WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Season 4, Episode 8 of Attack on Titan, "Assassin's Bullet," now streaming on Crunchyroll, Funimation, Amazon Prime and Hulu.
The final season of Attack on Titan is now about halfway through its projected run and in the last few episodes, we've spent a lot of time with Levi Ackerman and the Survey Corps. From the beginning of the anime, Levi has been an absolute fan-favorite and it's not difficult to see why. He's incredibly smart, disciplined and a master of the ODM gear, making him lethal in combat. But why, then, isn't he brought up in discussions about great shonen rivals? Despite being a staple archetype of the genre, Levi is usually left out of rankings of the best, even though he was clearly set up early on as Eren Yeager's rival. What is it about Levi that makes him both the best and least conventional example of the rival trope?
Great shonen rivals push the main character to become better versions of themselves, often seeing a lot of themselves in them. Levi Ackerman is no exception. Levi made a point of taking Eren under his wing after kicking him in the face in Season 1, Episode 14, "Can't Look into His Eyes Yet: Eve of the Counterattack, Part 1." He was able to recognize that he, and the Scouts, could control and eventually train Eren and the Attack Titan. Throughout his training, it becomes clear that while Levi and Eren don't necessarily get along, Levi still contributes to Eren's growth both as a person and as a Scout.
So, why is Levi so underrated? Why isn't he compared to the likes of Vegeta, Sasuke or Bakugo? There are a few factors. Firstly, the nature of Attack on Titan's story changes the relationship of the typical shonen rival to the protagonist they're set against. Levi is not automatically pinned against Eren, despite his violent first impression. He is, instead, more of a type of mentor and even, at times, a tough-loving father figure.
Eren and Levi also have a lot of similarities that are pretty blatant, which makes the traditional rival relationship a bit warped. Both lost their mothers early on in their life and both had pretty flakey father figures. There's more that binds them together than sets them apart, especially in regards to their opinions on Titans. This makes his role in Eren's story a bit different than other supporting characters, like Armin or Mikasa. He shares the same pain, the same basic history that Eren has.
Additionally, when it comes to shonen rival stereotypes, Levi is vastly more powerful than the main character, Titan powers or no, which presents a constant challenge for Eren. Levi in combat is an absolute work of art and an extremely lethal one at that. His only real match in the Survey Corps is his distant relative, Mikasa. Therefore, Levi makes the perfect physical rival to Eren, which is a particular highlight in discussions around great shonen rivals. Just look at Vegeta.
Levi also cares more about the citizens of his community and their wellbeing more than Eren does, which sets them apart -- especially in Season 4. Now that their values are beginning to misalign, their rivalship will become more distinct. With the dark path that Eren is traveling on in Season 4, Levi may have to make a stand; otherwise, he'll have to sacrifice his own values. We've already seen in Episode 8 that Levi holds Eren in the same level of contempt that he has in the past when he, again, kicks him in the face.
This time, however, he kicks Eren because his manipulation of the Survey Corps led to many lives lost, both for Marley and for the Scouts, most notably (and painfully) Sasha's. Eren seems to have become more apathetic of late, focused only on achieving his goal, whatever it is. He's made it clear he's willing to sacrifice any number of innocent lives to do so. Levi wholeheartedly disagrees with this and doesn't shy away from showing it. Until now, Levi and Eren shared the same goal of decimating the Titans to protect their people. Now their goals are different, and it may even scare Levi.
Levi Ackerman not only embodies all the typical aspects of the archetypal rival character but he goes beyond them, making it all the more criminal how overlooked he is as one. He's a very unique character in the shonen genre in general but especially as a rival to a protagonist. Perhaps the real reason he gets shut out of such discussions is that it's truly hard to compare him to characters like Vegeta or Bakugo because he operates in a completely different type of story, one where ethics are a major theme, more than just being the best at something.
Levi has to carry a lot more weight in his series -- as a rival, as a mentor and as a friend. And in the latter role, Levi may have to make some difficult choices about Eren in the rest of Attack on Titan's final season, shifting the fascinating and unique dynamic their share even more.