My dad liked to ask me fake-serious questions about the shows I liked so much. His favorite one was, "Why do the good guys have to fight the bad guys? Why can't they just all get along?" I never really had an answer for that, but if someone asked me that now, I could pretty quickly and fairly tell them, "If it weren't for the bad guys, there would be no story. The show wouldn't exist."
I suppose that's why the Saturday morning lineup was just so blatantly terrible in retrospect. The plot for all of them was pretty formulaic - a gang of teens inherit superpowers from mysterious good guys who are fighting a league of incompetent bad guys who want to take over the Earth and turn it into a
The simple fact is, the villain is the most important part of the story. Without the antagonist, there's no call to duty, no impetus, no reason for the good guy to exist in the first place. It's the evil scientist, the horde of zombies, the shadowy cult, that dictate everything about who and what the hero becomes. Trying to build up a Good Guy to mythic proportions, without actually developing a compelling antagonist to justify said hero's existence, will just make him come off as
Consider Avatar, my current favorite whipping boy for straight-up bad story and character development. The main bad guy, collectively the White Generally-Male Humans and specifically Colonel Miles Quaritch, are not really anything other than conniving, greedy racists who don't do much besides pose as thinly-veiled political commentary on American foreign and economic policy. They run around and blow stuff up in the name of capitalism and technology, and occasionally get eaten or impaled by sticks. Sure, the human race is allegedly on the brink of civil war without the McGuffin there to placate their energy crisis, but so what? Are we supposed to boo them just because we know firsthand what genocidal jerks humans are? Avatar's humans are plot devices with superficial, single-minded goals no matter who they are. They serve as foils to the nature-worshiping Na'vi and little else. Fascinating.
Contrast this with the Joker from The Dark Knight, who is arguably the best representation of everything the Joker has ever been written to be. Initially intended to be a disposable scoundrel defeated and then discarded, the Joker has since evolved to become the definitive opposite of everything Batman upholds. This isn't just some garden-variety thug with some circus paint - this is a guy with a very clearly-articulated mission to bring civilization to its knees by driving it insane. The Joker knows all of society's weak points and presses on them ruthlessly, simultaneously threatening the forces of Lawful Good and highlighting the flaws of the human psyche that the average mortal is just too damn afraid, or arrogant, to acknowledge. Even when he's about to be locked away, possibly for life, he has an indelible grin stamped on his face from the knowledge that Gotham's paragon of law - Harvey Dent, the white knight of order - has been driven insane. If the concept of a madman trying to torture modern civilization back into the chaos of the Dark Ages just because he can, no matter what happens to him, doesn't strike you as a good villain capable of making a good story, then I have no idea what could. The Joker automatically makes a good villain because he has a meaningful purpose that isn't necessarily tied to some material benefit that can be lost as quickly as it can be stolen. As he said himself, "It's not about the money, it's about the message." Batman is in a fight to save the city's mind and soul, and that makes everything about him and the story at large more urgent and more powerful. Would The Dark Knight have been as great of a movie if Batman's climactic battle had been against a couple of amateur bank robbers? I doubt it.
Every story needs a hero, the character who embodies the noble ideals of the human spirit and conquers the threats to himself and society at large. But if the call of duty isn't a threat to the very identity of mankind, demanding courage and sacrifice not found in the ordinary citizen, then how can we honestly call the good guy a "hero"?