It doesn’t matter how strong your hero might be, he or she always needs to be the underdog. In “Iron Man 3,” Tony Stark has the most advanced armored suits in the world, so attacking him would be difficult. To make him the underdog, Tony Stark suddenly finds himself away from his home laboratory full of armored suits and is stuck with a prototype suit that doesn’t quite work very well. As just a man, he has to battle villains who have real power with his defective armor suit.
In some movies, it’s easy to make the hero the underdog. “Rocky” was about a down and out boxer looking for a chance at the championship. In the remake of “Spiderman,” Spiderman has to battle a lizard man with tremendous powers. In addition, Spiderman also has to deal with the police who see him as a threat. So even though Spiderman and the lizard man may have different powers, Spiderman isn’t necessarily the underdog until he also has to battle the police too. The more obstacles that work against the hero, the more of an underdog the hero will become.
If you hero isn’t the underdog, there’s literally no story. What if Rocky wanted to fight for the championship against a 90-year old grandmother on a walker? There would be no challenge, so there would be no suspense and ultimately no story. Your hero always must be the underdog.
Without a much stronger villain for the hero to fight against, you have a very weak story. In “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” the villain really isn’t that powerful, so the hero has nothing to battle against. As a result, the movie tries hard to be funny and succeeds to a certain extent, but overall it’s relatively boring because the hero isn’t an clear underdog to the villain.
In “Die Hard,” it’s easy to see how the villain is more powerful than the hero. In “Alien,” it’s also easy to see how the hero is an underdog to the villain. Think of all the better movies from “Titanic” and “Avatar” to “Home Alone” and “Juno.” In all cases, the hero is the underdog because watching an underdog struggle and overcome huge odds makes for a satisfying story. Watching a hero win over a weak villain is boring. Even if the hero wins, we already expect that so there’s no suspense or interest.
Make sure you hero is an underdog by either making the villain much stronger than the hero or by forcing the hero to keep tackling multiple villains who keep blocking the hero from his goal. That’s what a good story is, an underdog hero facing an uphill struggle against a supremely powerful villain.