The hero may have saved the day this time, but the constant battle with their arch-nemesis rages ever onward.
The hero-villain pairing resulting in an arch-nemesis duo is a tried and true fictional trope, offering viewers a sense of security in knowing who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, and who will eventually come out on top.
What is an Arch Nemesis?
An arch nemesis is a constant foil. It’s someone who’s always out to thwart our hero. Though we most commonly think of an arch nemesis as an arch enemy in a hero/villain scenario, there are a few examples where the arch nemesis serves as a mirror to our main character or an obstacle to a side quest.
The arch nemesis duo usually follows the good guy vs bad guy storyline, but it doesn’t have to. Examples abound where the arch enemy is a friend turned enemy, a family member, a rival for a romantic partner, or a frenemy.
The Best Arch Nemesis Stories in Fiction
Here are the twenty best arch-nemesis pairs in fiction. The only rule to these pairings is they have to be individuals, so things like G.I Joe vs. Cobra or the Rebels vs. the Dark Side wouldn’t count as arch nemesis pairings, and they have to be regularly occurring foils.
With those fundamental rules in mind, here are the best arch-nemesis pairs in fiction.
Batman and Joker
Batman and the Joker showcase one of fiction’s most popular arch-nemesis pairs. The chaotic evil Joker taunts Batman with his pandemonium, compelling our hero to break laws in pursuit of the ultimate villain. Though Batman usually saves the day, the Joker always escapes to wreak havoc another day.
Superman and Lex Luther
The quintessential lawful hero, Superman, constantly thwarts Lex Luther’s evil plans for world domination. Luther wants to control the world, and Superman, with his strong morality and adherence to humanity’s law, is the only one who can stop him.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde make a compelling arch-nemesis duo because they’re the same person. Dr. Jekyll attempts to hide his dark side, but he’ll never be able to defeat it. The story shows us that sometimes we’re our own worst arch enemy.
Professor X and Magneto
Professor X and Magneto showcase the “friends to enemies” trope commonly found in the arch nemesis pairings. The pair share a common past and a deep bond, but their different approaches to living with humans thrust them to opposite sides of the battlefield.
The Master and Doctor Who
All powerful time lords can either assist humanity or rule over it with an iron fist. The Master’s endless quest for power has him seeking the former, while the Doctor works to subvert his ambitions.
The Doctor and the Master showcase a second example of the friends turned mortal enemies trope, as the childhood friends drifted apart to opposite ends of the good vs evil alignment.
Wonder Woman and Cheetah
Throughout the ages, Wonder Woman’s arch nemesis morphed from an insecure debutante jealous of Wonder Woman’s ability to a powerful villain on a mission from her own evil gods. Cheetah’s lust for power and riches seems insatiable, as she constantly attempts to steal valuable items, including Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth.
He-Man and Skeletor
Children’s cartoons simplify arch nemesis pairs. He-Man is always noble and true, while Skeletor epitomizes evil in every sense of the word. Everything from their character designs to their actions showcases their morality.
Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty
The clever detective meets his match in the criminal mastermind Moriarty. The two play an endless game of cat and mouse as Moriarty helps criminals evade Holme’s grasp.
Peter Pan and Captain Hook
Peter Pan and Captain Hook represent the endless struggle of youth vs aging. The forever child acts as a constant foil to the grave Captain, who has an irrational hatred for all the innocence and joy of childhood.
Robin Hood and The Sherrif of Nottingham
Robin Hood embodies the spirit of chaotic good. His constant lawlessness stands at odds against the gruff Sherrif, but his ultimate goal is to help the people fight against a corrupt, unjust government, which the Sherrif gleefully takes part in.
King Arthur and Sir Lancelot
King Arthur and Sir Lancelot showcase an arch-nemesis duo that fights on the same side. The two Knights of the Round Table seek to find the grail and protect their country, yet they’re thrust against each other in a personal battle over the woman they both love.
Hans Gruber and John McLane
Though Hans Gruber only appeared in the first Die Hard film, he’s such an iconic villain and great foil to hero John McLane that he deserves the distinction of arch-nemesis. The match-up was so compelling that the franchise’s third film introduced Hans’ brother as the primary villain, solidifying the Gruber family as Mclane’s biggest threat.
Mario and Bowser
One of the most famous video game arch nemesis pairs features a plumber who must constantly rescue the princess from the evil King Koopa’s nefarious grasp. We never learn why Bowser wants the princess, but Mario always comes to her aid.
Thor and Loki
Thor and Loki represent the constant challenge of loving and competing with family. In Norse mythology, Loki is Thor’s adopted uncle due to a blood bond with Thor’s father, Odin. Modern stories showcase the two with varying family ties, sometimes brothers, sometimes cousins.
Despite their blood bond, Thor and Loki appear in constant competition with one another. Their constant bickering, oneupmanship, and infighting are continual threads in Norse Mythology, which carry on to modern fictional works featuring the duo.
James Bond and Ernst Stravo Blofeld
The suave MI6 agent works undercover to thwart Blofeld’s aspirations for world domination. Blofeld leads the criminal organization SPECTRE, which constantly comes up with new and horrific plans to take over the world, with Blofeld at the helm, of course.
Dr. Evil and Austin Powers
Dr. Evil and Austin Powers mock the James Bond evil villain trope. The two reflect Bond and Blofeld but take their characters to outrageous heights for comedic effect.
Link and Ganon
Another popular video game rivalry has the Hero of Light in an endless battle against the darkness, represented by Ganon. Ganon won’t stop until the entire world of Hyrule is under his evil thumb, but Link is always there to save the day.
Optimus Prime and Megatron
The ruler of the noble Autobots is in constant rivalry with the leaders of the Decepticons. Megatron and his faction want to rule their home planet, Cybertron, with an iron fist, while Optimus Prime hopes for an egalitarian utopia. The rivalry destroyed the home planet, bringing the battle to Earth.
Bart Simpson and Side Show Bob
Though not a main character, Side Show Bob often appears in the long-running cartoon to settle a score with Bart. Side Show Bob’s obsession with destroying Bart began after Bart foiled his first evil plan, where he framed Krusty the Clown to take over his children’s show.
Nearly every season features an episode where Side Show Bob escapes jail and attempts to kill Bart until he finally realizes the error of his ways and saves Bart from his evil brother.
Poseidon and Odysseus
Odysseus, a mere mortal, angered a God, becoming the arch-enemy of the ocean deity. Poseidon punished Odysseus for twenty long years, using the seas to thwart his journey home.
Although Odysseus’s initial insult was blinding Poseidon’s son, his arrogance about the act really set Poseidon off. The story warns against human hubris, showing how pride earns the wrath of the gods.
Agent Smith and Neo
Agent Smith wants to keep humanity trapped in the Matrix, while Neo intends to free them. Agent Smith is the personification of the system, a façade of life that seems real but is an illusion designed to keep folks trapped. Neo represents the chaotic neutral reality, which is hard and painful but offers something the computers can never replicate: true liberty.
Seinfeld and Newman
Seinfeld and Newman showcase that arch nemesis don’t have to be heroes and villains. Seinfeld and Newman are ordinary people who just can’t stand each other. They go out of their way to thwart the other for no other reason than the joy of seeing the other suffer.
Spike and Angel
Spike and Angel often fight on the same side, but their relationship highlights the complexity of arch-nemesis duos. Angel constantly tries to upstage Spike and show he’s the better man (or vampire), whether they’re both evil or both good. Spike takes immense joy in nitpicking Angel and subverting his plans. But when it comes time to fight, the two put aside their differences for the greater good.
Why Do People Love the Arch Nemesis Trope?
We find the arch-enemy trope in stories from the beginning of humanity through to modern cinema. Modern psychology helps us understand why the idea of an arch nemesis resonates so strongly.
Dr. Alejandro Alva, Psychiatrist and Medical Director of the Mental Health Center of San Diego says the allure speaks volumes about our innate attraction to narratives of conflict and resolution.
“This trope effectively mirrors our own personal struggles, albeit on a grand, often fantastical scale, offering a compelling exploration of good versus evil and the nuanced battles in between,” he says.
He likens the trope to the psychological concept of projection, where people project their fears, hopes, and inner conflicts onto external entities.
“The hero and their arch-nemesis often symbolize different aspects of our own selves,” he explains. “The villain embodies our fears, the darker parts of our nature, and the challenges we face in life. The hero’s struggle against this adversary reflects our own inner battles to overcome personal limitations and societal constraints.”
The Shadow Self
Jennifer Worley, LMFT and Clinical Director at First Light Recovery, thinks the arch trope resonates because it highlights the shadow self, which she says “encompasses the parts of our psyche that we often try to hide or suppress. The arch-nemesis often personifies the traits or choices the hero is struggling against, acting as a mirror to their own flaws or fears. This makes the story relatable, as everyone grapples with their inner demons.”
She adds that the stories reflect our internal moral battles and personal development journey in a simplified narrative format.
Dr. Alva agrees with the connection to the shadow self, saying, “The ongoing struggle between the hero and their arch-nemesis symbolizes the journey of self-discovery and the confrontation with one’s shadow.”
A Reflection of Life’s Challenges
The ongoing battle between hero and arch-nemesis, good and evil, also symbolizes the constant struggles inherent in life.
Worley says, “Just like these fictional characters, we face a series of obstacles in our own lives, and overcoming one challenge often leads to another. These narratives offer a reflection of our own struggles for self-improvement and dealing with personal and societal issues.”
Additionally, these stories provide a safe space to explore complex emotions and moral dilemmas. They allow us to experience and process feelings like fear, anger, and ethical uncertainty in a clear, often cathartic way.
Part of Development
Though the arch-enemy trope exists in all types of fictional tales, it’s found in its simplest form in children’s cartoons and stories.
Raymond Batista, LCSW and founder of Raymond Batista Psychotherapy explains why the theme seems so common in children’s tales.
“I think the arch enemy trope is so powerful and prevalent because, as part of the developmental process, children need to feel like they can go from a place of feeling powerless and dependent (which we are as infants) to a place of agency and autonomy,” he says, adding “That’s why we see children often fantasize about being superheroes and overcoming powerful obstacles (like jumping over the “lava” on the floor).”
He says the trope remains powerful as we get older. “Even as adolescents, we spend so much time trying to make our individuality stand out from our families of origin. It’s probably why the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer was popular for our millennial generation: the metaphor of high school as hell and coming of age as slaying monsters resonates for many of us who wanted to find our power and sense of belonging (the slayer only making it through because her friends) during an overwhelming period of time.”
Dr. Alva says that, ultimately, these stories offer a sense of catharsis. “They allow us to vicariously experience and process a range of emotions — from anger and fear to joy and relief — in a controlled and safe environment. This is not just entertaining but can be psychologically therapeutic, helping us to understand and manage our emotions better.”
Arch Enemies Offer Fans of All Ages Compelling Stories
A fun aspect of the arch-nemesis trope is how it morphs in varying stories as we age. Children see simplified examples of good vs. evil in He-Man vs. Skeletor, while adults enjoy complex narratives where friends like Angel and Spike act as arch enemies or good guys fight on the same side but become rivals in matters of love.
As with real life, true arch-nemesis pairs are far more complex than hero vs. villain. They showcase that the scale between good and evil is a spectrum, and although the line may seem blurry, we have ultimate control over which side we choose.
This article originally appeared on Wealth of Geeks.