A dark horse, the elusive contender in the mix, gets no credit from the crowd until after the fact. All his hard work unseen and unheard, gets celebrated like it was always known in one brief moment of triumph. The spectators could never know the toil and discipline it took to accomplish a great feat. The underdog not only wins through white-knuckled determination but earns his keep by defining his sense of success.
The hero’s journey has many roads to walk down. The overwhelming lack of control from fears and doubts creep in and sink in to force their stay. The helping hand of a masterful mentor guides them towards solutions that combat or leave those debilitating thoughts behind with better and consistent actions. After a series of training montages of our unlikely hero, the final moment of what it all led up to and what it all meant can be faced and understood. Underdogs have little friends when they are in low places, which is where they learn how to live higher than their circumstances allow. The following are some of the most memorable underdogs in cinema.
Updated on September 8th, 2023 by Danilo Raúl: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
12 300 (2006)
A nation full of warriors born and bred to war faces the mighty power of an empire with overwhelming numbers. A corrupt body of wise men advises against warfare. A bribed senate prohibits the King from going to war. Everything is against King Leonidas in 300, yet he endures by taking his personal guard of 300 warriors “on a stretch.”
He joins forces with warriors from near Greek nations, but they feel overwhelmed even before raising their words against the enemy. The Spartans don’t doubt their mission and final destiny for a moment: to fight to the death and let the world know free men stood in the path of tyranny, mysticism, and oppression.
11 Nobody (2021)
No one had Bob Odenkirk pulling the Liam Neeson card in 2021, and it sure as hell worked wonders. Nobody depicts the actor as Hutch Mansell, a man who often fails to stand up for himself. His marriage in shambles and a hellish suburban home seem to take a toll on him every single day of his life.
One evening, a group of thieves break into his house, and he lets them make a run for it until his daughter reveals they have taken a priced possession of hers. Feeling disgruntled, the man finally snaps and unleashes his frustrations. He begins to beat the living hell out of anyone who gets in his way after it’s revealed he used to be an auditor for the FBI, a particular type of assassin known for letting no loose ends in their clean-up jobs.
10 Dodgeball (2004)
Some people say Dodgeball is the last great film Vince Vaughn ever made, and they are not too far off the mark. Gym owner Peter La Fleur is a down-on-his-luck businessman facing eviction after a new gym opens close to him. Health nut White Goodman wants La Fleur out of business, and he does so by sending an auditor to his gym.
The agent tasked with the audit lets La Fleur know he needs to come up with $50,000 to settle his debts or lose the place, so it’s up to all gym members of the Average Joe’s to band together and play professional dodgeball, but not without Goodman realizing their ploy and putting his team together to wipe the floor with him in this silly, but incredibly funny movie.
9 Cinderella Man (2005)
The story of Cinderella Man is based on the real life of boxer James J. Braddock, a man past his prime seeking work as a laborer each day in the ports and living on benefits to make ends meet during the great depression. His former manager offers him a shot at a comeback, which he takes despite having a broken hand.
After winning against a young contender, James returns to the ring full-time against his wife’s wishes. It all goes smoothly for Braddock, who can support his family and pay back the benefits received with his fists until a savage contender named Max Baer challenges him for the title.
8 Revenge of the Nerds (1984)
Outcasts in awkward, yet smart ways, the group of near and far-sighted nerds from Adams College get the worst of it. Their campus house is burned by jocks, forcing them to live on the outskirts of the school.
Bullied by their university’s fraternity and sorority, they band together to battle both unforgiving sexes. With wits and computer science prowess, the guys in Revenge of the Nerds redeem and avenge their self-worth to show that having brains is its own brawn.
7 The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Despite losing to Forrest Gump in the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards, the hope of a new day for a man getting out of jail Scott-free set the tone for prison films thereafter. When you are dealt a bad hand in life, you can let fear take control, or you can use hope to take back control.
Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) with the help of his inmate confidant Red (Morgan Freeman), kept his integrity in a hopeless place lacking it. Freedom to start anew is the ultimate redemption and underdog story.
6 Rudy (1993)
From the director and screenwriter of Hoosiers (1986) came one of the best underdog sports films of all time. Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger always dreamed and talked about playing football for the University of Notre Dame, the beloved team of his family growing up.
Rather than work in a grueling steel mill for the rest of his life, he pursues his dream. He trains his mind, body, and spirit to be the best he can be. He did it for himself, and so can we.
5 The Pursuit of Happiness (2006)
Will Smith portrays Chris Gardner in this biographical drama, a salesman of portable bone-density scanners. He tries convincing doctors how convenient they are than X-rays, but the financial investment becomes a liability as he gets divorced and becomes homeless with his son.
The will to live is felt through his shattered dignity and resilient words, an underdog fighting not for money but for nothing more priceless than a life worth living.
4 Back to the Future (1985)
Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) needs to make a timely rendezvous with his past to save his future. Close calls with alternate timelines and historical bending of the fabric of time are as maddening as it is harrowing.
He risks losing his parents, being lost in time, and his existence, all because his friendly neighborhood scientist decided to build a time machine out of an anachronistic car. For all the ticktock urgency, he made it back right on time.
3 Star Wars (1977)
When Star Wars begins, Luke Skywalker is a moisture farmer on a desert planet who drinks blue milk and lives with his uncle and aunt. He is the primer of underdog origins. By happenstance, he comes across the astromech and protocol droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO, followed by a hermit named Ben Kenobi, the last of the Jedi Knights.
A galaxy of possibilities beseeches Skywalker to fight, of all people, his father and destroy the Empire. Plus, he was never told that his father was Darth Vader (or that he kissed his sister), so the psychological toll is even greater for his comeback story.
2 The Karate Kid (1984)
Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is a Jersey-born, California-raised high schooler living with his mother in an apartment maintained by their handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). He is the target of ex-boyfriend Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) after he befriends his former cheerleader-girlfriend, Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue).
Miyagi protects Daniel and eventually teaches him the ways of karate. Karate Kid was one of the many films that introduced martial arts into the mainstream, and with a simple story of sticking up for yourself and defending what is rightfully yours, you will be prepared for any fight life throws at you.
1 Rocky (1976)
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is the epitome of the underdog. He is an amateur boxer who collects debts more than he lands punches, training to become a prized fighter. He gets a big break when he gets to fight world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).
Through all the negative self-talk and the lowly circumstances, Rocky continued to fight to prove to himself he was not a bum but a somebody. Rocky kicked off a long-lasting franchise that saw him rise past his underdog title, only to help train a new one in the Creed franchise.