Unless you were in a movie theater on the weekend of May 16, 2002, you cannot possibly grasp the level of excitement the audience felt when Yoda opened up his Jedi robe and revealed the formidable weapon within.
Okay, that sounded a good deal more suggestive than I intended, but the scene I’m talking about is when Yoda whipped out his lightsaber in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones to face off against the villainous Count Dooku.
By that point, audiences had known Yoda for over 20 years and — while he was beloved for his wisdom and hilarious backwards-speak — we’d never seen Yoda throw down before. Episode II was a disappointing movie overall, to put it mildly, but that Yoda fight scene fucking delivered and it was all anyone was talking about afterwards.
But, like, why? Yoda was already a beloved character with several classic scenes, so why was that one in particular so exciting? And, for that matter, why are kick-ass old dudes exciting at all?
To answer this query, I reached out to psychology professor David Klonsky, who — in addition to his work in suicide research — specializes in the psychology of aging and fight psychology. Scientific research into Yoda’s lightsaber is unsurprisingly scant, but Klonsky was happy to speculate on the appeal of this and other old guy fight scenes.
Overall, he thinks two major appeal factors are at play here, the first of which is our love for the underdog. “In movies, we always love the underdog. Mr. Miyagi is a great example of this — Karate Kid III was a terrible movie, but I still love that scene when he beats up all three of the bad guys,” Klonsky tells me. The limitations of Mr. Miyagi’s karate skills were assessed in my karate master’s guide to Karate Kid, yet it is still pretty fun to watch him kick ass. The same goes for Gandalf’s big showdown in The Lord of the Rings and, my personal favorite, Master Splinter’s fight scenes in the many cinematic incarnations of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Rooting for the underdog is something that’s been examined before from a psychological standpoint, and a lot of the appeal comes down to expectations. A piece by the Bayer College of Medicine explains that, though people like a winner, they don’t like a one-sided competition. They want excitement, so when someone is underestimated and defies our expectations, the excitement level goes up.
There’s also the sense that people identify more with an underdog, which is what Klonsky feels is the second major factor in why old guy fight scenes are so appealing, particularly to those in the audience who are older themselves. “We want to believe that ‘we still got it’ as we age,” Klonsky explains. “From my own personal experience, I still train jiu jitsu three days a week, and I’m not the biggest guy to begin with. I’m in my mid-40s now and everything but my right elbow has an injury history, but although it sounds shallow to say this, it’s so satisfying to beat younger people.”
On film, this element has been portrayed by no one more effectively than Sylvester Stallone, whose Expendables franchise is essentially an action-fantasy all about old, ass-kicking stars proving that “they still got it” well after their prime. But Stallone also provided a bit more of a grounded take on the “still got it” narrative when he returned as a 60-year-old Rocky in Rocky Balboa. While we’d already seen the Italian Stallion pound on dudes for decades, it became increasingly less exciting after his bout with Clubber Lang in Rocky III (bite me, Drago). In Rocky Balboa however, Rocky was the true underdog again for the first time since the original film, with the whole movie dedicated to how old he is and how he’s not quite what he used to be. So, by the time we get to the final fight, the audience is rooting for old Rocky to kick the other guy’s ass (though hopefully not busting a hip in the process).
I think Klonsky is right about those two major factors, but I also believe there is a third element that sometimes comes into play: Given the right setup, it’s downright funny to see an old man pound on someone. The scene that particularly comes to mind is Bob Barker’s takedown of the arrogant Adam Sandler in Happy Gilmore:
Much like the unexpected Yoda scene, I can still remember the first time I watched Happy Gilmore and saw the kindly game-show host kick the shit out of the young Sandman. As an added bonus, The Price is Right host always reminded me of my late grandfather, so it was kind of like watching my own grandpa kick ass onscreen (instead of just smoke cigarettes and watch westerns, like I usually saw him do). As corny as it sounds, that scene wasn’t just funny, it was also a tiny bit inspiring to me as a kid. Just as, I’m sure, many old guy fight scenes make guys who are past their prime feel like, if the circumstances called for it, they’d be able to kick ass like they may have done back in the day.