The Man Vs. Man conflict manifests in the epic form of Heroes vs. Villains.
There are many ways to use Man vs. Man in your script, but a Superhero-against-Arch-nemesis provides an excellent opportunity to examine a dynamic range of possibilities in this conflict type.
The Super Villain is the crown jewel of comics storytelling.
Every great Superhero has his one true Super Villain who is the reoccurring foil in his story.
“Many villains are a caricature of a specific, exaggerated personality defect which makes them fun to write and just as fun to read.”
[ click to tweet this quote ]
Harley Quinn is the girl who falls for the wrong guy, but she’ll never see it. Magneto is the victim who cannot forgive, and his unforgiveness turns him into the abuser. Poison Ivy is lust and intoxication personified— quite literally, forbidden fruit.
There is a reason that Magneto is not Spider-Man’s greatest nemesis, and it’s the same reason you won’t find the Joker pitted against in Superman very often…
Here at Paper Wings, we’re big fans of Brian McDonald’s book Invisible Ink. McDonald talks about a concept he calls “Flip-Flops” in his book: “Flip-flops is the name that I give characters who are opposites, but exchange character traits… ”
He goes on to talk about three kinds of Flip-Flops: Clones, Opposites, and Catalysts.
Clones run parallel journeys, Opposites contrast one another, and a Catalyst character is introduced to force change in your protagonist.
These are all mirror characters—characters paired together or pitted against one another intentionally, in order to draw attention to key aspects of your hero’s journey. A mirror character does not need to be an antagonist however – this concept works just as well for supporting cast members.
But in our ongoing discussion about conflicts (vs Machine, vs Society, vs Nature) thinking about a mirror or “Flip-Flop” character can help you create conflict in your protagonist’s story without accident, conflict that directly pushes your hero on the self-discovery journey at your story’s core.
Because of the intense and exaggerated nature of heroes and villains, I want to take a look at five comic book nemeses that have endured the test of time.
Batman vs. Joker: Parallels
In many ways, Joker and Batman are at two ends of the same spectrum.
They both operate outside of the law, are violence prone, and can’t seem to quit each other.
In Christopher Nolan’s recent take (although it is also a common theme whichever interpretation of Batman you read), the conclusion is outright drawn: They created each other.
Though they share many dangerous similarities, they are radically different in key areas that highlight the core of their individual characters. There is a line that Batman has drawn that he WILL NOT cross: Batman won’t kill. The Joker is his greatest temptation and ultimate reminder of who he will be if he crosses that line.
For as much as Batman’s humanity hangs by a thread (he’s more comfortable as the bat than the man), it is his respect for life and his desire to protect it that defines him. Joker’s humanity is long gone.
Parallel antagonists can act as warnings for your hero.
We see enough of the two characters in each other to know that given the wrong choice, they could end up the same.
These are cautionary tales.
Superman vs. Lex Luthor: Opposites
Superman may be the most powerful man on earth, but he uses his powers to protect the defenseless and strive to be a shining example of good. Not only does he never use his power for personal gain, he also chose to live in secret, spending his days as the meek, dorky, forgettable Clark Kent.
Lex Luthor is a man without superpowers. But unlike Clark Kent (raised on a humble farm), he is a man of privilege and uses every advantage his sinister mind can come up with on his continual quest for power. He is out for personal gain, not caring who must suffer in the process- and will crush whomever gets in his way.
Luthor is always outsmarting Superman with ingeniously masterminded plans. Fists, X-Ray vision, super speed, heat vision, freeze breath, invulnerability- none of that seems to give Superman an edge if Luthor is always one step ahead…
Opposite antagonists can reveal the limits of your hero.
One is weak where the other is strong.
Who is your protagonist when he can no longer rely on his strengths? Force him to answer that.
Professor X vs. Magneto: The Divergent Path
Former friends and allies, Professor X and Magneto both want the same thing: the end of mutant persecution.
But they solve that problem very differently.
Professor X fights tirelessly for the hope that mutants can live with humans in peace. And though Magneto has tried both militant solutions (brotherhood of evil mutants and world domination) and isolationism (establishing a mutant utopian society in the Savage Land), he cannot bring himself to join Xavier in the hopes that humans will ever except mutants.
The divergent path adds depth to your characters, because it raises the cost of the conflict.
Because both protagonist and antagonist started out in the same place, we know, at their core, they are capable of the same things.
Which makes either character’s decent into darkness that much more tragic.
Daredevil vs. Kingpin: The Convergent Path
Matt Murdock is the law. He is a successful, trusted lawyer who represents clients in Hell’s Kitchen.
Wilson Fisk aka “The Kingpin” is the polar opposite. He is the mob boss who runs the town according to his own laws. Murdock is a man alone, Kingpin the head of a tightly knit criminal organization.
And yet the longer these two men fight one another for control of Hell’s Kitchen, the more that Daredevil begins to resemble Kingpin.
Brian Michael Bendis’s run on the series makes you sick with every bad decision Matt makes to take down Fisk until Daredevil begins to look very much like the thing that he claims to hate. And yet good luck trying to stop reading, either. Matt Murdock is still in there somewhere, under all of the loss and pain, and you’re rooting for him to find himself again.
This is the magic of the convergent path; when will your hero stop, and can he?
If he doesn’t, what will it cost?
Will there be any of himself left by the end?
Spider-Man vs. Green Goblin: The Reminder
Peter Parker, an orphan, lost not just both parents, but also his surrogate father, Uncle Ben.
And when Uncle Ben died, it was Peter’s fault.
Now twice an orphan, the brilliant young student meets Norman Osborn, a millionaire scientist sees who sees in the promising young scientist what he does not in his own son.
Norman and Peter bond, to his best friend Harry’s annoyance and Peter finds a new father figure to believe in him.
Until, of course, Peter realizes that Norman is not just a little bit crazy, but that he has also turned himself into a monster and is terrorizing the city as the ominous Green Goblin. Out of control, Green Goblin even kills Peter’s girlfriend. In their final showdown, Goblin is killed, though it wasn’t Peter’s fault.
Goblin might be dead, but he lives on in his son. (Quite literally, when Harry takes the Green Goblin mantle on himself.)
Peter cannot outrun his demons so long as Harry Osborn remains his best friend.
Is there something your protagonist wishes he could forget? Something he has done that he regrets more than anything?
“Create an antagonist who acts as a thorn in the hero’s side, a constant reminder of a past that cannot be erased.”
[ click to tweet this quote ]
This conflict will force your protagonist to stop running— one way or another.
The point is to avoid the trap of thinking of your villains merely in terms of what cool accessories you can give him or which awesome never-before-thought-of superpower he might have.
Ultimately your Man vs. Man conflict needs to act as a catalyst for your hero’s real conflict, which is always with himself.
This is your villain’s most important role.
Write a villain who adds depth to your hero’s conflict by mirroring it or contrasting it.
Set them on the same journeys, or drive them apart. Your villain should reveal a fault within your hero, and force him to change, for better or worse.
Can Batman defend Gotham City without resorting to the tactics of the criminals he is trying to stop? Or do the ends justify the means? See how this conflict has nothing to do with Joker? Joker is simply the vehicle for plot. But whether or not Batman stops the Joker isn’t nearly as engaging as whether or not Batman stops himself from crossing a line.
Whatever you chose do, make sure it always drives back to that ultimate Man vs. Self conflict which is at the heart of every great story.
Comment and Share:
Superheroes and Super Villains offer an exaggerated look into the Man vs. Man conflict.
But how do you think this conflict type can be used more subtlety and sophisticatedly in the stories you are telling?