So everyone knows the story of David and Goliath, right? Little David, runt of the Isrealite army, stands up to Goliath, renowned Philistine warrior, with nothing but a sling. David proceeds to kill the overconfident Goliath and then takes his head on a Holy Land tour. It’s a pretty amazing story of bravery and works well as a parable about standing up to bullies (I imagine Biblical scholars would have a great deal more to say about what the story means, but I’m keeping it simple).To me what’s interesting about the story is that it perfectly illustrates a basic storytelling technique concerning heroes and villains: they should, ideally, be completely unevenly matched.
We typically remember three kinds of battles throughout history: the complete and utter blunders (Gettysburg, Little Big Horn), the engagements where a force was completely outnumbered, but still made a valiant effort (the Alamo, Thermopylae), and the battles in which someone came up with a strategy so clever and unexpected that it overwhelmed the opponents through sheer balls (Nazi Germany’s Blitzkrieg, Hannibal’s crossing the Pyrenees). These kinds of fights are notable because they engage us on an intellectual or emotional level and aren’t just two equal sides smashing against each other.
Our hero/villain conflicts in fiction should, ideally, be the same way. While it’s certainly fun to pit two equals against each other (every Godzilla vs Monster X movie), it’s a lot more interesting when you’ve got one side completely outgunned. The Davids of your stories have to really work to overcome the odds, through skill or smarts or whatever.
The David and Goliath match-up is a physical difference – Goliath is a powerful, seasoned soldier, David a young man who could barely be considered a squire. I’ve been reading a lot of old Captain Marvel comics from the ‘70s lately, and every other issue has noble Mar’vell of the Kree fighting some 80-foot tall science-spawned monstrosity. Sometimes, the opposite happens; Hal Jordan, as Green Lantern, is physically far superior (even without the ring) to enemy Hector Hammond, but Hammond’s mental abilities pose a huge threat. The same could be said of the Lex Luthor/Superman rivalry, or Loki’s constant attempts to conquer Asgard. The fun is in watching to see how the various parties overcome their deficiencies and exploit their enemy’s weaknesses. I’m also reminded of the classic Infinity Gauntlet moment when Captain America, his friends all dead, stands up to the near-omnipotent Thanos. Cap dies shortly thereafter, of course, but that’s not the point. Even when they fail, we get great character moments.
But there are other ways to make the sides uneven. General Zod is physically more or less a match for Superman, so any combat between them is a wash. What makes their conflict interesting is that Zod represents everything Superman stands against – he’s a fascist and megalomaniacal dictator wannabe. Zod is willing to commit casual acts of brutality that Superman never would, and in many ways that gives him a leg up. Any villain with absolutely no moral or ethical restraints is a great danger to heroes who live by any sort of lawful code. We see this a lot; often, it forces the hero (and audience) to examine their own methods and motivations, or at least to show how their way is better.
There are probably other ways to make the matches uneven, feel free to chip in.
Edit: Oh, I forgot sheer skill. Sometimes the bad guy or good guy is simply better. Kyuzo, the master swordsman of The Seven Samurai, meets no equal in battle throughout the whole film and provides a great role model for several of the other samurai. It makes his death, shot from a distance by an unseen coward, all the more tragic and heartbreaking.