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Best Underdog Characters In Movies

Everyone loves an underdog. There's just something about a downtrodden but likable character struggling against overwhelming odds that evokes our sympathy and admiration. And if that character manages to achieve their dreams in the end? Well, that just reaffirms our belief in justice and fairness.

Of course, sometimes those underdogs don't get to win and spend the remainder of the film (or their entire franchise) encountering more unfairness and tougher obstacles. Still, if there's one thing underdogs teach us, it's to always strive for a better tomorrow. In the end, that's how most of us want to live our lives, which is why it's important to keep sharing underdog stories with new audiences.

Given the popularity of films featuring underdogs, a comprehensive list of the best underdog characters would be impossible. However, we've come up with a fun selection of lovable hard-luck cases who appear in pretty much every film genre. Here are our choices for the best underdog characters from movies.

Peter Parker

When Stan Lee first conceived of Spider-Man back in the 1960s, he wanted Peter Parker to be a perpetually unlucky teenager who could never enjoy a total win thanks to his superhero responsibilities. Over time, Peter came to call this the "Parker Luck" (as in, nothing but bad luck), although he rarely used this as an excuse to shirk his responsibilities as New York's favorite web-slinger.

Multiple movies and TV shows have presented Peter Parker as the underdog of the superhero community. However, we're focusing on Spidey's depiction in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 2" (2004), which provides the best examples of the "Parker Luck."

Over the course of the film, Peter (Tobey Maguire) gets fired from his job, loses his spider-powers, crashes his moped, misses his college classes, and won't allow himself to be with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) out of fear of what his enemies could do to her. To rub further salt in his wounds, the production team makes sure MJ's picture is plastered across multiple New York billboards just to remind Peter of the relationship he can't have.

Still, Spider-Man perseveres — and by the end of the film, MJ takes matters into her own hands by letting Peter know she's willing to take the risk of being Spider-Man's girlfriend. It's a hard-won victory, but one that leaves audiences cheering for Marvel's ultimate underdog.

Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire

When you're a character in a movie with a title like "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" (2004), you know your life is going to suck for a long time. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are three of the nicest "reasonably attractive" siblings you could ever meet — but when their parents die in a fire, their idyllic lives come to an end. Thrust into the care of the malevolent Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), the Baudelaire orphans find themselves the virtual slaves of a greedy man who wants nothing more than to control their family fortune.

Even when the Baudelaire orphans manage to get away from Olaf, their luck doesn't improve. Every guardian they wind up with seems to have some quirk or phobia that results in them dying from unfortunate circumstances. Worse, Olaf continues stalking the kids using a series of bizarre disguises, forcing Violet, Sunny, and Klaus to always be on their guard.

Based on the bestselling series by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), the film version of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" offers a wonderfully bizarre production design accompanied by a melancholy score by Thomas Newman. While the film failed to launch a franchise, in 2014, Netflix produced a three-season TV show that adapted all 13 novels, proving this series of unfortunate events never really ends.

Scott "Scotty" Thomas

Raunchy sex comedies are known for featuring unlucky nerdy teenagers, but you'd be hard-pressed to find one with worse luck than Scott "Scotty" Thomas (Scott Mechlowicz), the star of "EuroTrip" (2004). After being dumped by his girlfriend Fiona (Kristin Kreuk), Scotty discovers Fiona's been cheating on him for months with Donny (Matt Damon making one of his best surprise cameos), the lead singer of a rock band.

Even worse, Donny turns the story of their affair into the disturbingly catchy song, "Scotty Doesn't Know," which he performs in front of Scotty and a whole party of drunk teenagers. Scotty has to stand there and hear Donny sing, "Scotty doesn't know, that Fiona and me/Do it in my van every Sunday" and "I did her on his birthday" while people cheer and scream for more.

As if that wasn't bad enough, "Scotty Doesn't Know" becomes a major hit, and Scotty is forced to hear it repeatedly throughout the film ... including on his best friend's ringtone. Don't feel too bad for Scotty, though. After enduring multiple humiliations on a backpacking trip across Europe, he finally has a very intimate encounter with his gorgeous German pen pal Mieke (Jessica Boehrs) and is able to put his high school trauma behind him. Take that, Matt Damon!

Rocky Balboa

No list of movie underdogs would be complete without an entry devoted to everyone's favorite boxing legend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). While underdogs abound in every sports drama from "Rudy" (1993) and "Cool Runnings" (1993) to "Remember the Titans" (2000) and "Seabiscuit" (2003), there's just something about "Rocky" (1976) that speaks to generations of fans.

Maybe it's because the film isn't your typical rags-to-riches story. While Rocky does get a chance to rise from his humble beginnings as a small-time boxer and loan shark collector by competing in a title bout, the movie isn't really about winning a boxing match. Instead, it focuses on Rocky's never-say-die attitude and indomitable spirit — qualities that keep getting tested in the "Rocky" film franchise. Fans have seen Rocky rise to the height of celebrity only to be knocked down again and again. Yet somehow, he never gives in to defeat in the ring or his personal life.

As Rocky tells his son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia) in "Rocky Balboa" (2006), "You, me, or nobody is going to hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you're hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done." Amen, Italian Stallion. Amen.

Homer Hickam

Underdogs in movies can be extraordinary people — but sometimes they're based on even more extraordinary people. Take Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal), the star of "October Sky" (1999), a coal miner's son who dreams of studying rocketry after seeing the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik 1 in 1957.

Against all odds, Homer puts together a team of teenage misfits and learns how to build his own model rockets through study and (very dangerous) tests. His efforts earn him disdain from most of his town, particularly his hard-nosed father (Chris Cooper), but the "Rocket Boys" persevere and eventually manage to not only gain the town's support but also turn their hobby into an award-winning national science fair project that earns them all college scholarships.

As gratifying as the film is, it's even more rewarding to learn that Homer Hickam is a real person who went on to become a NASA engineer and document his story in the memoir "Rocket Boys" (later re-released as "October Sky"). While some aspects of the movie are fictionalized, the story is extremely inspirational for audiences, who see it as a testament to the virtue of striving for your dreams.

Viewers looking for a similar tale of a coal miner's son pursuing his passion at all costs should also check out "Billy Elliot," which swaps out space for ballet. 

Jamal Malik

Trauma is a terrible thing for anyone to have to live with — but for Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), the hero of "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008), that trauma may be part of a divine plan. Born into poverty, Jamal spent years living on the streets of India with his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and their friend Latika (Freida Pinto). The "Three Musketeers" survive by working for gangsters, picking pockets, and washing dishes. But when Salim begins working for a rival crime lord and Latika is forced into prostitution, Jamal must make his own way.

Years later, Jamal attempts to make contact with Latika by appearing on her favorite game show, the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" To everyone's shock, Jamal — who never had any formal education — is able to answer the most difficult questions since the answers are all related to traumatic events from his past. Yet money isn't Jamal's goal and ultimately, his plan to reconnect with Latika reaches a surprising conclusion.

"Slumdog Millionaire" took the world, and the Academy Awards, by surprise when it was nominated for 10 Oscars and won eight, including Best Picture. While the film's game show frame narrative gives it an exciting tension, it's Jamal's underdog story that gives the movie its heart.

Forrest Gump

Some underdog movies make the audience wait over two hours before the hero finally scores a win. And then there's "Forrest Gump" (1994), a film that shows its supposedly mentally disadvantaged protagonist (Tom Hanks) constantly winning by becoming a football star, war hero, shrimp boat tycoon, and multimillionaire ... all by following his conscience and good nature. While bullies regularly get in Forrest's way, their efforts inadvertently propel him to even greater success, showing karma in constant action.

What's unique about Forrest is that he rarely acts disheartened or depressed about his underdog status. Some audiences even question whether he knows if he's being taken advantage of or insulted. Yet there are frequent instances when Forrest acknowledges he doesn't like being called "stupid" and is unsettled by the possibility that his son may have inherited his simple-minded nature. He may not have a high IQ, but this underdog is more self-aware than many people give him credit for.

Jean Valjean

Some underdogs make such an impact on pop culture that they influence the development of multiple underdog characters. Take Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Victor Hugo's classic novel "Les Misérables." Originally impoverished and imprisoned for years for stealing a single loaf of bread, Valjean embarks on a journey of self-improvement that enables him to help many people and become the best version of himself. However, his efforts aren't appreciated by the antagonist Inspector Javert, who hounds Valjean and never gives him any peace.

Many movie adaptations have been made of "Les Misérables" and several actors have taken on the role of Jean Valjean. One of the most celebrated performances was by Hugh Jackman, who helped adapt the Broadway musical version of "Les Misérables" into a 2012 screen musical. Audiences wept as Jackman's Valjean suffered for years trying to care for the dying mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and her orphaned daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) before finally dying himself and being absolved of his sins.

Valjean has also inspired other iconic characters, including Richard Kimble (David Janssen), the wrongfully accused medical doctor from the TV series "The Fugitive" who spent years evading his own Javert, Police Inspector Philip Gerard (Barry Morse). Likewise, Bill Bixby's live-action "The Incredible Hulk" TV series featured the good-hearted man-on-the-run David Banner being pursued by tabloid reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin), who wanted to get the inside story on the Hulk. It's a testament to Valjean's iconic status that his story has been rewritten for multiple generations.

Nancy Thompson

Horror films are littered with the bodies of hapless underdogs as they're slashed, bludgeoned, or shot to death by chainsaw-wielding maniacs and serial killers. However, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) has attained iconic status among these mostly anonymous victims thanks to her role in Wes Craven's horror film "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984).

After several of her friends die mysteriously in their sleep, Nancy uncovers a long-buried town secret involving a child killer who transformed into the dream demon Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). With no friends left to turn to as Freddy begins invading her dreams, Nancy takes matters into her own hands by confronting the virtually all-powerful nightmare man.

Nancy returns multiple times in the"Nightmare on Elm Street" franchise — most interestingly in "Wes Craven's New Nightmare" (1994), which saw a fictional version of Heather Langenkamp being terrorized by a demonic Freddy. Like many movie monsters, Freddy Krueger never really dies, making him an all but unbeatable obstacle that underdogs like Nancy still refuse to back down from.

Wreck-It Ralph

Can the bad guy become the hero? That's what the titular character of Disney/Pixar's "Wreck-It Ralph" (2012) wants to know. After spending 30 years playing the villain in the popular arcade game "Wreck-It Ralph," Ralph (John C. Reilly) is ready to show the world he can be more than just "the bad guy." However, his fellow game characters and bad guy support group seem to be content with writing him off as a one-note baddie.

Undaunted, Ralph leaves his game hoping to find a hero's medal and inadvertently sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to infect the entire arcade with an alien bug virus. Just as it seems as if nothing he does turns out right, Ralph uncovers a conspiracy involving his new friend Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) that only he can fix.

While it's easy to get caught up in the flashy digital world Ralph and Vanellope live in, at its core, "Wreck-It Ralph" is really about someone trying to break free of the societal expectations placed on him. In typical underdog style, Ralph doesn't get a completely happy ending, but at least he chooses not to be defined by the labels his game places on him.

Elle Woods

Despite her happy, perky image, Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), the star of "Legally Blonde" (2001), has her share of problems. People classify her as a California "dumb blonde" and refuse to recognize her intellect. Her boyfriend Warner (Matthew Davis) dumps her after believing she's not "serious" enough to support his political career. She's completely ostracized by her snobby East Coast classmates when she follows Warner to Harvard Law School in an attempt to win him back.

Still, Elle remains undaunted and shows she can keep up with "serious" law students not only intellectually, but also with her unique brand of sorority smarts. She even finds friends to support her, including Emmett Richmond (Luke Wilson), a kind-hearted junior partner. But it takes a high-profile law case to show Elle that Warner is the real shallow one in their relationship and that she can make it as a lawyer without compromising her love of fashion and beauty.

Born from a novel by Stanford law student Amanda Brown, "Legally Blonde" has expanded into a franchise that includes three films and a stage musical. Sorority girls might not be the first people you think of as downtrodden protagonists, but as "Legally Blonde" reveals, underdogs come in all shapes and sizes.  

Ellen Ripley

Ridley Scott's classic 1979 film "Alien" is basically a haunted house movie set in outer space, meaning you can't escape the horrors just by leaving your spaceship. That's bad news for the crew of the space tug Nostromo, who inadvertently bring an alien life form on board that grows and becomes a menacing creature that picks them off one by one.

While the entire crew suffers a horrible fate, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) arguably has it the worst. Discounted by most of her crewmates, Ripley has to watch as her friends and partners are all murdered around her. Then, when she ends up being the last person on board, she has to kill the alien Xenomorph on her own, though it vastly outclasses her in strength, speed, and endurance.

As if this wasn't bad enough, Ripley ends up having to fight the Xenomorphs over and over again in the "Alien" franchise ... which sees her get stranded in space for 57 years, infected with a Xenomorph egg, killed, and cloned into an alien-human hybrid. The fact that she keeps surviving says a lot about her indomitable spirit.