Today I want to discuss why I think the Lancer fight worked a lot better than the Sea Dragon fight.
I think it comes down to two key factors, threat and consequences.
First there's threat. When the Sea Feilong is first alluded to by swimming past the boat and then later reveals itself it succeeds in creating a threatening presence. In the first instance there's the mystery of what kind of creature it is and the knowledge that some sort of Grimm is stalking the boat. What kind of consuquences will that have? Is it going to sink the boat? Kill the Captain? Damage the boat so that it will need to make landfall while it receives repairs? Keep watching and you will find out. Then when it actually shows itself on-screen for the first time it manages to create an epic atmosphere, the music turns ominous, the crew-members look up at it in fright, alarms start blaring, a chorus starts chanting, crew-lady shouts in fear about how this ship has never faced a beast this large before, and the Grimm is revealed to be a fucking Dragon. A great job was done building tension for the fight to come. Unfortunately that was also the last time the Feilong ever appeared threatening in its entire time on-screen.
Some of it is the fault of the animation, the CRWBY had never done an aquatic battle before and it shows. I'm not just talking about the animation being stilted either, the match-up for the fight is just plain awkward. You have a big yet fast fucking Dragon going up against a lumbering cruise ship made of wood that uses paddle-wheels for propulsion. It creates awkward scenes where the dragon dives at the big slow target that is right in front of it and yet somehow misses because the captain turned the wheel, which... I mean I admit I'm no expert but I'm pretty sure a big ship like that isn't going to be able to turn that quickly. Plus the Feilong ends up suffering from the "stand around and roar instead of attacking" syndrome that has afflicted many Grimm before it. Why didn't it just attack the ship from below? I think a swarm of weaker Grimm crawling onto the ship could have worked better, crabs or lobsters or something. Or possibly "invisible" octopus Grimm. Make them weak enough that they can't just wreck the ship itself so that there's a reason for the fight to happen on the deck itself. A threat can be presented by the need to protect the passengers, which is a more credible threat than the entire boat getting blown up or main characters like Blake or Sun getting killed by what is essentially a Random Encounter.
Another problem undercutting its threat level was the way its lightning breath was used. When a big mythic monster like an Asian Dragon starts charging up a big flashy energy attack you expect it to be pretty epic. When it was first revealed it was even done really well, the Feilong charges up its energy attack and Blake starts looking worried. When Sun shows up he solves the problem by redirecting the beam (which is good) into the sky (which is bad). While I think the choice to redirect the beam was good since it implies that the heroes could not withstand this attack directly (at least not seriously draining their Aura) and neither could the ship. This implication makes the beam attack seem threatening and dangerous, its important to prevent the Feilong from using it on the ship otherwise it will sink. However that implication would have worked better if backed up by action, instead of just vanishing into the sky it would have been better if the beam instead hit one of those giant rock formations and blew it up, that would have shown its power and driven home that this attack is dangerous. If the budget couldn't afford it then just use movie magic, show the beam about to hit a rock formation, cut away, add a loud explosion noise and possibly have some small chunks of stone fly past the camera/pelting the ship, cut back and show that the rock formation is no longer there, or at least that a big part of it is missing.
Of course this all ended up being redundant because the show undercut even the implication of the Hyper Beam being powerful by later showing Sun being capable of effortlessly deflecting it just by spinning his staff at it (and the ship tanking two direct hits without any noticeable damage). Since the show has not established anything special about his staff that would make it more capable of deflecting attacks than any other weapon this basically serves to make the big flashy lightning beam seem less dangerous than getting punched by a Beringel or Deathstalker. Which is frustrating since the show already demonstrated that they knew of a method by which the big fancy fucking Dragon could fire its ultimate attack without killing everyone and yet they still ended up just making its ultimate attack completely toothless and less threatening than it just ramming into stuff headfirst like a big dumb monster. Having Sun deflect the lightning beam also made the "scare" of it almost zapping him and Blake at the end even more of a joke than it already was.
Which brings up another problem with the fight. The jokes. And also the music. But mostly the jokes. Now personally I found the "my hero/now you say it" joke pretty funny, and I can see what they were going for with setting that up for later. The problem however is that when you have characters cracking jokes in the middle of a fight and not taking the life and death struggle seriously then it becomes impossible for the audience to take things seriously either. The jokes may be funny but they come at the cost of whatever dramatic moment the show was trying to create. When we see Sun lying around making poses while a giant Grimm is attacking a cruise ship full of helpless civilians that either ends up making Sun look like a sociopath who doesn't care about people's lives being in danger, or the monster ends up looking like a toothless paper tiger that is such a non-threat that Sun can confidently waste time lounging because there's no real threat of it harming anyone while he's doing so.
Which brings up the other key factor, consuquences. In the Stowaways fight there are none. The only thing the Feilong accomplishes is to ensure that "starboard defenses are down" in some unspecified way while off-screen. Most likely by shooting the ship with its lightning attack (twice) but we don't even get to see how much damage was done to those cannons, and those cannons never accomplished anything in the fight so there is no sense of danger from their loss. Not a single passenger or crew member is even shown to be wounded during the course of this fight, no visible damage is done to the ship and Sun and Blake only ever look like they're in danger right at the climax of the fight when triumphant music is blaring and we have already seen that the Captain is about to ram the hell out of the dragon. The whole fight ends up being a waste of time. Nothing bad or good happens as a result of the fight, Sun would have had to reveal himself anyway even if the Dragon hadn't shown up, Sun uses it as an example of how the Grimm are getting worse but that point is ruined by the fact that the Dragon ended up being so toothless. Even the music was so light and cheerful during most of the fight that it seemed like even it couldn't take the Dragon seriously. Sun even outright says that the people on board had no need to worry about the fight. Way to undercut the threat of this unheard of new threat Show.
Well then. That was a lot of words on things I thought were done wrong. Now let's look at how to do things right. The bees! (well, wasps).
Threat? Oh boy, the Lancers have that in spades. Like the Sea Feilong we are first introduced to the Lancers as a mysterious mostly unseen enemy. Unlike the Sea Feilong which just stalked a protagonists in its introduction however the Lancers are presented as currently being in the middle of attacking someone else, and those people fear for their lives and desperately shout for help. Already the stakes are much higher than the fight with the Feilong. As the Family Guy joke goes "eh, we have two main characters on this ship, I think we'll be fine" but by the same logic ships that only have nameless people on board might as well be under a death sentence.
Then when the Lancers first appear they immediately show that unlike most Grimm we've seen up to this point, they mean business. Having them make an entrance by showing a ship they'd already destroyed crash and explode against a floating island was a great way to start the fight with a bang. The follow up where we get to see the Lancers themselves was also perfect. Instead of the usual nonsense of pointlessly roaring before attacking the Lancers go straight for the kill, using teamwork to first immobilize a ship and then having one member of the swarm do a suicide run to blow it up. The abrupt silence on the radio was an excellent way to emphasize the brutality of the scene. And once they notice the cargo ship they don't make a big fuzz about it, they just move on to the next target with zero hesitation and no useless posturing. Their sheer efficiency already makes the Lancers seem far more threatening than the giant freaking Dragon. Unlike the Feilong which spent its entire fight flailing about uselessly the Lancers have already clearly established themselves as a threat by showing that they don't need to defeat Weiss in combat as long as they can bring down her ship. While their stingers are on paper seemingly less dangerous than a Hyper Beam, in practice their grappling hook ability ended up seeming far more threatening because it actually works.
And where the slow cruise ship vs fast dragon serves as an example of how to make a terrible match-up that makes for awkward battle scenes the fast cargo ship vs fast wasps is the exact opposite. By putting two fast moving and agile flyers against each other Dread In The Air succeeds in having a exiting fight scene from beginning to end. There's none of those awkward moments where the monster just stands around doing nothing because its not allowed to win instantly by slamming into the ship like it slammed into the rocks, instead there's an actual chase because both sides are roughly equal in speed and maneuverability. If there's one complaint to be had about the Lancer fight is that the ones on the roof do to little, the scene where the Pilot plans to slam them into an island got stretched out too much and could have used a scene them ripping open the roof and getting ready to dive into the ship to ramp up the tension. Still, the scene of them ramming their stingers through the solid metal roof and then slamming into the ship was far more effective at building tension than the Feilong shooting multiple lightning beams at the cruise ship while Sun was quipping and then only having the very minor damage be relayed through infodumping.
When the Queen Lancer shows up she is also used to much greater effect than the Feilong's energy beam. Instead of a comedy act like Sun jumping on Blake for no reason and acting cocky both Weiss and the pilot react with fear when they learn of its presence. And unlike the ineffectual lightning beam it manages to do damage both to the cargo hold and the engines of the ship, showing that the energy barrier Weiss threw up to protect herself is no real defense from it. The massive Dust explosion it shrugged off also did a better job of showing its durability than the kind of half-hearted cannonball explosions used on the Feilong. While the Feilong's threat was undercut by the music the Queen Lancer instead undercut the victory music by launching one last attack right before it died.
Most importantly there were consensuses. Unlike the Feilong which accomplished nothing, the Queen Lancer even in defeat manages to destroy the cargo ship, kill the pilot and sends Weiss straight into the hands of bandits. Fighting the Lancers served a purpose in the story, while the battle at sea did not.
While I don't think the CRWBY should copy the format of the Lancer fight directly for every Grimm fight I do think there are some lessons to be taken from it that can be applied in other fights. First is to make use of civilians. Many lesser Grimm are not much of a threat to Huntresses like our heroines, however they can still be a threat to civilians and mooks that our heroines are protecting. Similarly vehicles such as airships, cars, boats and trains can be a useful tool for ramping up the tension. If our heroes are on a timer and needs to get to a location quickly a threat to their method of transportation can work better for building tension than a threat to their lives. Main characters might have plot armor but NPC's and vehicles do not. If RWBY and co are defending a village or something like it then granaries, gun turrets or other vital pieces of infrastructure can also serve as a tension building tool by giving the girls a way to lose without being in serious danger themselves or as a way to introduce consequences beyond the All or Nothing question of whether or not the named characters will die. A ship can have holes punched in its hull during a fight and need to stop for repairs, a cargo ship can crash and take a character off-course, a train can be derailed and the passengers need to be escorted through hostile territory, a village can lose its main line of defense and need a new one procured before the heroes can move on in good conscience, etc.
Another lesson is to just not have the monster spend more time posturing than it does dealing actual damage to the people its fighting. Match-ups be chosen with care, if a fight is meant to last for several minutes then it should not be possible for one side to win in 2 seconds if it just attacked instead of standing around roaring for no reason. If the Grimm can crush the opposition with one attack then the opposition needs to be plausibly fast enough to dodge.
And if the Grimm has a special attack demonstrate that its actually useful and threatening. Especially if that Grimm is meant to be unique and powerful. More on that later as I bring up a suggestion for how to fix the Nuckelavee without needing to resort to retcons. For now however this post has already gone on long enough and I have shit to do so ciao.