Gravity Falls isn’t afraid of mixing together wildly disparate tones, melding together its paranormal craziness and its relatively grounded, character-based material to build larger, richer stories about growing up. Meshing together such radically different genres of storytelling is a tricky balancing act, but the episodes that really go for it—the way “Double Dipper” matches the cloning with Dipper’s foolhardy pursuit of Wendy; how “The Inconveniencing” turns on Dipper being honest about his age—have been the show’s best efforts. “Fight Fighters” tries to match up the world of arcade fighter games with Dipper’s rivalry with Robbie. It should be a natural connection, and yet it doesn’t come together. The episode’s deconstruction of video game tropes is spot-on and often hilarious, but it feels like a tangent from Dipper’s more personal story. It doesn’t help that the resolution of the Dipper and Robbie story is unsatisfying, albeit by design. “Fight Fighters” ends up being less than the sum of its parts, although at least each part works well on its own.
“Fight Fighters” follows on directly from “The Time Traveler’s Pig,” as Mabel still has her pet pig Waddles (hooray!) and Wendy is still dating Robbie (boo!). When Dipper breaks Robbie’s cell phone in a last-ditch effort to stop Robbie revealing his crush to Wendy, Robbie challenges him to a fight—which, given the size disparity, is really just an invitation to get the crap beaten out of him. Taking refuge at Soos’ favorite arcade, Dipper discovers a way to bring to life a character from the video game Fight Fighters. With Rumble McSkirmish of the USA as his ultra-violent bodyguard, Dipper heads into his showdown with Robbie supremely confident, until things predictably spiral out of control. Dipper is forced to save his arch-nemesis by revealing the truth to Rumble McSkirmish, who has been working on the entirely unfounded assumption that Robbie killed Dipper’s father. But coming clean means Dipper doesn’t just have to take a beating from Robbie—he now has to face Rumble himself.
As a loving pastiche of fighter game tropes, Rumble McSkirmish is a rousing success. His dialogue is part sloppy translation (“You can hide, but you cannot hide!”), part purposefully inane (“Ha ha ha! You fight like a girl, who is also a baby!”), and voice acting vet Brian Bloom hits the right balance between the character’s inherent ridiculousness and the fact that he’s still a terrifying adversary for anyone who gets in his way. His obsession with the Soviet Union and people killing other people’s fathers are a good encapsulation of the thinly detailed backstories you could expect from old games like this, and his completely inability to stand still is the kind of little detail a more clichéd parody might miss. But the homage doesn’t simply use Rumble in isolation, as his outsized presence is nicely complemented by Dipper’s awareness of video game tropes. Dipper’s imitation of video games starts out as a quick bit of character-based silliness—like when he affects video game diction and demands of Wendy, “You will take it back!”—and then gets incorporated into the larger craziness of his final showdown with Rumble, as when he uses a pair of black planks to simulate the effect of a widescreen cut scene. The animation is once again a strength of the show, particularly in how it integrates the sharp-pixeled Rumble into the completely different aesthetic of Gravity Falls. Dipper is charmingly uncoordinated whenever he’s near Rumble, whether he’s about to fight him or simply walking near him.
It’s in the attempt to tie Rumble into the larger story that “Fight Fighters” runs into trouble. Dipper casually acknowledges to Mabel that using Rumble is cheating, and his ultimate realization that he, not Robbie or Rumble, is the bad guy should be the emotional crux of the episode. But the moment doesn’t land as well as it ought to, because Robbie is such a one-dimensional jerk here that it’s hard to feel much sympathy for him beyond not actively wanting him dead. What’s more, Rumble is such an uncontrollable agent of destruction that he overwhelms the bad behavior of the other characters, even if there’s little malice behind his actions. As fun as Rumble is, his presence doesn’t reveal a new side of Dipper—the kid’s willingness to abuse the paranormal to get the upper hand over Robbie was already explored more elegantly in “Double Dipper.” A stronger choice might well have been to connect Dipper’s misuse of Rumble with his earlier, seemingly more innocent efforts to get in Robbie’s way, and to have him realize that he’s been the bad guy throughout. As it is, “Fight Fighters” suggests a bunch of themes about standing up for what you believe in and the perils of taking cheats and shortcuts, but the episode never quite manages to connect it all together.
It doesn’t help that this is the first episode that can’t find a way to sidestep the basic problem at the end of any Wendy-centric story. After all, unless Gravity Falls decides to throw all caution—and sense of realism—to the wind and actually have Dipper and Wendy become an item, no story built around that relationship is going to have a straightforward happy ending. “The Inconveniencing” comes close, since it’s bookended by the pair keeping each other’s secrets and so emphasizes their bond, but “Double Dipper” and “The Time Traveler’s Pig” both find Dipper confronting just how impossible his quest truly is. In both instances, the episode offers some catharsis, as Dipper realizes there are worse things than losing Wendy to Robbie. In “Fight Fighters,” Wendy only functions as a pivot point for Robbie and Dipper’s relationship. But Wendy’s two boys are no further in their relationship at the end of the episode than they are in the beginning, save their “Cold War pact” that requires them to hide their hatred when—and only when—Wendy is watching.
That’s not a likeable endpoint for Dipper, although considering Robbie’s conduct in this episode ranges from jealous to cruel to vindictive, it’s about the only sensible decision available to him. Robbie certainly isn’t a bad enough dude that he deserves being beaten to a pulp by Rumble McSkirmish, and it’s understandable why he wouldn’t want a 12-year-old kid trying to horn in on his spot (I believe that’s how the kids today would say it), but those are about the nicest things you can say about him in “Fight Fighters.” The episode doesn’t reveal a good side to Robbie, let alone reach a moment of understanding between him and Dipper. Such developments aren’t required, but as it is the relationship at the crux of the episode feels dangerously one-note. That might work if Robbie were the villain of “Fight Fighters”—consider ‘Lil Gideon in “The Hand That Rocks The Mabel”—but here their journey, even just to their icy détente at episode’s end, feels underdeveloped.
“Fight Fighters” also keeps Mabel largely away from the paranormal side of the episode, as she and Waddles put their heads together to cure Grunkle Stan’s fear of heights. Sidelining Mabel in this way doesn’t automatically mean a weaker episode, but it does mean “Fight Fighters” has to make do without many character moments or humor derived from Dipper and Mabel’s relationship, which is one of the show’s strongest elements. It does, however, let Mabel and Stan, the show’s two funniest characters, bounce off of each other, with Stan’s world-weary cynicism and disquieting past serving as the perfect counterpoint for Mabel’s sunny kookiness. Mabel’s attempt to improve Stan recalls her similarly ill-conceived endeavor in “Dipper Vs. Manliness,” something partially acknowledged by the meta-awareness of Mabel’s line: “Or we could leave well enough alone. Nah!” The subplot is funny—it’s hard to imagine a Mabel and Stan story ever falling completely flat—but it does feel derivative of the earlier pairing of the two characters, as it mostly repeats the same story beats without adding a new twist to their relationship. That’s true of “Fight Fighters” in general: There’s plenty to enjoy here, especially as a love letter to old video games, but it’s missing that deeper poignancy or narrative boldness that is found in the top tier of Gravity Falls episodes.
- Our final catch-up review is next Friday, as we take a fond, self-consciously macho look back at “Dipper Vs. Manliness.”
- “You know, studies show that keeping a ladder inside the house is more dangerous than a loaded gun. That’s why I own 10 guns—in case some maniac tries to sneak in a ladder!”
- “Just bonk him over the head. It’s nature’s snooze button!”
- “Did he kill your father?” “Well, he’s dating the girl that I like, and he posts a really annoying amount of status updates…”
- “It’s-a me, a-Mabel!”
- Seriously, guys, why you ackin’ so cray-cray?