A Look Back at Ten of The Greatest Face-Offs in Movie History

Celebrating great movie rivalries in honor of ‘Battle of the Sexes.’
By  · Published on September 29th, 2017

Celebrating great movie rivalries in honor of ‘Battle of the Sexes.’

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ new biopic Battle of the Sexes depicts the rivalry between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs as being mostly for show. Riggs does not really buy into the chauvinist pig persona he’s selling, but that does not mean that many of his supporters don’t. So while he still poses a huge problem, and you still want to see him lose because of what his victory would mean for actual misogynists, you don’t actively want him to get hit by a bus or anything.

A title like Battle of the Sexes inspires ideas of genuine, cut-throat antagonism, and while the film is well-made and satisfying in other regards, it doesn’t deliver much in the rivalry department. With that in mind, the following is a list of some of the biggest, best, and most intense rivalries to grace the silver screen. Now, since I was looking to craft a list of rivalries instead of a list of the best villains and their accompanying heroes, I only included films where both parties are somewhat comparably sympathetic—or, in some cases, more or less equally despicable. I also avoided films where “rivalry” is a synonym for unresolved sexual tension because otherwise, this would end up being a list of rom-coms. (There’s nothing wrong with lists of rom-coms; that just really wasn’t what I was going for.)

If you get to the end and realize you didn’t see your favorite, that’s probably because I, regrettably, have not seen every film ever made.

Alfred Borden and Robert Angier, The Prestige

What begins as your standard workplace rivalry between two entry-level magicians both looking to score Michael Caine as a mentor quickly evolves into something else entirely after Angier’s (Hugh Jackman) wife Julia dies in a magic trick gone wrong that may or may not be Borden’s (Christian Bale) fault. As the rivals grow more and more consumed with not just one-upping each other’s successes, but actively sabotaging each other’s acts, the film turns into a mind-bending barrage of twists and turns. David Bowie and Gollum even get involved. The fact that the film was released in 2006 when Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale were more or less Marvel and DC’s cinematic MVPs just adds one more delightful layer to a film already deliciously full of them.

Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday, There Will Be Blood

When a young man by the name of Paul Sunday tells oil prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) the location of his family ranch, which he claims sits on top of a large oil reserve, for a nifty $500 cash, it seems like a pretty good exchange. However, when he arrives at the Sunday ranch, Plainview finds an unexpected challenge in the form of Paul’s twin brother Eli (Paul Dano), a minister for the Church of The Third Revelation, who is just as cunning and power-hungry as Plainview but far better able to disguise himself as a humble man doing the good lord’s work. It’s an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object that culminates in one of the greatest closing scenes of all time, thanks in no small part to the fact that Paul Dano manages to be one of the few actors who go up against Daniel Day-Lewis and not look blatantly like, well, an actor. Because Day-Lewis is just that good—think of all those scenes in Lincoln that feel like watching actual Abraham Lincoln talking to Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a fake mustache. (Let’s not even talk about Gangs of New York.) Anyway, Dano as Sunday actually holds his own toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis’ Plainview, and what a dance it is.

Billy Hoyle and Sidney Deane, White Men Can’t Jump

One of the most ’90s things to ever exist that isn’t a picture of Will Smith or the pint-sized Olsen twins in overalls, this classic sports comedy starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson as two street basketball players out-hustling each other also features one of cinema’s great rivalries of a more light-hearted nature. It’s also getting a reboot for some reason.

Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Amadeus

Though Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) is jealous and weak and generally sort of slimy throughout the film, his situation—knowing music well enough to truly appreciate Mozart’s (Tom Hulce) genius while also knowing that his own work could never even hope to compare—is so relatable, especially in comparison to Mozart’s extreme genius and almost child-like rudeness, that you can’t help but feel something for the guy, even as he decides to deal with his feelings of inadequacy by doing everything in his power to destroy Mozart’s life. That said, you can’t help but feel something for Mozart either. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this particular rivalry, though, is that in comparison to most others, there really isn’t a question of superiority—no question of Salieri composing something that would even come close to rivaling anything of Mozart’s—and yet, their rivalry still has an extremely compelling tension to it. Quite like There Will Be Blood, though, it’s really the quality of the performances that seal the deal; no other film in the more than thirty years since has managed to earn two nominations in the Oscar Best Actor category (ironically though, it was Salieri who won).

Professor X and Magneto, X-Men franchise

While the first X-Men film presents Magneto as more-or-less a genuine villain whose evildoing is made more understandable by his childhood concentration camp experience, later installments—especially the prequel-sequel-reboots—double down on Magneto’s moral ambiguity while playing up more of the shortcomings of Professor X’s approach to the point where I feel comfortable including the pair on this list.

Captain America and Iron Man, Captain America: Civil War

While our first superhero entry featured one, shall we say, goody-two-shoes, and one dapper but morally grey individual who sometimes has a very good point, one of the genius things about Captain America: Civil War is how well it manages to make Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.)  and Steve Roger’s opinions truly irreconcilable and antagonistic. Their stances are both flawed, but reasonable enough to be understandable and empathetic. We will have to wait until Avengers: Infinity War to see how, or even if, Team Cap and Team Stark will every truly reconcile, but the MCU damn well sure did a fantastic job of tearing them apart. 

Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed, Rocky

What list of cinematic rivalries would be complete without including the most famous cinematic sports rivalry of them all? Even though enmity ceases to define the relationship between Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) after Rocky II, developing into a friendship that ends as a full-blown tragic bromance in Rocky IV, they will always be remembered best for the rivalry with which they began.

Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley, Heat

The sort of cat-and-mouse story where one is not always sure who is actually the cat in the situation, Michael Mann’s epic crime thriller details LAPD Lieutenant Vincent Hanna’s (Al Pacino) pursuit of professional thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) in a film that actually lives up to the hype of being the meeting ground for two of the greatest actors of their generation. The fascinating thing about this particular rivalry, though, is how in spite of being incredibly cut-throat, it is also portrayed as being an entirely professional matter. When they first meet face-to-face, they stop for coffee and bond over how their commitment to their work has left their personal life in shambles—and that they are each willing to do whatever necessary to stop the other, including the use of lethal force. But, you know, no hard feelings.

Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scotts

Okay, so the film itself is the sort of well-made, well-acted but vaguely bland biopic that seems to exist if for no other reason than to be somehow nominated for a host of awards without managing to pick up any devoted or long-lasting fans, but the historic rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I and her first cousin once removed (not to be confused with Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary, best known for burning a whole lot of people at the stake) is one the silver screen keeps on coming back to, so it felt wrong not to include it here. Perhaps they are just pursuing it until they finally manage to get it right—the next attempt, starring Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth, is scheduled for release next year.

Tracy Flick and Jim McAllister, Election

Alexander Payne’s 1999 satire of both suburban high school and politics is notable for providing cinema with one of its very limited number of number male-female non-romantic rivalries in the likable but somewhat pathetic high school teacher Jim (Matthew Broderick) and obnoxious high school senior and cutthroat opportunist Tracy (Reese Witherspoon). It’s sharp, it’s funny, and it will make you hate high school all over again without even having to get within a mile of a locker.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.