By Cicely McFarlane
The underdog trope surrounds a team or person who has the odds pitted against them. Meaning, in whatever endeavour they find themselves in, they are expected by many, if not all, to lose. Many sports films adopt this trope as this relates to many sporting underdogs in reality. Yet why has this become such a relevant and successful theme in film overall?
I believe that answer lies in the comfort we find in ‘underdog’ characters. These characters who doubt themselves, are weighed down by others, or have no self-belief resonate with a large audience. Everyone has self-doubt, and I’m sure as we all know, when someone tells you that you’re not good enough, it is a hard mentality to triumph. Self-doubt and eventual resilience in underdog characters indicate to the audience how life should be tackled, and how people’s opinions firstly are not always correct, and secondly should not alter your goal. The underdog trope does mirror real-life emotion — the feeling of not being good enough and the unshakeable feeling when you are put down. Yet of course in reality, it will be harder than a Rocky montage to achieve your goal.
Nevertheless, the message is still the same:
‘Be your own underdog and don’t let others crack your spirit.’
This is why audiences love this genre, they either wish to be the underdog and continue to never break, or they envy the power of the spirit they wished they had.
The underdog theme in sports films has expanded their audience from sports fanatics to much wider. Eddie the Eagle tells the story of Michael Edwards, who started his ski career by practicing skiing off roofs and garage doors. This film shows someone who was doubted by all, turned away by most, and still beating the odds and triumphing in becoming the first English ski jumper in the Olympics since 1928.
The underdog trope blurs the lines between winners and losers, demonstrating that victory is possible for all no matter your experience, background, or wealth. Sports films often adopt the underdog story to highlight how amazing unexpected wins are, and how sports can be used as a universal language to bond people together. The Blind Side executes the story of Michael Oher beautifully. Michael faced judgement and prejudice throughout his life, however this underdog rose. Although not from the ‘traditional nuclear all-American family’, Michael beat all the discrimination he faced and went on to play in the National Football League (NFL).
Bringing the underdog character into comedic films makes them more relatable for the audience, and shows that when events don’t go your way, you’re not alone in this, and sometimes it helps to see the funny side of situations where you fail. This comedic aspect makes the underdogs more personable. School of Rock featuring the great Jack Black amplifies the humorous side of not being believed in. Jack Black plays Dewey Finn, a failing musician who impersonates a teacher to form a band of talented school kids. You find yourself rooting and supporting the band as he teaches the children to enjoy being young, and not take life too seriously. This underdog theme effectively achieves a loveable character and thus creates a classic film with Dewey achieving his musical goals in the end.
These films show the diversity of the type of underdogs that we have in films. Whether they’re inspirational or comedic, both instances of them become equally valid and important, which explains why they are so popular.