Good vs. Evil! Heroes vs. Villains! Right vs. Wrong!
These timeless themes have been instrumental to the portrayal of conflict within a story. However, what is it exactly about these notions that interest us so much? Have you ever considered why these conflicts are so captivating? And more importantly, is the concept of a rivalry more complicated than we are led to believe? Fiction is filled with fantastic examples of great rivals, arch nemeses and mortal enemies. Most of the time, they are used to personify the struggle of Good vs. Evil. This approach is fantastic in helping the audience decide who to root for. Upon close inspection however, it isn’t always that simple.
Let’s start this topic by examining a fantastic rivalry from the beloved franchise, Transformers! Optimus Prime is the brave, noble and inspirational leader of the Autobots. He finds his opposite in Megatron, the maniacal, cunning and fearsome ruler of the Decepticons. While the Autobots and Decepticons are locked in eons of battle across a galactic stage (with each faction boasting interesting and colourful characters), the pivotal struggle of the series is the rivalry between Optimus Prime and Megatron. In their fictional universe, they are the pinnacle of Good and Evil. As noted by Optimus himself during the ‘Transformers: Cybertron’ series: “We’re like two sides of the same coin, forever connected!” For the best part of 35 years, this duo has appeared in multiple incarnations, cartoon or live action, battling it out to decide the fate of the universe. And yet, there seems to be an even greater battle at stake. A battle to decide which one of them is right! When the Transformers’ cartoons and comic books delve into these characters’ backstories, we are often shown that not only was Megatron not a cruel dictator in his earlier years, he was also a friend to Optimus Prime. They bonded through their vision of a greater Cybertron. What eventually led to the dissolution of their friendship were the methods they took to achieve their vision. Megatron believed in brute force, while Optimus preferred a more diplomatic approach. Ultimately, their long standing rivalry boils down to a battle of wills, an endless clash of ideologies.
This phenomenon can be seen in another iconic rivalry: Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto from the X-Men Franchise. As mutants, they wish to be seen as equal to humans but whereas Magneto employs a more militant methodology, Professor X truly believes that peace and understanding is the better way to coexist with mankind. While their loyal followers engage in most of the physical conflict, Professor X and Magneto stand at the ready, time and time again, to verbally defend their own ideologies to each other. The respect between them runs deep and they would like nothing more than to have the other on their side. This adds such a fascinating layer to their rivalry and keeps them from being two-dimensional. When creating these two characters, Stan Lee took inspiration from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, two pivotal figures in the Civil Rights Movement that was occurring at the time. This reinforces the bittersweet nature that rivalries can take, as well as the feelings they stir up in those who witness them.
Comic book rivalries in general serve as great insight into what makes a character tick and none more so than the rivalry between Batman and The Joker. While Batman represents a sense of hope and order to a lawless Gotham, The Joker is the personification of chaos itself. Michael Caine’s portrayal of Alfred in the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy summed it up perfectly when, upon discussing The Joker, he said "Some men just want to watch the world burn!" The Joker cares little for money and status, except for when it serves his ultimate goal of spreading madness wherever he can. What makes him stand out from Batman’s other villains, is that there is almost no way of reasoning with him. Poison Ivy can sometimes be talked down if nature can be assisted, Mr Freeze simply wants to help his wife and Two Face’s split personality means there is a part of him that can be reached. But The Joker mainly appears to have no discernible motive, no line to keep him tethered and no sense of decency to keep him in check. This rivalry is so interesting because Batman finds himself tested, time and time again, to prove that there is always another way, that killing The Joker or anyone should not be the answer, and that Batman isn’t one bad day away from being the villain himself. The Joker on the other hand, is spurred on to do anything to make Batman suffer, to break him psychologically in ways that others simply can’t. That alone is enough reason for him to continue.
I would be remiss to discuss rivalries without delving into the realm of anime, for it is such a beloved trope within the medium. Dragon Ball Z is an extremely popular anime, arguably one of the most popular of all time. The main character Goku develops a very intense rivalry with Vegeta, who initially starts out as a villain, transitions to an ally and eventually accepts the role of friend. Their rivalry stems from the fact that they are both Saiyans, members of a proud warrior race who live to fight. Being a Prince, Vegeta cannot stomach the fact that Goku, a low class warrior, is actually powerful enough to be considered his equal. Even when the two are forced to work together, Vegeta’s pride insists that he proves to be better than Goku at any given opportunity. Goku on the other hand, only bears ill will towards Vegeta when he threatens the lives of innocents. Apart from that, he simply enjoys fighting Vegeta for the thrill of the fight and the opportunity to become even stronger. Their rivalry holds our interest as we get to see two amazing characters push each other to new heights, despite how far they have already come. When it comes down to the two of them, concepts like Good and Evil simply fade away. There is nothing in their minds but the fight itself, the eternal burning desire to prove their worth and emerge victorious. And yet, such a simple concept reveals so much about them. Their drive to be better for the sake of being better is a testament to how incredibly strong-willed they are. An extra complexity to this is that it also proves to be a character flaw as well. Their desire to fight and grow stronger often affects their personal relationships with others. Vegeta even allowed his mind to be temporarily enslaved by an evil magician, all so that he could achieve an extra power boost. In short, the rivalry between Goku and Vegeta serves as inspiration for us to do better, while also teaching us the dangers of obsession and short-sightedness.
Many people often say that a hero is only as good as their villain, and I think that perfectly encapsulates the point of a rivalry. When we join the hero on their journey throughout a story, their development is very key to our enjoyment. The inclusion of a rival, someone who is not only a physical challenge but a challenge to their moral fibre itself, adds so much depth to their character and provides them with a chance to grow. Seeing the twisted mirror of our protagonist makes us appreciate who they are even more. It is also serves as a warning to the hero by showing them how they could end up if they don’t keep themselves in check.