The “Underdog” Trope in Comic Universes

Months after the season finale and weeks after my week-long binge, I started to write my review of CW’s The Flash. There are a lot of things I loved about the show: the humanization of the season’s primary villain, the wacky S.T.A.R. Labs nicknames, the story lines and characters interwoven with Arrow the list goes on. But the more I thought about the show the more I realized that what I admired most was a particular theme common to comic universes: underdog characters.

In The Flash there are two types of underdogs. There’s the social ones who are disadvantaged by the circumstances of their lives and then there’s the underdogs who must face the meta-humans as everyday men and women, armed with nothing but their own intellect. This happens in other comic universes, too, but I bring it up in my discussion of The Flash is because in this show the two classifications were unusually fluid. More often than in any other series, the Flash’s characters moved between the two categories, changing constantly as the plotlines progressed.

Take Barry Allen for example. He’s shy and awkward, but witty and good for a laugh around his close friends. He has a good heart and a lot of determination, albeit with flaws too that make up his personality. Life has never been clean-cut for Barry, but when given the opportunity to fix that he chose not to. In the end he embraced his past and his flaws, overcame them and became stronger because of it. He was a social underdog always – losing the girl he loved to another man, showing up late for work consistently, etc, – but at the same time he was gifted with an extraordinary ability that allowed him to save lives and change history.

In same comic universe is Ray Palmer. Though at face value he may be a tech-mogul and billionaire, his whip smart brain has more than once impaired his social skills. Despite that, he’s managed to make something of himself professionally and heroically. He fights for the women he loves, spurred by a deep desire to protect the innocent for no other reason than because he can. In contrast, Oliver has never been much of an underdog. He learned some harsh lessons in his years away, but we can never forget that he was born to opportunity, a factor which drives a personality always more spirited than his circumstances and makes him great as the Arrow, even without superpowers.

Shifting over from DC to Marvel, there’s the classic Peter Parker/Spiderman and Steve Rodgers/Captain America characterizations. Two kids who were bullied for years suddenly find themselves in positions of power. But because they have suffered, they bare the responsibility of that power with humility, wielding it for the greater good as underdogs with a chance to better the lives of others like themselves. No matter how great, their powers can’t change the souls of who they are and that’s why we will always cheer for them.

In Daredevil, Matt Murdock fights to save Hell’s Kitchen despite his visual impairment, but it’s Foggy who fulfills the underdog role in their duo. He’s the non-powered individual you cheer for, the slightly less attractive side-kick you hope wins the girl and solves the case to bring justice without a vigilante’s mask. Matt has his moments of course, but it isn’t in his personality to be beaten down by anyone other than himself.

Then there’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, a show which portrays an entire cast of underdogs. Persons with no special gifts are sent off into a world of superpowered danger, but their determination to work together makes them invaluable as a team. Alone they are vulnerable; together they are a united front able to take on the post-Avengers fallout.

As readers and viewers we cherish the idea that anyone can become something more than they are. It’s the “American Dream” personified in fiction, the romantic notion that if you just believe in yourself then your hard work and dedication will be rewarded by fate. We love this trope even as we acknowledge its improbability.

Yet I know without a doubt it’s the reason that I love the X-Men series so much. I love the idea that anyone can be born to opportunity, that by an accident of birth a person’s genes can make them special. There’s no rhyme or reason to the genetic alteration, just a simple mutation of many possible iterations. No scientific experiment or spider bite creates a Mutant, no radioactive accident or life-threatening injury. Their very existence fascinates me in its possibility, intrigues me like no other. Imagine a world of people who never asked to be different, people who either by trauma or maturity awakened alone and scared of their gifts. They are the very definition of underdogs, the tiniest fraction of humanity destined to save it all.

I know how unlikely these tropes are to ever manifest in real life, but what excites us as readers is the small fraction of a possibility that they could. I enjoyed The Flash for many reasons, but I loved the fluidity of the characterization. It kept me on my toes throughout the entire season and I’m excited to see what season two has in store.

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