Perhaps the most-used cliché in Hollywood, the Underdog never ceases to attract audiences. Why is this? I think the reason behind the popularity of an Underdog story is due to its relatability. Most underdogs are unequipped to challenge the more skilled favorites of a competition. The Underdog always has some sort of “too” associated with them that prevents them from coming up against a fair fight: too young, too old, too weak, too poor. Despite these disadvantages, they still manage to stand up and take their challengers head on. All too often, we are reminded of our shortcomings. We are reminded of the strengths of others. We all want the Underdog to win because we are the Underdog. We are inspired to overcome our circumstances as long as we see that it can be done. This week’s two films focus on Underdogs.
Length: 119 minutes / 1.98 hours
A surprising amount of sports films focus on the Underdog. In fact, I’d almost wager that they all do. Usually the team with the greatest odds to win is the team with the most money, the most skill, the most talent, and the most black uniforms. And yet, even with all these factors in their favor, this team will not win at the end of the film. Sure, they’ll beat the Underdog the first time they cross paths, but this just gives the Underdog’s victory that much more of an impact. Many boxing films have featured Underdogs, including Million Dollar Baby (2004) with a woman who was too old, Cinderella Man (2005) with a man who was too poor, and Battling Butler (1926) with a man who was too weak. While the latter of this list is the most comedic of the set (and thus, the odd man out), the best-known Underdog boxer is that of Rocky Balboa from the 1976 Best Picture, Rocky. This classic Underdog story is a staple of the American Film Institute’s top 100 list, being currently placed at #57.
Heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is looking forward to the World Heavyweight Championship bout set to take place during New Year’s Day on America’s Bicentennial. Unfortunately, the contender has to bow out due to an injured hand, giving Creed a conundrum: nobody else has enough time to train for the match. As a result, he has an idea: let an unknown boxer, an Underdog, fight him instead. Enter Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone): a nobody who is nicknamed “The Italian Stallion”. Rocky doesn’t think he can beat Creed, but still wants to give it his all. He wants to “go the distance” with Creed because nobody else has. When the fight starts, nobody could expect Balboa to last to the last round, but he does, refusing to be knocked out. Even though he technically lost, the simple act of just hanging on made Rocky the winner of the film.
Length: 127 minutes / 2.12 hours
The sports genre hasn’t completely cornered the market on Underdogs. Fantasy and science fiction often feature the Underdog, which perhaps explains a little bit about their fan-base. Frodo from The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) was not the best candidate to destroy the ring of power. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games (2012-2015) was from the weakest and poorest District. The Rebels from Star Wars (1977-1983) were too insignificant to defeat the Empire. And yet, all of these characters, amongst many others, all overcame their perceived weaknesses and managed to accomplish their goals, even against the overwhelming forces that were pitted against them. Of course, sometimes genres can cross boundaries. Science fiction is rife with robots and Underdogs. Sports films have boxers and Underdogs. By combining these two genres at their common points, we arrive at Real Steel.
This 2011 science fiction sports film has been jokingly referred to as Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: the Movie as well as Rocky with Robots. Having been pushed out of his boxing career by robots, Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) has now hit rock bottom: losing a bet that his robot could beat a live bull. To top things off, he now finds himself another $100,000 in debt because he wants full custody of his son, Max (Dakota Goyo), whose mother has just died. Through a series of robots fights (and destroyed robots), Max and Charlie eventually bond over a sparring robot found in a junkyard. “Atom” is not expected to win, but because it has a special ability to mimic its owner’s movements, Charlie teaches Atom how to fight, eventually pitting the Underdog against the global champion, “Zeus”. In much the same fashion as Rocky, Atom lasts the whole fight, but doesn’t technically win, despite being the “People’s Champion”.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 ubiquitous underdogs