This should be a short enough one, because the implantation of it in some form is so obvious that is almost defies the alternative. We’ve talked about how the hero and the villain should be a contrast in some way, but in another way, in at least one way, they have to be equal:
Equal With Hero – The adversary should be, whether physically, mentally or in some other way, on a par with the hero.
This is dirt simple stuff really, and ties into the villain as a threat to the hero, as a person with capability and credibility. When the hero goes up against the villain, there has to be a sense that the villain can hold her/his own, and won’t be a complete pushover.
But it is important that it be like-for-like: if the hero if a hulking barbarian warrior, then the villain can be an evil hulking barbarian warrior, able to swing a sword or an axe just as well as the protagonist. It can be something different to the hero’s skill, but no less effective: if the hero is a guy who likes to swing his fists at his problems, then maybe the villain is a woman who has a much higher intelligence, and can use that to her advantage to avoid physical confrontations.
I say “equal”, because I am talking about parity: maybe the villain has much more aptitude at a certain thing than the hero, but there needs to be equality somewhere else. In some respect, in other words, the hero and the villain need to evenly matched.
So, the con-man scamming the old lady should really be as smart as the detective trying to stop him, or if they come to blows he should be as strong. The supervillain trying to take over the world should command the same kind of resources as James Bond will. The galactic emperor with the planet killing weapons should have the same skill with the laser sword as the plucky young protagonist trying to overthrow him. And so on and so forth.
Let’s look at a few examples.
In A New Hope, even by the end of the film, Vader is on an equal footing with Luke a few levels. They’ve both demonstrated impressive use of the Force -Vader to choke a man, Luke to hit a bullseye in exceptional circumstances – and they’ve both demonstrated that they are respectively excellent fighter pilots. Nothing major in the larger context of the film, but its enough.
In The Phantom Menace, Maul doesn’t demonstrate much in the way of equality with the heroes, save for the real sole stand-out thing about his character: his lightsaber skill. He goes toe-to-toe with Qui-Gon around the mid-point, and then later there is the famous triple-threat that also includes Obi-Wan, wherein Maul more than holds his own against two quite skilled Jedi Knights. One-on-one Maul proves superior to Qui-Gon, and it is only a somewhat contrived circumstance that allows Obi-Wan to defeat him. Maul has so little going for him in character terms, but at least that sense of threat is evident with his equally exceptional skill with lightsabers.
Silva, in Skyfall, is of course an equal of James Bond. He has all the resources of his own secret organisation at his disposal. He’s suave and charming to a certain extent. He’s isn’t unwilling or incapable of getting down to some hand-to-hand fighting if the need is there. And he’s his own kind of ladykiller. Indeed, the whole point of the character is to be a twisted sort of take on Bond himself, with the two being the “children” og M, equal, just on diverging paths.
The mostly terrible Dominic Greene has, just as in Silva’s case, the same access to resources from a large underground organisation. Where Greene is portrayed incorrectly is in his efforts to go toe-to-toe with Bond, when they are nowhere near being physically equal. This is when the checklist number is applied wrongly, in an effort to make a bad guy much more effective and threatening than he actually is.
The world of superheroes is littered with this kind of trope, especially in the first film of a serious, where the antagonists tends to be little more than a reflection of the protagonist. Take Thor and its villain Loki. Where the title character is a boorish grunt, more likely to throw his hammer around then form any kind of artful plan to enact his goals, Loki is the iconic trickster, who does things a bit more subtly, whether it is through intrigue or magic. These makes them a contrast, but where they are equals is in, somewhat surprisingly, their respective love for their father, shown in different ways, in their determination to strike at the Frost-Giants, and even in hand-to-hand as is exhibited in the finale, albeit very late. The film succeeds in making Thor and Loki out to be brothers, raised the same but following different paths.
Most of the other MCU films struggle along with this concept though, caught in a constant cycle of overly focusing on the hero in lieu of anything else. Take Yellowjacket in Ant-Man, who is essentially just the opposite of the title character, with the same powers and abilities, just he happens to be evil/crazy. Yes, they are equals, so the trope is ticked off, but it isn’t done effectively enough for the character to be improved by it. It hurts that Yellowjacket is only shown very late on in his full garb (and with the ability to use it to the extent that Scott does): there’s equality as such, but it doesn’t feel earned.
The previously mentioned Half-Life 2 is an example of this not working. Breen and Freeman are so distant from one another throughout the course of the game that it’s hard to draw any semblance of equality between them. Breen controls legions; Freeman is a lone man who eventually has a ragtag resistance following in his week. Breen starts and ends the game in a position of near Godlike power, and it is, perhaps, only at the very conclusion that Breen and Freeman reach a position of parity. It isn’t a terminal problem, but it is there.
Lastly, as is my tradition, I’ll talk about the last film I watched, or re-watched: Muppets Most Wanted, whose antagonist is the suitably named Constantine, a doppelganger for Kermit the Frog. Here, the equality is fairly obvious: there are identical frogs after all. They also both have a bit of a persuasive streak to them: Kermit in a positive “follow the leader” kind of way, and Constantine in a much more negative manipulative sense. Hey, it’s a kid’s movie. You can only analyse so much.
That does it for the relationship of the villain with the hero. Next, as we round the final turn and go into the home stretch, we have to go into the specific path of the villain within the narrative, starting with the moment that they escalate their actions.