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Top Five Underdog Cliches

The latest issue of Invincible set up one of my favorite underdog cliches for the next issue, and it struck me that this would make for a good top five list. So here are the top five superhero comic cliches involving underdogs.

Enjoy!

5. The improbable one on one match-up

This is a fun one when a hero is matched up improbably against someone who seems much more powerful than him/her, but he/she manages to pull it off, or at least represent him/herself surprisingly well.

An interesting one is Cannonball against Gladiator, where (for a moment) Cannonball hung in there against one of the most powerful beings in the universe…

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The drawback of this cliche (making it rank so low) is the time when the victory really makes no sense, with the most prominent example being Spider-Man beating up Firelord.

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Kinda silly, eh?

4. The deus ex machina victory

The deus ex machina victory is fun, but it would be a lot more fun if there wasn’t a deus ex machina involved.

To wit, when the underdog Justice League America managed to defeat Despero…

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by Martian Manhunter using some cheesy power that he had never mentioned before.

Or when Amazo was beating up on the JLA, and they defeated him because, since Amazo has “all the powers of the JLA,” they disbanded the JLA, leaving him powerless.

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3. The cavalry shows up for the victory

This one is a step up from the deus ex machina, because it makes more sense.

TWO good examples took place during the Eclipso crossover.

First, scientists and various heroes were disappearing during the crossover, and in the last issue, we learn WHY…

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They were secretly planning to defeat Eclipso, so they show up to save the day (the heroes taken all had light powers).

Earlier in the crossover, there is a great moment where an Eclipsed Superman was kicking the asses of a bunch of heroes, and about to kill Ice when suddenly, Guy Gardner shows up to save the day!

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I love that issue.

2. The weak(er) member(s) of the team has a victory when separated from the rest of the team

This is a nice one to highlight the least powerful members of the team, who don’t always get attention.

A classic example is when Elongated Man, Atom and Aquaman got a JLA spotlight…

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And, of course, the famous time when Kitty Pryde fought a demon when the rest of the team were celebrating the holidays.

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Amusingly enough, Blue Beetle was involved in one of these during the Eclipso crossover!

1. A ragtag group of heroes gets the victory

I loves me some ragtag group of heroes team up to save the day!

Avengers Forever did ragtag through time…

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JSA did ragtag folks who were not controlled by the evil Thunderbolt…

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And there are tons of other examples. Why? Because it is AWESOME!

Agree with the top five? Disagree? Let me know!

45 Comments

FunkyGreenJerusalem

February 21, 2007 at 8:23 pm

Dazzler beating Galactus has to be the number one example of the improbable one on one match up.

I assume #2 is the one you’re talking about with Invincible. Which is funny, because reading it, I figured the weaker members were going to get the snot kicked out of them on their mission.

“Or when Amazo was beating up on the JLA, and they defeated him because, since Amazo has “all the powers of the JLA,” they disbanded the JLA, leaving him powerless.”

—when they did that was it with humor or did they try to play it off as serious?

I’m surprised you didn’t mention the number 2 Morisson did with Green Arrow back in his JLA run. That was a cool one.

How about the “underdog versus underdog” cliche. When a weak villain suddenly becomes super powerful and defeats all the great heroes only to be undone by the weaker hero(es) they underestimated.

Which Green Arrow bit in JLA? Against the Key, or his team-up with the Atom against Darkseid?

I thought the number one Underdog cliché was when that guy would pay Shoeshine Boy, and he’d bite down on the coin. So clichéd.

Well, Cannonball was an X-Ternal, and his invulernable blast shield should’ve been able to keep it at least to a standstill.

But, yeah … the funny thing is, I can’t think of anything else Cannonball did during his tenure as an X-Man.

I was thinking more about his fight against the Key. It seemed to hit all the appropriate underdog buttons, right down to the boxing glove arrow at the end.

I guess every Batman vs. Superman fight would qualify as an underdog story, some of them with Batman the underdog, some of them with Superman as the underdog, which kind of funny.

“Call in the calvary” is classic but also kind of cheap, if it’s not done right. The end of Millar’s Marvel Knights: Spider-Man run had Spidey facing down the Sinister Twelve (yes, 12), clearly about to receive a pretty serious beating, before the Avengers and the Fantastic Four saved him because Mary-Jane called SHIELD. It made sense, but it felt like a copout.

The JLA disbanding to defeat Amazo really isn’t a deus ex machina, because the clue was there in the story – that Amazo has the powers of the JLA.

The Despero one was completely deus ex machina, but I still love that story – Adam Hughs will was the best artist on Giffen’s JLI (just pipping Kevin Maguire) and the writing was on top form at that time.

For a weaker member of the team being seperated the Invasion crossover issue of JLA with Oberon spotlighted deserves a mention

Dan

I guess you could include The Hopelessly Outnumbered Last Stand, where our underdog has to hold off an army to either cover someone’s escape (Skurge at Gjallerbru), or to hold a strategic location (300), but I don’t know if those are used enough to count as cliche. Probably more of a movie thing.

Hey! I _LOVED_ the Spider-Man/Firelord fight! I can still remember huge chunks of it, even now, twenty-some years later! It was awesome! When he lures Firelord into the abandoned buildings, slips out, then gets the workers to set off the explosives…when he goes looking for the FF to dump the whole mess into their laps, only to remember too late that the Baxter Building was demolished by Doom…that is some fine comic-bookery, there, my friends.

I agree– I loved that Spidey issue, and they totally sold me on it while I was reading it. It’s less nuts than it seems– it was certainly well-established that Spidey’s spider-sense and reflexes let him dodge energy blasts (he does it all the time), and by itself that does a huge amount to neutralize Firelord’s shtick.

For a while it got referred to in-story a bit, as other characters realized that Spidey was more of a bad-ass than he’d been widely given credit for.

Oh, and re: #2: The Zeppo!

How about Spider-Mann’s lucking into defeating the Juggernaut by blinding him so that he walked and sank into a freshly-poured concrete foundation?

I agree with DanCJ – there is no way you can call the defeat of Amazo a “deus ex machina”. “Deus ex machina” means “god out of the box” and it refers to moments in ancient Greek dramas when the characters in a play all faced an unsolvable problem, and then one of the gods of Olympus would suddenly appear and fix everything supernaturally. The Atom is hardly a god, and he’s always been part of the JLA, so it’s not like he came from out of nowhere. And he didn’t “cheat”, he just exploited an inherent weakness of Amazo as set up in the story itself. It was a clever story, and Morrison did a good job of misdirecting the reader by having everyone else in the JLA believe that the way to beat Amazo was to call in the reserves and make the JLA bigger and bigger, until ol’ rational scientific Ray Palmer realized the opposite approach would work better. “Thinking outside the box” isn’t “god out of the box”, and just because you didn’t see the ending coming doesn’t mean it was a “deus ex machina” cheat.

The Amazo story was a Millar fill-in, not Morrison. And it really wasn’t that clever and was a bit of a cheat since it contradicted earlier explanations of how the Amazo power-stealing worked. Not to seem anti-semantic, but it was just a case of someone being needlessly literal for the sake of a ‘twist’ ending.

JLA#27 was just so monumentally stupid. It was Computo stupid. It was Aquaman-loads-his-finny-friends-onto-a-truck-and-drives-them-into-battle stupid. It was faster-than-you-could-see-I-built-a-robot-duplicate-of-Lois stupid. Stupid!

Amazo can’t absorb your powers if you tear up your membership card? Stooopid!

When I first read it, I thought someone had found an old Silver Age JLA script behind a filing cabinet and they decided to draw it up.

—when they did that was it with humor or did they try to play it off as serious?

I think, if asked about it, Millar would try a bit of a Cousin Larry Trick with it and say it was meant to be humorous, but at the time, it sure seemed like he meant it “seriously” (I use quotes because it probably wasn’t meant as serious as, say, J’onn’s use of the ‘pull rabbit out of his ass’ power in the Justice League issue against Despero).

I’m surprised you didn’t mention the number 2 Morisson did with Green Arrow back in his JLA run. That was a cool one.

I thought it’d be fun to have a whole list of cool things I liked without mentioning a Morrison issue. ;)

And as for whether JLA #27 is a deus ex machina or not, well, obviously, I’m on the “it was” side of the discussion, but I really don’t think it’s something I could really argue.

I understand why you folks would think it’s not, but I think you certainly understand why I think it is.

So que sera, sera!

When I first heard about Amazo being defeated by the disbanding of the Justice League, I thought it was funny and clever, even if a bit suspect. It made me think of something overheard a lot at work: “Stupid machine did exactly what we told it to do!”

Now, regarding the Spider-Man vs. Firelord discussion, that’s where I think I can actually explain why the fight was weak.

Don’t get me wrong, I, too, enjoyed a great deal of how DeFalco handled the issue, specifically Spider-Man running away from Firelord most of the time, hoping that the cavalry will come, but they never do, so he has to stop him himself. That’s cool by me.

But in the end, unlike Roger Stern’s Spider-Man versus Juggernaut (which, as Omar mentioned, was a really neat issue), there is just no way, BASED ON WHAT DEFALCO WROTE, that Spider-Man could have defeated Firelord. Perhaps some writer COULD come up with a way for Spider-Man to defeat Firelord, but what DeFalco wrote didn’t work.

His entire plan was “have a big explosion, then, when Firelord isn’t expecting it – punching him a bunch of times.”

And that was it.

That doesn’t work, especially as Firelord mentions in the issue “One nova blast from me could annihilate the entire city”. In other words, this guy is really, really powerful, and Spider-Man could punch him for hours without it having a tangible effect. And DeFalco even has Firelord acknowledge that the explosion didn’t do anything to him!

So it strictly came down to Firelord versus Spider-Man in a fist-fight, and Spider-Man used “surprise” (Firelord would never expect him to attack HIM) to win the fight – which doesn’t make sense. If Firelord’s powers were derived from, like, concentration, then okay – I could see how surprising him would work. But they’re not, so it doesn’t work.

The Amazo story was a Millar fill-in, not Morrison. And it really wasn’t that clever and was a bit of a cheat since it contradicted earlier explanations of how the Amazo power-stealing worked.

Not to seem anti-semantic, but it was just a case of someone being needlessly literal for the sake of a ‘twist’ ending.

My assumption (though I can’t remember what was explained in the story) was that Amazo had been rebuilt/reprogrammed to “have the powers of the entire JLA” in the belief that it would make him more powerful than other occasions when he’d picked up the powers as he battled each member (IIRC). Being a computer he would be “needlessly literal” in the way he interpreted it – it’s a common annoyance of mine that computers do what I tell them rather than what I really obviously meant.

And as for whether JLA #27 is a deus ex machina or not, well, obviously, I’m on the “it was” side of the discussion, but I really don’t think it’s something I could really argue.

I understand why you folks would think it’s not, but I think you certainly understand why I think it is.

I’m not sure I do understand why you think it is.

Despero, Amazo, Eclipso. Is there somthing about having a name that ends with ‘o’ that makes you sound more evil?

(I’ll use Wikipedia for the definition)

The revelation that Ivo created Amazo with such a ridiculous flaw is “an unexpected, artificial, and/or improbable device and/or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction or drama to resolve a situation.”

Or, in other words, a deus ex machina.

The “suddenly” aspect is the revelation that Ivo, for no reason at all, gave Amazo “strictly literal” abilities, which makes no sense, as the same effect would have occurred had he (logically) programmed Amazo to just have the powers of as many superheroes as he decided Amazo should have, which is what he always did in the past.

Despero, Amazo, Eclipso. Is there somthing about having a name that ends with ‘o’ that makes you sound more evil?

The O Quiz! :)

http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2006/11/01/test-your-comic-book-knowledge-for-111/

Amusingly enough, Blue Beetle was involved in one of these during the Eclipso crossover!

That was a great story, that Justice League annual where Blue Beetle had to face off against Eclipso all by himself (with nice artwork by dave Cockrum). It helped show that, underneath all of the goofy bwah-ha-ha-ha stuff, BB was a competent & intelligent guy who could hold his own alongside the DCU’s big guns.

Really makes me wish that BB had been written that way in “Countdown to Infinite Crisis,” instead of as a putz who everyone regarded as a loser.

I’m stunned that the granddaddy of all underdog clichés hasn’t made it when it was recently parodied in mention of Squirrel girl taking on Dr. Doom. Hasn’t every Marvel hero had a round or two with the ole Doc and come out up to snuff?

“Deus ex machina” means “god out of the box” and it refers to moments in ancient Greek dramas when the characters in a play all faced an unsolvable problem, and then one of the gods of Olympus would suddenly appear and fix everything supernaturally.

Yes, that is the original definition of deus ex machina. In modern usage, though, most people use it to refer to any out-of-left-field plot device that is abruptly brought in at the last minute, with no previous set-up or foreshadowing, to quickly & conveniently solve the story’s crisis.

This could be a 3 (Cavalry) or a 2 (Weaker team members)–or it could be entirely inapplicable!

BUT

I treasure the moment in the INCREDIBLES movie when Elastigirl (mom), Shrinking Violet (daughter) and Dash (son) are flying to save Mr. Incredible (dad) and Elastigril realizes that they will not be able to outmaneuver an incoming missile. She orders the completely untrained Violet to use her forcefield powers to protect them, and Violet tries and fails, tries and fails, tries and fails as the missile approaches. The plane blows up and we’re all expecting to see Violet’s force bubble encircling the family and floating on the trade winds–but no, it’s Elastigirl in the shape of a parachute, carrying the kids. Violet wasn’t up to the task, and life-threatening pressure wasn’t going to change that.

I guess my point here is that underdog situations can involve failure and still be satisfying.

Also, how can one mention ragtag teams without referencing the Legion of Substitute Heroes?

I really like the Ragtag bunch of heroes. I’ll buy comics like Beyond just ’cause they have a rag-tag bunch of heroes.

And Firelord was powerful, but weak against blunt tramaau. I’m fine with that.

Another absolutely classic Improbable: Squirrel Girl’s takedown of M.O.D.O.K. in the GLA-XMAS Special.

And of course, the GLA itself is Ragtag defined.

“And Firelord was powerful, but weak against blunt tramaau. I’m fine with that.”

I don’t buy it. You have to be pretty tough to survive in outer space. Not to mention all the obvious muscles he has. He’s clearly physically strong and tough.

And “blunt trauma”? The dude just survived an entire city block being destroyed, as well as (earlier) a building COLLAPSING UPON HIM – and he just shook it off.

But Spidey punched him a bunch of times, and he was knocked out.

Doesn’t work.

Was that in the first part? I remembr this being a two parter and me not reading the first part. Or I could, I suppose, be remembering wrong.

He has a psychological fear of spiders then. Or a psychological fear of SPACE spiders.

OR he just got an entire city block knocked on him and wasn’t in the best shape.

Or he’s vulnerable to sudden, concentrated impacts in the head area, which he wouldn’t necassarilly get from having a building or two fall on him, especially since his head’s on debris-burning fire.

Or Spidey fought the Surfer back in the sixties and did alright. Spidey’s pretty tough.

I’m not sure why this hit everyone’s suspension-of-disbelief so hard. Spidey had a good day. This bothered me much less than the Juggenaut fight where Spidey wins ’cause he’s lucky. LUCKY! Spider-man! Even MY suspension of disbelief only goes so far. (Or maybe sense of what’s character-appropriate.)

But the point was, he didn’t just “shake it off”. Spidey had been wearing him down the whole fight with the big stuff–collapsing buildings, exploding gas stations, the whole works–and finally got him down to the point where he’d expended a lot of his cosmic energy, and then Spidey just took the fight into what he did best. Dodge and punch.

It’s like rope-a-dope, but against a herald of Galactus. :)

Pedantry, but:

Deus ex machina means god from the machine, referring to the gigantic crane device used to lower actors playing gods onto the stage.

Now you’ve got me picturing a ‘god-in-the-box’. In my head, it is a Kirby-drawn Thor.

*POP* “Verily!”

Underdog cliche?

“Not bird, nor plane, nor even frog, just little old me, Underdog!”

Yes, that is the original definition of deus ex machina. In modern usage, though, most people use it to refer to any out-of-left-field plot device that is abruptly brought in at the last minute, with no previous set-up or foreshadowing, to quickly & conveniently solve the story’s crisis.

Maybe I remember the issue wrongly but I thought the programming of Amazo was set up earlier in the story.

I don’t buy it. You have to be pretty tough to survive in outer space. Not to mention all the obvious muscles he has. He’s clearly physically strong and tough.

Not that tough really. The effects of vacuums are massively exagerated in fiction.

http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/ask_astro/answers/970603.html

Squirrel Girl’s entire purpose appears to be to mock this very cliche, considering that not only did she take down the real, actual Dr. Doom, but in the span of ONE SPECIAL, she takes out MODOK, Thanos, and Gladiator coming back from the liquor store.

Someone mentioned the Dazzler/Galactus match. Wasn’t she teamed with Black Bolt at the time, and channel his nearly infinite-level sonic power into a laser blast, combining their power, like a person spitting adds to the force of an oncoming tidal wave?

We were talking about this last night.

We decided that “Underdog gives his life to save his homeland/the orphans/Ol’ Miss Johnson’s Puppy/what have you” should probably be on the list.

Think the Executioner in Simonson’s Thor, or the Swordsman circa Celestial Madonna. Or DEFINITELY # 6. Also Underdog comes back to life as a ghost, marries Plant Jesus should be # 7.

two comments here, spidey vs. firelord and the absence of (although of minimal importance, comparatively) matter-eater lad vs. omega.

as far as spidey vs. firelord…

uhmmm…. yeah. ok, so firelord can withstand the vacuum of space. spidey at that time could bench 10 tons, or 20,000 lbs. ok, so the space shuttle can regularly withstand the rigors of space (but it can’t heal itself; firelord probably can). if spidey wanted to tear apart the space shuttle in new york, does anyone doubt he could? a few punches could take out any of the windows. so maybe firelord could heal, but as fast as spidey could deal out the punishment? i think not.

spidey’s also shown he can fight tough foes, like titania. pretty much everyone agrees he could take her. why? she’s strong (she presses 80 tons), tough, and hates him, so she won’t hold back anything. she’s also dumber than a 5th grader (or most 5th graders) and a lot slower than spidey. all he has to do is make fun of her so she fights stupidly, avoid her blows (easy for him with his speed and spider-sense) and keep hitting her until she falls. he does have a lot of endurance, experience, strength, and speed. the same strategy applies to firelord.

he fights firelord like he fights his other enemies; firelord eventually gets pissed until he starts fighting stupidly. of course firelord COULD defeat spidey; that’s not the point. if firelord were fighting smart, all he’d have to do is keep his distance. spidey has only his webbing at that range, while firelord is not restricted at all. if he kept shooting at spidey and moving away, there’s no way spidey could catch up to someone who regularly moves through space at incredible speeds. instead, firelord fought like an idiot, thinking that spidey was so far beneath him that it didn’t even matter. he chose to fight spidey’s way on spidey’s turf, which was an idiotic move. you don’t fight spider-man up close on the ground, unless you want to get your ass kicked. no matter how tough you are, you’re gonna go down to someone with super strength and super speed who can punch hard and fast and never get hit.

oh, if you’re faster or tougher there are exceptions. spidey can’t beat the hulk in a fair fight and would never be able to go against another galactus herald like the silver surfer, but come on, firelord??? he’s kinda the black sheep of the family as far as heralds go. and with defeat at the hands of spidey? yeah, strictly b-list from here on out…

a notable absence from the list: matter-eater lad vs. omega!

matter-eater lad, with the ability to eat anything made of matter, vs. the invincible embodiment of hate in the universe, omega. omega could not be defeated or destroyed as long as hate existed in the universe. however, he was created by the indestructible “miracle machine” which could bring thoughts into reality. brainiac 5′s solution was to have matter-eater lad eat the machine! someone who is really hungry saves the day (and the universe, whatever). maybe someday… kobayashi to the rescue! or that big american guy now…

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