid vs. Dracula was a big miss. Even Carradine was embarrassed by the film, saying, “I have worked in a dozen of the greatest, and I have worked in a dozen of the worst. I only regret Billy the Kid VS. Dracula. Otherwise, I regret nothing.” ‘Nuff said.
Alien vs. Predator (2004)
It’s kind of mind-boggling to think it took so long for someone to come up with the idea for this movie. After all, the resemblance between the two types of killer creatures is uncanny, and who wouldn’t want to see Aliens and Predators duke it out for universal dominance? True, there was an Alien vs. Predator video game in 1994, but it took decades to finally bring the action/horror flick to the big screen and kick off another mini-franchise (Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem came along in 2007, followed by Alien vs. Predator: Evolution in 2013). While a bit frenzied in its execution, with some questionable CGI and ridiculously unbelievable action sequences, even by Alien and Predator standards, the film still rolls on all cylinders and delivers for its fans.
In the movie, a team of scientists assembled by billionaire Charles Weyland (Lance Henriksen) travels to Antarctica to explore a mysterious heat source beneath the ice-covered surface. It isn’t long before the team realizes they’ve uncovered a kind of “training camp” used by teenage Predators to practice their warrior killing skills against the powerful Aliens. Chaos ensues. Expect all the requisite Alien and Predator staples, including exploding stomachs, heat sensing vision, and heavy metal weaponry, but also be prepared for some benevolent Predators eager to help out the humans who disrupt their underground kingdom. Although the title of the film is Alien vs. Predator, it’s not clear which group ultimately prevails. Then again, a tidy resolution would have meant no more sequels.
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Like Alien vs. Predator, what took so long to get these two bigger-than-life monsters into a little “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots” action? Directed by Ishiro Honda, the man behind the original Godzilla in 1957, then re-edited for U.S. audiences by Gilligan’s Island director Tom Montgomery with scenes inserted featuring American actors, this battle of the titans takes place after a submarine hits an iceberg, releasing the long-dormant fire breather Godzilla. Naturally, maniacal pharmaceutical company magnate Mr. Tako (Ichiro Arishima) then gets the idea to send a group of men to capture the angry ol’ ape King Kong so Tako can use him for publicity purposes. Things go wrong when Kong arrives in Japan, breaks loose, and meets up with Godzilla in a fight to the death. King Kong vs. Godzilla is not to be missed, mainly because there are few things more hilarious than watching a guy in a furry gorilla suit throw plastic boulders at a guy in a rubber dragon suit. Which brute prevails as the King of All Beasts? No spoilers here!
The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021)
This under-seen Oscar nominated animated feature is a smart and creative twist on the “versus” theme. When Rick Mitchell (voiced by Danny McBride) takes the family on a bonding road trip to drop off daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson) at film school, the unimaginable happens – a robot uprising designed to eliminate the human race. It’s up to the seemingly hapless Mitchells to vanquish everything that contains a microchip and save the planet.
The film is a not-so-subtle indictment of modern technology and its ability to fragment families, but it makes its point with just the right amount of comic flair, including the scene when the robots drop from the sky to begin their takeover, with everyone in the Mitchell family pulling out their iPhones to record the chaos instead of doing something about it. The movie has a strong and poignant ending that, like any good family film, reinforces the importance of that familial bond.
Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)
Leave it to the DreamWorks animation studio to deliver a story about gargantuan insects, mutant larvae, and a giant bride-to-be that’s as funny for adults as it is for kids. In this Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon-directed adventure romp, an extraterrestrial robot comes to destroy Earth.
The only hope for saving the planet is to enlist a team of creatures being hidden by the government to defeat the evil electronic menace. Reese Witherspoon voices Susan, aka “Ginormica,” the young woman who gets zapped by a dose of a radioactive substance called “quantonium” on her wedding day, causing her to grow 50 stories tall. Susan teams with an ingenious cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a rather dumb pile of blueish goo (Seth Rogen), and a lizard-like creature (Will Arnett) to take out the alien robot in a battle amidst the streets of San Francisco. In addition to some brilliantly executed action sequences and sidesplitting dialogue, Monsters vs. Aliens delivers a strong message about self-realization and empowerment. As the radioactive Susan grows in size, she grows in personal strength, as well, realizing she doesn’t need to rely on anyone but herself to be fulfilled. So while the kiddies are enjoying the cartoonish aspects of this lively adventure, they’re learning some valuable life lessons, too.
The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
While fire-breathing lizards and animated extraterrestrials have their rightful place in the “versus” film genre, so do the stories of real-life characters. In 1996, director Milos Forman brought the tale of “Hustler” magazine publishing magnate Larry Flynt to the big screen. The People vs. Larry Flynt chronicles the rise of the controversial entrepreneur (Woody Harrelson, in an Oscar nominated role) and his ongoing court battles over what many considered to be Flynt’s “smut peddling.”
The film’s primary focus is on Flynt’s lengthy litigation with televangelist Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul), who sued Flynt for libel after “Hustler” published a satirical advertisement that implied Falwell had slept with his own mother. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, with Flynt prevailing in a victory for freedom of speech and the press. It’s a powerful and prescient film that’s worth watching today, especially as journalists and the media continue to battle the “fake news” stigma so prevalent in the 2020s.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Though it’s far from a story about a national courtroom battle involving the media and the nation’s highest judicial branch, Kramer vs. Kramer‘s quiet domestic legal drama is arguably the most powerful in the “versus” cinematic universe. This Best Picture winner tells the story of a woman (Meryl Streep, Best Supporting Actress winner) who abruptly leaves her husband (Dustin Hoffman, Best Oscar winner) and 7-year-old child (Justin Henry), then returns 15 months later seeking sole custody of the son she abandoned.
Hoffman is at his career best as a previously absent father and husband suddenly faced with the overwhelming responsibilities of a single parent, and Streep is simply astonishing as ex-wife Joanna, who can’t deny the pain she caused when she left her son, but who’s desperate to make up for the time she’s missed. Kramer vs. Kramer shows the agony caused when parents split and children become the victims. There are no clear heroes and villains, no distinct rights or wrongs, only emotional wounds that can never be fully healed. One of the decade’s best films, there are few in the “versus” annals that can surpass this one.