I touched on this subject before in my lament about the forthcoming movie about Wolverine and I’m going to expand on it here. In comic books (and potentially other media; I don’t know) there are some hero/villain match-ups that are the primary conflict between that hero and villain. That is, no matter how many crossovers there are, or how big the rogue’s gallery, when asked who a hero’s nemesis is, everyone pretty much gives the same answer. For example:
Of course, in a shared universe, villains have plenty of opportunities to carry out dastardly deeds, and some villains are just so awesome writers can’t help but want to use them in stories (i.e., Dr. Doom). And, of course, good villains are for some reason more difficult to create than good heroes (or at least used to be; *sigh*). Whether or not a villain was intended as a nemesis doesn’t matter. What matters if that villain is generally (i.e., meets the target amalgam) accepted as a hero’s nemesis. With so much history associated with these conflicts, I think attempting to undo/ignore a designated nemesis results in poor storytelling (generally). This is also why I never managed to get into Arrow. There was too much Batman (except with murder) in the show, and then the writers starting using Batman villains probably because none of them knew who was Green Arrow’s nemesis (I don’t know offhand either, but I’m not a paid professional writer who should be able to spend three minutes on DC wiki and find out).
I don’t mind a villain exchange program. That can help keep stories from getting stagnant and allow writers to explore different aspects of the hero and villain as they enter into a conflict outside the norm. I do object to attempting to co-opt a designated nemesis. Not all villains, mind you, but a designated nemesis. I should also mention a hero can have more than one designated nemesis, particularly heroes that have very large rogues’ galleries. What sets a nemesis apart from just another baddie is (to me) how the much the nemesis’ character informs the hero’s character.
I realized that this will make more sense with a few examples. So I will start with the first one on the list –
Superman v Lex Luthor (corporate mogul incarnation). Superman is an alien with godly powers paradoxically raised with the more wholesome and humble rural values Americana can offer. For a hero that can lift mountains and turn back time, what kind of villain could possibly oppose him? In this case, one that is everything Superman is not. Lex Luthor is an entirely ordinary human with extraordinary ego. That is the key to the conflict and why Lex is the designated nemesis – Despite all Superman’s powers, he can’t use most of them against Lex. Superman has all the power Lex Luthor could ever want, will never have, and uses it more responsibly than 99.999999999% of humanity ever would, and Lex hates him for that.
For a more clear-cut example, let’s look at Captain America versus the Red Skull. Both patriots to their country who volunteered for a dangerous experiment to hopefully lead their country to victory in war. Of course, Steve Rogers was a wimpy, clean-cut, “aw shucks” American, and the Johann Schmidt was a mad Nazi scientist. Decades after punching out Hitler, Captain America and Red Skull are still duking it out, ideologically and physically.
For a very cerebral example, we’ll finally look at Batman and Joker. Once upon a time the Joker was just another gimmick-y thug saved from the comic scrapheap by a lazy Bob Kane being tired of coming up with new villains (or hearing his ghostwriters complain about it). Over time, the Joker has become Batman’s nemesis because he represents everything Batman is afraid he is or could become. Batman knows he’s pretty messed up. He knows there are lines he can’t cross. The Joker is the monster he could become. Law versus crime, order versus chaos.
Here is an example from Arrow – Ra’s al Ghul. The Demon’s Head is not one of the most frequently appearing villains in Batman’s rogues’ gallery, and there’s good reason for that. Some villains present the kind of threat that must be used sparingly so the threat doesn’t end up, well, less threatening. Anyway, Ra’s presents a different kind of foil for Batman. He’s a well-educated, well-connected, wealthy man who wants to free the world from the shackles of criminal activity. Sounds like these two should get along great! Ra’s is also kind of a vigilante in that he thinks the criminal justice system is broken and therefore solutions must come from outside the law. And for him, this comes through the Society of Assassins. Yeah. Obviously Batman is not on board with Ra’s ideals. So why the hell was this guy showing up in a show supposedly about Oliver Queen?
And here’s why having Sinister as the villain in the next Wolverine movie just bothers the hell out of me. Sinister is an X-men foe, to be sure, but he was first created by Chris Claremont as a way to get out the executive mess he was in by resurrecting Jean Grey. By the timed he was supposedly killed by Cyclops at the end of “Inferno,” it had been established he was a geneticist who intended to use mutants in a eugenics experiment and create a perfect, powerful being. His plan was to use Cyclops and Jean Grey, but then Jean up and got killed during that whole Phoenix/Dark Phoenix Saga, so he created a clone (don’t know how he got his hands on the DNA and reallllly don’t want to know) called Madelyne Pryor (because he’s a jerk) and then kidnap the resulting child for further experimentation. Yikes. Yes, Wolverine was there the whole time, but so was Storm and Beast and a bunch more. Over time, Sinister was proven not to be dead (duh) and continued to threaten Cyclops and Phoenix in myriad ways to try to get his super-mutant (I assume he turned to knitting or cross-stitch or something after Jean died). Point being, Sinister is no more a nemesis to Wolverine than Sabretooth is a nemesis to Cyclops.
Now, why is the important? Simple – a hero is only as good as the villain. The closer their ideologies match up or directly oppose, the more dramatic the conflict. In theory, a movie has to present the characters of hero and villain from scratch. But in an adaptation of existing media, the potential audience probably already knows a bit about the hero and villain, which means that potential audience, like me, will react to this conflict only with confusion. Confusion does not generally make for good storytelling. Adaptations need to respect the source material.