What would Holmes be without Moriarty, Batman without the Joker and Jai and Veeru without Gabbar?
You can probably see where I’m going with this. How memorable can a character be if he doesn’t have a foil? The thought sprung from a recent remembrance by the retired American spy Milton Bearden in Foreign Policy magazine’s website.
The piece is an appreciation of his Soviet counterpart, Leonid Shebarshin, who killed himself in March. Bearden writes:
His death marks the end of an era, the passing of one of the most thoughtful, cultured, and effective leaders of the redoubtable Cold War KGB. He was a master spy, a central figure in the tumultuous half-century contest between the CIA and the KGB, and a true believer in the Soviet dream until the very end. He never wavered; he never apologized.
For much of the last decade of my CIA career, Shebarshin was the closest thing I had to a main adversary in the Soviet spy apparatus. (For you John le Carré fans out there, he was my Karla.) I met him only after we had retired, when our respective organizations were still trying to sort out all the body blows of treachery and betrayal we had taken in those last desperate years of Cold War rivalry.
In other words, could the CIA been what it was had it not been for the KGB goading it, pushing it, prodding in a decades-long game of chess across the sixty-four black and white squares on the map of the world. This has certainly been a theme in fiction, and an obvious parallel is the one Bearden himself mentions: Smiley and Karla.
The two men’s destinies are so interlinked that Karla keeps Smiley’s lighter given to him during their first meeting in New Delhi. And, when Smiley becomes chief, he keeps a photograph of his rival on the wall. Each man knows — in the case of Smiley discovers later — what his rival’s weakness is (one’s wife, another’s daughter), and seeks to exploit it for a triumph. But each also possesses a degree of respect that’s evident in the three main novels where they play off each other.
This respect and mutual antagonism is also evident in the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty.
In the story the Final Problem, which Arthur Conan Doyle wrote ostensibly to kill off his hero, Holmes calls Moriarty “the Napoleon of Crime” (a title he shares with Macavity), and tells Watson:
You know my powers, my dear Watson, and yet at the end of three months I was forced to confess that I had at last met an antagonist who was my intellectual equal.
And while Moriarty appears in few Holmes stories and may have been created with the express intention of killing of the detective, his appearance in subsequent movies and pop culture make them an inseparable pairing. I would go as far as to say that while Watson serves as Holmes’ sounding board, the professor is what makes Holmes think.
So, in the best cases, the hero and the villain, at least a good, complex villain, are intellectual equals. That’s more than can be said about a detective’s relationship with his sidekick or any one of his romantic partners.
As the Joker tells Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight (and as any fictional hero or villain may tell his rival), “You complete me.”