The Anti-Love: 10 Great Fictional Nemeses
All we hear about in February is love love love! Well, humbug! Let’s talk about the anti-love, aka great nemesis pairings in media!
Let’s be clear from go, this is not a “best of” list, which would be basically impossible. Even if I had read more widely (or more deeply, or both) it would be an impossible list to get right, even allowing for differing opinions, so instead I’m just going to talk about some of my favorites and what’s so great about each of them and how they bring something interesting to the “nemesis conversation” (that’s a thing I just made up). I’m also going to pull from more than just literature because there’s just so much good fun stuff out there and because I wanted to talk about different types of Nemesis relationships (translation: I had no interest in writing this piece without including The Monarch and Dr. Venture!)
Beware of spoilers!
DR. VENTURE/THE MONARCH: THE ONE-SIDED NEMESIS
One of the best things about The Monarch and Dr. Venture’s relationship (and there are many) is that Dr. Venture is totally uninterested in having a nemesis and The Monarch is obsessed with it. It’s one of the most one-sided arch enemy pairings of all time, and of course it is, because this is The Venture Bros. The Monarch is SO obsessed with this imagined rivalry that he was actually illegally “arching” Dr. Venture for years. It wasn’t his job, it was his mission, and in lieu of all other things that he could and should have been doing. When the Guild of Calamitous Intent found out he was arching Dr. Venture illegally, they barred him from being Venture’s nemesis and assigned him to arch another “hero.” Without Venture to arch, The Monarch fell into a massive depression. Why are they enemies? Who knows? Who cares? These things matter not. The Monarch was somewhat consoled later when he was granted permission to arch Dr. Venture’s brother, but it’s still not the same and he’ll stop at nothing until they’re arch enemies again…or at least until he’s allowed to take up his one-sided crusade once again.
BATMAN/RA’S AL GHUL: THE SUPER DETECTIVE NEMESIS
A lot of people will tell you that The Joker is Batman’s nemesis and those people are… not really wrong. The Joker is in many ways a more famous nemesis for Batman, and I dig The Joker, but as much as I love superheroes (and that is a lot) my favorite parts of Batman are the detective parts. And Ra’s Al Ghul is the less-superhero-y and more detective-y nemesis for Batman. Hell, he even calls him Detective, not Batman. Also, while The Joker is often scary, sometimes he’s cartoonish and hard to take seriously. But Ra’s Al Ghul is never hard to take seriously. He’s extremely dangerous, extremely smart, and he often presents a challenge less garish and more insidious than most of Batman’s more colorful villains. Ra’s comes back again and again (thanks Lazarus pit!) and he’s done an excellent job of weaving himself into every piece of Bruce Wayne/Batman’s life. Ra’s daughter is even a onetime paramour of Batman’s, and Batman’s only son (Damian Wayne) is Ra’s grandson…diabolical!
ALFRED BORDEN/RUPERT ANGIER: THE ‘THIS RUINED OUR LIVES AND NOBODY EVEN HAD A GOOD TIME’ NEMESIS
There are some really elegant solutions and modifications in Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige that make me sort of just want to get hip deep into talking book vs. film on this one, but we’ll stick to talking about Borden vs. Angier. These two men are such fantastic nemeses in part because they have the pettiest and most worthless rivalry ever, which feels painfully true to reality. Two rival magicians (Alfred Borden aka Le Professeur de Magie and Rupert Angier aka The Great Danton) double down on what basically amounts to a misunderstanding, an insult, and some good old fashioned envy to make everyone freaking miserable, including themselves. They take their magician rivalry to its most extreme levels, and what begins as pranks and sabotage ends up ruining not only their lives but the lives of future generations. But what’s more relatable and real than that? Good old fashioned envy ruins lives every day. Pride, hate, lust, greed, envy—these are some of the most quintessential building blocks of what makes us all awful (and also interesting, let’s face it). Perhaps the genius of Priest’s Borden and Angier nemesis pairing is that neither of them ever really enjoys themselves. They waste their lives trying to get a leg up on the other, spinning themselves into a pointless ouroboros of which neither can escape and which defines them more than anything else they might have done with their lives. Truly tragic.
LT. ELLEN RIPLEY/THE ALIEN(S): THE ‘THIS IS YOUR LIFE FROM HERE ON OUT’ NEMESIS
Poor Ellen Ripley just wanted to be a badass space pilot. Instead she got caught up with an Alien that put her on the path of ultimate destiny—that of being the only brilliant badass capable of killing this alien race every time they raised their heads. Destined to not only kill the alien(s) at every turn, but more importantly actually managing to live through repeated encounters with them, Ripley becomes enmeshed in this lifelong battle, destined to never escape it. Ripley manages pretty much everything she tries with ease—piloting space ships, driving loaders, military strategy, shutting down corporate BS in conference rooms, you know, whatever!—but what she excels at and what nobody else can do like she can is KILL ALIENS. The Alien may or may not be aware of Ripley as its arch enemy, the movies don’t spend a lot of time with the alien’s POV, but if it IS self aware (and maybe even has a hive mind!) then it’s certainly learned by now that it should fear Ellen Ripley above all things in any universe. At the same time, if you’ve seen Alien 4 (Alien Resurrection) you know that both Ripley and the Alien should really come to fear The Company/Weyland Industries/The Weyland-Utani Corporation above all others. And isn’t that always the way? Corporations are mad scary, kids.
PROFESSOR X/MAGNETO: THE BFF NEMESIS
Ah, one of my favorite type of nemeses, the "we used to be best friends" arch nemesis! Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr were great friends as young men that had a great deal of respect for one another and shared many philosophical ideals, but they had some key differences in philosophy that became more impossible to ignore as time passed. Xavier believed that mutants and humans could eventually live in peace and that the goal of equality and acceptance was paramount while Lehnsherr believed that mutants (or homo superior to homo sapien) were naturally superior and thus humans would never allow them to live and thrive in the world, either simply because they were different or because they feared being ruled by them (or both). Both men came to these beliefs for many reasons, including their own personal experiences—Xavier had lead a mostly privileged life, though not one without trauma and tragedy, while Lehnsherr was a Jew that lost everything to Nazis and learned all the lessons he needed to in that tragic experience. The differences in their beliefs lead the two men to become eventual enemies facing off over and over again throughout the years as Professor Xavier, leader and creator of the X-Men, and Magneto, one of the most feared supervillains of all time. Their original friendship, and the complex deeply seated emotional reasons they each have for their beliefs make this a particularly strong and rather symbiotic relationship. Magneto changes his spots from time to time and works the side of the angels, wanting and sometimes NEEDING to believe in Xavier’s dream, but he usually reverts to type, making the arch enemy nature of their relationship all the more bittersweet.
KATNISS EVERDEEN/PRESIDENT SNOW/THE CAPITOL: THE PLACEHOLDER NEMESIS
Early on, it’s easy to pinpoint Katniss’s arch nemesis (well, if you don’t include Katniss as her own worst enemy, but aren’t we all our own worst enemies, really?) as the diabolical President Snow. Sure, there’s little direct contact between the two in the entire first book and the Peacemakers, the Gamemasters, and Seneca Crane especially are more direct enemies to Katniss, but we all know it’s President Snow behind the curtain pulling the strings. However one of the best things Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy does is eventually show that President Snow is just a placeholder of a villain for The Capitol, and that even The Capitol is just a placeholder for any kind of authority, as evidenced when Katniss opts to kill President Coin, the new authority at the end of Mockingjay, instead of President Snow, when given the opportunity. Katniss’s real nemesis is Authority. And Authority certainly considers Katniss a worthy adversary. President Snow and even The Capitol are just placeholders for a larger problem, a villainy that has no distinct face and can infect anyone. No wonder the girl is traumatized, it’s hard to fight something as broad as authority.
HARRY POTTER/VOLDEMORT: THE ‘YOU COMPLETE ME’ NEMESIS
Love it or hate it, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has one of the most masterful and logical arch enemy pairings around, even with all the magic flying about. As Rowling’s epic barrels forward, why on earth a masterfully powerful evil like Voldemort would care about a young, not particularly powerful boy becomes powerfully clear. And it’s not just because it’s convenient for Rowling to give Potter a powerful enemy to frame and define the challenges and mysteries of his young life. Instead Voldemort and Harry are inextricably bound together due to the event that killed Harry’s parents and almost killed Voldemort (and Harry). Though Harry fights a lot of fascinating lower level evil over the years, and defeats them all as only “the boy who lived” could, it’s always the literal connection between Voldemort and Harry that drags them together, and that threatens the world. The fact that Harry has to kill himself in order to ensure that all of Voldemort is also dead forever is just one of those masterful moments that—if you’ve done your job right as a writer—your reader’s will realize (with a fair amount of pain) is the only way things could have gone. In the meantime, it’s the kind of arch enemy relationship that drags the world into a war, and in fact defines the very future of the world. Good stuff!
SUPERMAN/LEX LUTHOR: THE ‘I COULD EASILY KILL YOU BUT I DON’T’ NEMESIS
The most interesting thing to me about the Superman/Lex Luthor arch rivalry is also the thing that most frequently annoys me. And that is the fact that Superman is, well, Superman, and Lex Luthor, no matter how smart and powerful, is still just a human dude named Lex Luthor who could easily be killed by Superman at any moment. When you talk about Xavier and Magneto you’re talking about two characters with massive and impressive superpowers that are well-matched. When you talk about Batman and Ra’s Al Ghul you’re talking about two incredibly gifted and well-trained brilliant human men. Nobody can burn the other to cinders with heat vision, like say, Superman can with Luthor. In the case of Superman vs. Luthor it’s just not even a contest. And that’s not to undermine Luthor, who is a pretty incredible character and a dude with a massive number of plans and legit surprises up his sleeve. What makes this pairing work for the most part (read: except when I’m feeling super grouchy) is that it’s really only Superman’s goodness that keeps him from murdering Luthor in cold blood. But honestly, this remains a least favorite pairing of mine because I don’t find there to be anything particularly “good” about not murdering Luthor if it means he can go on to wreak havoc and murder others. In other words, I’m team Wonder Woman breaking Max Lord’s neck. But we won’t get into that here.
BUFFY/THE FIRST EVIL: THE ULTIMATE BIG BAD NEMESIS*
While it’s fun to think of Faith as potentially being Buffy’s arch rival—cause who doesn’t love two superpowered ladies beating the crap out of one another?—the truth is, the pairing is just not long lasting enough, or world-ending enough to rate. They eventually bury the hatchet (not literally, fortunately) and become pals, which is also super fun. Frenemies are a whole different article though. So who is Buffy’s ultimate nemesis? Well, though it doesn’t technically appear until Season 3 of her life, The First Evil aka The First is sort of the ultimate bad guy. And in a way you can trace all of the lower level evils from the smallest henchmen to the biggest bads all the way back to The First. The First Evil is exactly that, it’s the first evil that ever was. It claims it was there in the beginning and it will be there in the end. In this way, even though Buffy seriously hands it its ass in the series finale in Season 7, she can never really win. And what’s a better nemesis than something that cannot ever be defeated because it will always exist in the evil hearts of men…and vampires…and all sorts of scary stuff?
*It's worth noting that it's hard to find a picture of "the first evil" which is a nameless bodiless entity. In BTVS The First takes the form of any dead person (which is sort of terrifying actually), so I picked one of the avatars it prefers — preacher Caleb, played by Nathan Fillion.
SEINFELD/NEWMAN: THE WORKING MAN’S NEMESIS
But let’s end on an up note! Few of us are likely to ever face a Voldemort or First Evil in our lives (maybe we’ll face The Weyland-Utani Corporation though!). And to be honest, having a nemesis is kind of exhausting. Most of us have day jobs. We don't have time for full on arching. Most of us are more likely to face something like the highly relatable Seinfeld vs Newman arch rivalry. Who among us hasn’t hated someone for petty reasons—or no reason at all? Seinfeld vs Newman is never really explained, which is part of the beauty. Do you even remember why you started arching your most hated nemesis? Yeah, me neither.
Wait, I’m lying. I totally remember why.
But that’s me. I hold a grudge like it’s my superpower. Hopefully most of you are better than me and gifted with Newman-like rivalries which you don’t let consume you, and instead you just suffer natural—but not cataclysmic, career ending, or world ending—rivalries. And if we’re all very lucky, sometimes we even get an awesome team-up with our nemesis to deliver in the mail in the hopes that he can move very far away and never be heard from again.
What about you? Who are some of your favorite arch nemesis pairings? I'm aware, after writing this whole big piece that it's frustratingly white — I don't know if that speaks just to my own failings in what I'm absorbing, or a larger problem about good ongoing/legacy representation in media — probably both. Regardless, bonus points for suggesting great non-white nemesis relationships so I can expand and deepen my reading and viewing!
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