The Arch-Enemy. The central nemesis. The big foe. They are the ultimate counterpoint to the Hero. Whereas the Hero stands most frequently for the side of justice and good, the Arch-Enemy towers upon the side of villainy and wickedness. However, the simple choice of pursuing evil is not what makes an arch-enemy a fascinating villain. It extends beyond just that basic notion. Rather, what makes the arch-enemy so fascinating is the hero that they stand against. Both are frequently intertwined, their fates tied together in such a way that they are bound to each other in their opposition. Along with that is the sort of reflective nature of their conflict. Thus, our study begins with two familiar approaches frequently used for the arch-enemy, two methods I’ll refer to as the Corrupt Reflection and the Flipped Coin.
The Corrupt Reflection is a take on a villain that serves a particular purpose. Specifically, the Corrupt Reflection shows what the hero may have been like had they gone down a more selfish path and sought merely their own desires instead of going for the greater good. This is frequently presented through an arch-enemy who bares a resemblance to the hero, whether in personality or powers, but twists that resemblance . For instance, Sherlock Holmes is forever remembered as being locked in battle with Professor James Moriarty. Both characters possess an astounding intellect that allows them to pursue their goals, but while Holmes uses his intellect to solve even the most baffling of crimes, Moriarty instead uses his to puppeteer a massive criminal network and become a “Napoleon of Crime”. Another example of this can be seen in Marvel Comics, with the classic rivalry of Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus. Both men are scientists, they received their new gifts in scientific developments gone wrong, they even both take their monikers from eight-limbed creatures. Where they differ is in how Spider-Man fights crime having learned how great responsibility is a part of great power, whereas Dr. Octopus seeks to selfishly use his new gifts to pursue scientific research and cultivate power at the expense of others. Through the similarities, the Corrupt Reflection helps to show just what makes the hero shine by presenting a counterpoint in a villainous light. Of course, the Corrupt Reflection is not the only way to present an arch-enemy. Another, more obvious approach is that of the Flipped Coin.
If the Corrupt Reflection shows a hero’s greatness in comparison to a villain through similarity, the Flipped Coin makes its presentation through differences. The Flipped Coin, like the term suggests, is the other side of the coin from the hero. If the hero represents one thing, then the Flipped Coin is its opposite. For example, consider Jonathan Joestar and Dio Brando, from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Jonathan is a benevolent man raised by a loving father and eventually learns martial arts that allow him to channel the power of the sun, while Dio is a cruel psychopath brought up by an abusive father and gains the powers of a vampire. DC Comics has its fair share of Flipped Coins, as well. Superman is a hero who possesses incredible power and strength while devoted to helping others as much as he can, while Lex Luthor is a figure of great brilliance who seeks to advance his own standing over others. Batman is a dark and brooding hero who is fixated on the notion of bringing order and not killing others, while the Joker is a colorful clown that seeks chaos and will gleefully slaughter others with abandon. Thus, two opposing forces come to be and serve to high-light each other through their differences. It is a simple, but effective, approach in portraying a hero against their arch-enemy. Now, while the Corrupt Reflection and Flipped Coin may be two different methods of presenting the arch-enemy, there is one critical component that must not be forgotten: for the hero and arch-enemy, it must be personal.
Sure, villains can be depicted as engaging in all sorts of criminal or nefarious activity. However, the personal touch is what helps to elevate the arch-enemy above the rest of a rogues gallery. Perhaps it is a shared background the hero and arch-enemy possess before a rift splits them apart, or perhaps one side strikes at the other in such a way that it becomes more than simple hatred that locks them in combat. In most adaptations of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Hamato Yoshi and Oroku Saki begin as equal members of the Foot Clan before forces (whether the love of Tang Shen or the use of the Foot Clan) drive them apart and down the paths that forge them into Splinter and Shredder respectively. In the Metroid franchise, it is the space pirate Ridley’s attack of planet K-2L and the murder of Samus Aran’s parents that starts Samus down the path towards becoming a skilled bounty hunter. It is not just a villain’s actions that can make things personal, though. It can just as easily be the hero who ends up sparking the rivalry. For example, many depictions of Lex Luthor present him as being so hateful of Superman because he sees his very being as the end of human achievement, for who would possibly do what Superman can do? It is an element like that, the personal component, which elevates the arch-enemy and make them such a fascinating figure when challenging the hero, likewise elevating the hero by giving them real stakes both general and personal.
Though the hero is always the one in the spotlight, one must never forget about the importance of the arch-enemy. Whether they compare as a Corrupt Reflection or contrast as a Flipped Coin, it is the personal relationship to the hero that makes both so fascinating.