Threat vs. Hero – Scale of Power
My biggest qualm with DC heroes is their sheer power. Their top members are indomitable, possessing such a wide array of abilities or a power that proves to have so many applications that they seemingly have no limit. To create a threat that makes for an interesting story you have to meet power with power, or approached from an angle it cannot prepare for. Where Marvel tells stories of people warring against one another, DC tells stories of giants in a playground. Spider-Man has Doctor Octopus, Superman fights Doomsday.
Rock vs Rock
Hulk vs. Abomination, Green Lantern vs. Sinestro, Skywalker vs. Skywalker, the dark reflection of the hero possessing greater power, but undermined by a fatal flaw. Most villains represent some more unpleasant facet of the hero that they struggle to face, in the examples above, Abomination embraces the monster that Bruce Banner rejects, Sinestro is the fear that lurks in the heart of every Lantern that they refuse to face, and Luke is only ever a few short steps away from where his father stands.
Two combatants who are matched evenly to a stalemate not only lead to intense fights, they can also lead to a great deal of introspection on the part of the hero, leading them to great personal discovery and the search for something greater within themselves, some deeper reservoir of strength or the shedding of some weakness that has held them back. So far as character development goes they are tremendous stories of introspection, and they can make a stalemate situation into something visually and narratively stunning.
Rock vs. Scissors
Luthor and Superman, Strange and Dormamu, Unbreakable and Glass, different, opposite, but equal, yin to their nemeses yang. Luthor is the struggle of man against the godlike man of steel, using despicable tactics, superior technology, and vast resources to fight as a mortal against someone with speed and strength beyond any mortal. Dr. Strange is a broken man who has only ever acted in self interest, but joins a fight that is not his own using powers that he has only begun to understand and uses them to turn back the angry hand of a god. Elijah Price is a man so fragile in form that he’s driven to destroy and burn without regard to find someone strong.
Guile vs. strength is an age old story, certainly David and Goliath is no underdog story, it’s brain against brawn, it requires incredible intellect to level incredible strength, and it is the scope of a plan that must match the scale of the opponents power.
How Magic: The Gathering Does Size
The guys over at Magic’s story department are amongst the best at weighing powers against one another, impressive considering the medium they tell their stories through, but I also encourage reading some of their associated prose. Their protagonists, the Planeswalkers are people of incredible power that walk between dimensions, conjuring immense monsters and wielding them as weapons, but they war against unimaginable horror.
An indestructible soldier, a psychic mastermind, a pyromancer with the power to conjure the heat of a sun, and a druid who could put reigns on a mountain and ride it could not surmount the powers of the Eldrazi overlord Emrakul. All were driven mad by its influence, but by enlisting the necromancer, Liliana Vess, and a powerful scholar, Tamiyo, they sealed it away.
They in turn were brought low again by the machinations of a masterful dragon, Nicol Bolas, and now join forces with Karn, a machine born of the souls of other planeswalkers in an effort to destroy Yawgmoth. The scope of power in all of these beings dwarfs the worlds they fight over, and they need set no limits. The stories do not explore the human psyche so deeply as comics or film, but when balance is an important component of the game you write for, balance becomes a critical factor of the opposing sides.
If I may borrow for a moment from their own lore:
The merfolk Kiora, came here from a world whose existence was threatened by something called the Eldrazi. They are vast and terrible, the equal of any god. And they eat worlds, My Oracle. Strip the flesh from the bones of the earth and leave a dead husk, moving on to the next.
The leonin Ajani has faced an immensely powerful foe, a fellow world-walker and a dragon. He is unfathomably ancient, even to me. He seeks infinite power and immortal life. His plots span worlds and centuries, and he will spare nothing and no one who stands in his way.
And the human Elspeth…she came here from a place called Phyrexia, an entire world of flayed skin and twisted metal, ruled over by vicious, monstrous beings who style themselves gods. It is an affront to nature, a dark parody of life that corrupts all it touches and touches everything in time. And it has already made its way from one world to others.
If any of these things come here, to our world, he said, even the gods may be powerless to stop them. And all your prayers, all your pleas, will fall on the deaf ears of a silent sky as this world is rent asunder or remade or worse.
That is what I fear, My Oracle. That is what troubles the mind of a god. Theros is a minnow swimming in a deep, still pond, heedless of the depths, not knowing that something bigger rises up to devour it in an instant.
Considering how your opposing forces compare in terms of capability can prevent stories from appearing as foregone conclusions, and evenly matched enemies can often be of greater interest than underdog tales. These stories can range from the street-level grudge match to interdimensional scheming, so long as each side is capable of similar scales of power.