Ricky Church on the greatest arch-enemies of all time…
The old adage ‘every hero is as good as their villain’ may not always be true, but there are certain exceptions where the hero and villain become synonymous with one another in pop culture. Archenemies are such a staple of many genres that everyone is on the lookout for a good rivalry, one that explores as much about the hero as it does the villain.
With so many iconic rivalries throughout pulp culture, it can be hard to narrow down which ones are considered the best or most influential. Whether they’ve been around for decades or are more modern, these archenemies have entertained audiences for years with their never-ending battles and philosophical feuds. Without further ado, here are some of the best rivalries in pop culture!
Superman vs Lex Luthor
Superman is often considered to be the world’s best superhero. As the first comic book superhero created, he set the standard for many superheroes that would follow for DC, Marvel and other comic companies. It is interesting, though, that for an alien being with such a vast array of superpowers his archenemy isn’t a deadly AI like Brainiac or life-sucking mutant like Parasite, but just a normal, highly intelligent human named Lex Luthor.
There are few hero and villain pairs who are such polar opposites as Superman and Lex Luthor. Whereas Superman was raised in a loving home and taught to use his powers with empathy, Lex grew up in a abusive environment and lords his wealth and power over everyone. Lex’s ego is so huge he cannot stand someone like Superman taking the spotlight, nor can he comprehend anyone acting as altruistically as Superman, especially with the powers he has. In his warped mind, Superman is fooling the world by pretending to be a do-gooder, secretly plotting to rule over humanity with Lex as the world’s only hope. Depending on the interpretation/continuity where the pair were best friends in their youth, it only adds to the tension as they are destined to become archenemies as adults.
Sherlock Holmes vs Professor Moriarty
Before comic books, one hero who defined a generation was Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s extremely intelligent detective who effortlessly solved crimes with his faithful companion Dr. John Watson. But when Doyle tired of writing the Sherlock Holmes stories and wished to kill him off, he felt he needed the ultimate villain for Sherlock to go up against in his final adventure, one that would test the limits of Sherlock’s intelligence and capabilities. Thus entered Professor Moriarty.
Moriarty was a cunning criminal mastermind, one Sherlock named ‘the Napoleon of crime’, who was just as smart if not more so than Sherlock himself. He had all of the quick intelligence of England’s greatest detective, but none of his morals. Sherlock and Moriarty shared a mutual respect, but had no warmth in their relationship. Such was Moriarty’s popularity among readers that despite appearing in only ‘The Final Problem’ and dying after he and Sherlock tumbled off the Reichenbach Falls, he was regarded as the detective’s ultimate nemesis. Moriarty has gone on to plague Sherlock in multimedia for several decades now, most recently in BBC’s modern day Sherlock and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows with Andrew Scott and Jared Harris portraying him respectively.
A runner-up as Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis is Irene Adler, the one and only woman who has actually bested Sherlock on a case. Like Moriarty, Adler only appeared in one story, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, but has become a popular antagonist in Sherlock Holmes media. Oftentimes she is presented as a love interest for Sherlock as they outwit each other in their games of cat-and-mouse.
Batman vs The Joker
There aren’t as many rivalries as long-lasting and intense as the Dark Knight versus the Clown Prince of Crime. The Joker was introduced as Batman’s very first supervillain way back in 1940’s Batman #1 and was originally meant to die in that first issue. Luckily for us, DC realized The Joker’s potential and kept him alive and for the last 80 years Batman and Joker have been locked in an endless battle.
The dichotomy between Batman and Joker has been explored thoroughly through the decades as they each represent the opposite in each other: Batman is all about order, justice and control over his emotions while Joker is just unbridled chaos and indulges in whatever whim he feels the most at any given moment. What makes their rivalry so intriguing is just how much they need each other – or at least how much Joker needs Batman.
For all of Joker’s evilness, Batman refuses to kill Joker not only due to his ‘no killing’ rule, but almost to prove a point that he is better than The Joker by rising above his desire to kill him and setting an example for other heroes. Joker, meanwhile, strives to break Batman mentally, enough so that Batman finally kills him, yet he doesn’t want to kill Batman either because Batman gives his whole life meaning.
Optimus Prime vs Megatron
For people who grew up during the 80s, there was perhaps no bigger rivalry in cartoons than Optimus Prime and Megatron from Transformers. As the leaders of two warring factions fighting across millions of years and planets, Optimus and Megatron were clearly defined archenemies.
Autobot leader Optimus Prime believes in freedom above all else while Megatron fights to rule the universe. As Optimus foiled countless schemes from Megatron and his Decepticons, their battles often became a personal one, a fact highlighted by their very last encounter in Transformers: The Movie that not only remains as epic today as it did 30 years ago (“One shall stand. One shall fall” will never not get old), but also broke the hearts of many a young child due to its tragic outcome for Optimus.
Recent Transformers stories, such as Transformers Prime, the IDW comics and Transformers: War for Cybertron – Siege have reimagined Optimus and Megatron as good friends before Megatron launched his quest for domination. This change has given their rivalry a different and more personal touch while fleshing out their respective backstories in interesting ways.
Cady Heron vs Regina George
Not all rivalries between archenemies revolve around saving the world or catching the bad guy. For teenagers, an archenemy is often another kid at school who bullies them. No modern movie better captures this than 2004’s Mean Girls with Linsday Lohan and Rachel McAdams portraying polar opposite high schoolers whose subtle feud eventually envelopes the whole school.
Lohan’s Cady Heron is a girl new to the high school experience after being homeschooled and travelling around the world with her parents. Despite her expertise in sociology and anthropology, the complexities of socializing with people her own age and high school cliques is completely alien to her. Enter Regina George, played to perfection by McAdams as the school’s Alpha Bitch, a girl who delights in being passive aggressive, twisting the truth and lording her status over everyone, friends included. When Cady’s other friends scheme to get her in Regina’s group of ‘Plastics’ it sets off a chain of events that sees Cady and Regina on a collision course.
The two of them are opposite in almost every way, but unlike most hero vs. villain battles where the hero remains steadfast in their convictions, Cady actually begins turning into the new Alpha Bitch, enjoying the power she holds over people. It’s not until her friends call her out, Regina’s plan for vengeance reveals her own insecurities (not to mention getting hit by a bus) and other drastic consequences that Cady turns back to her former self and tries dissolving the idea of cliques altogether, giving this rivalry a civil and somewhat happy ending.
Will Graham vs Hannibal Lecter
Hannibal Lecter is, without a doubt, one of the most compelling and frightening villains ever created for his intelligence, cannibalistic tendencies and ability to get inside anybody’s head with ease. Whereas most people remember the adversarial relationship he and Clarice Starling have, Hannibal does actually care for her and genuinely wants to help her in his own way. Therefore, Hannibal’s ultimate archenemy is not Clarice, but the man responsible for putting him in jail: Will Graham.
Will is a highly intelligent FBI agent who has a similar ability to Hannibal in getting inside people’s heads. His empathy allows him to understand serial killers as he often plays their kills over in his head to better discover their patterns and how to stop them. This, however, places Will in dangerous territory as he fights off his own darkness. It’s the one reason why he was able to figure out Hannibal was a serial killer and his unique disposal of his victims. Though Edward Norton’s portrayal doesn’t focus on the tortured sanity of Will’s character, William Petersen in Manhunter very much lingers on that dark precipice while Hugh Dancy in the TV series Hannibal forms a very close (some might say romantic) friendship with him and comes the closest to succumbing to his darker desires. No matter which interpretation though, Hannibal often goads Will into their similarities and pushes Will further to the edge, hoping to unwind him enough to ruin his life.
The relationship between Hannibal and Will is also different from Clarice due to the intense hatred Hannibal harbours for Will for capturing him. When he’s given the opportunity, Hannibal puts the lives of Will’s family in danger. This is actually the only case on this list where the villain wins: thanks to Hannibal’s scheming, Will Graham is left facially disfigured and Silence of the Lambs reveals his family left him and he’s an alcoholic loner.
Raylan Givens vs Boyd Crowder
One of the most common arch-rivalries in media is cops and robbers. While there may be plenty of rivalries to choose from, one of the best modern ‘cops and robbers’ battles is that of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens and career criminal Boyd Crowder in Justified.
Raylan and Boyd grew up together in the small town of Harlan, Kentucky, spending their teenage years in the coalmines looking out for each other’s backs. Raylan left home though to escape his father’s abuse while Boyd followed his father’s footsteps in a life of crime. While Raylan is a lawman and has a fairly strict moral code with his own wiggle room to see justice done, Boyd is a dark reflection of what Raylan may have become had he stayed in Harlan. Raylan struggles with that darkness through most of the series as it threatens the loss of his family and job on multiple occasions. Despite their game of cat-and-mouse, Raylan and Boyd seem like friends that just annoy each other a lot, especially during the rare occasions they team up. There is still an underlining animosity though, one that leads to some pretty dramatic confrontations in the series’ final season.
Wonder Woman vs Cheetah
With Wonder Woman 1984 coming out (whether in theatres, VOD or other means), the latest DC film is set to put a spotlight on Wonder Woman and who many consider to be her main adversary, the Cheetah. Wonder Woman and Cheetah have a long history in the Wonder Woman comics (there being three, technically four, different Cheetahs at various points) and their rivalry has only intensified with each encounter, particularly with the current iteration of Cheetah named Barbara Ann Minerva.
Barbara Ann was an archaeologist who gained a tribe’s power of a cheetah. Her feud with Wonder Woman began when she tried to steal Diana’s Lasso of Truth, but she failed to gain it, which made her obsessed with defeating Wonder Woman. The two share parallels with each other as they were both gifted by the gods with tremendous powers, but use them for very different reasons as Diana is humble and selfless while Barbara Ann is ambitious and selfish. Recent comics have reimagined their history where Diana and Barbara Ann were good friends before the latter was reluctantly turned into Cheetah, a fact Barbara Ann holds Diana partially responsible. This seems to be a strong influence in Wonder Woman 1984 as the pair have been depicted as friends before Barbara Ann grows envious of Diana and eventually turns into Cheetah as the trailers have teased.
Sisko vs Gul Dukat
When people think of rivalries in the Star Trek franchise, most go right to Captain Kirk and Khan’s iconic battle in the feature film The Wrath of Khan. However, there is another rivalry that is actually much stronger, compelling and tragic than Kirk and Khan and that is Deep Space Nine’s Commander Benjamin Sisko and Gul Dukat.
Throughout the seven seasons of DS9, Sisko and Dukat developed such an adversarial relationship that has been unlike any other in the Star Trek franchise to this day as they were on opposite sides personally, professionally and philosophically. And yet Dukat is one of the most fascinating characters in the franchise. He’s an evil man, but views himself as a misunderstood and underappreciated hero as he has a deep desire to be loved and respected by those he deems beneath him. He wants Sisko to view him as a peer rather than an enemy or at least respect him for the ‘hard’ choices he’s had to make.
There in lies one of the most tragic aspects to Gul Dukat: he’s a despicable villain who actually has several redeeming qualities. On the rare occasions he and Sisko are forced to work together, they made a fairly good team and he shared Sisko’s disgust when the Cardassian secret police overstepped their authority. Or on another occasion when Sisko discovered an ancient Bajoran spacefaring ship, Dukat actually celebrated Sisko with a display of fireworks. Even though he was still a bad man, it’s not until Dukat finally sheds his desire to be admired by his enemies that he truly embraces his evilness and accepts he and Sisko are archenemies.
James Bond vs Blofeld
Throughout James Bond’s 70+ year history, almost 60 of those being graced with big screen adventures, he has fought many villains but none as memorable as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of the evil organization SPECTRE. Unlike the majority of Bond’s enemies, Blofeld is the only one to recur through multiple James Bond films and is one of the few to have dealt him a truly personal loss, making it pretty easy to mark him as Bond’s archnemesis.
Blofeld was essentially the main villain of the early James Bond films, though he wasn’t formally introduced until You Only Live Twice. Blofeld is just as tenacious as Bond and is extraordinarily ambitious in all his schemes, from capturing spacecrafts to engineering a virus and more. But Blofeld is also remembered as the man who killed James Bond’s wife Tracey, played by the late Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. At the end of the film, less than five minutes after Bond and Tracey departed their wedding service, Blofeld and his henchwoman Irma Bunt fire upon Bond’s car, killing Tracey, leading Bond on a revenge-filled quest in Diamonds Are Forever.
It is also important to note the cultural impact Bond and Blofeld’s rivalry has had. How many archenemies in the spy genre have been built off the blueprint of Bond, Blofeld and SPECTRE? Without Blofeld we wouldn’t have Inspector Gadget’s Dr. Claw, G.I. Joe’s Cobra Commander, The Simpsons’ Hank Scorpio or Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil, the last of whom is a direct parody of Blofeld in appearance and his fondness for over-the-top lairs, plots and, of course, his cat. Much of pop culture is owed to Bond and his eternal nemesis Blofeld.
Who are some of your favourite archenemies? Are there any we missed? Let us know on our social media channels at @flickeringmyth!
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.