Humans have created organized societies for thousands of years, and we have been reciting tales since those humble origins. After several millennia of storytelling, the ability to come up with truly original stories is becoming harder and harder. So, the evolution of this is that our stories have begun to build and expand on the patterns and tropes of the stories we have told. Hell, this list and this website is just my version of something hundreds, if not thousands, of other websites and blogs have done first.
Tropes and cliches are not inherently bad. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a story that does not contain them. Some of the most respected works of cinema and literature are revered for how well they implement tropes within their stories. So, just because a film you love might contain one, or even a few of these tropes, does not mean that film is necessarily bad. When a film relies so heavily on the predictability of tropes to create a wholly unoriginal story, that is when the use of cliches and tropes devolves into the territory of being hackneyed.
There is a quality to a cliche that makes it stand out so profoundly that I just cannot ignore it. I was drawn to making this list after watching “The Green Book” a few years back and seeing how critics praised it and gave it 3 Academy Awards. My mom and I went to the theater together to watch it and we both laughed at each other when it was over at just how predictable the entire film was. Even if you didn’t see that movie in the theaters, we were fairly sure that any casual moviegoer with the slightest bit of context could have foreseen many of the major plot points coming. This isn’t to say that it was a bad film, just that it was predictable.
As I said, most films and stories are littered with cliches and tropes, mainly because it is simply very difficult to be 100% original all of the time. A lot of the best ideas for stories we have already had. But there are some cliches that are indulged in far more frequently than others, and it are those that I want to discuss. These are some of the most recycled ideas in modern movies, according to my eyes. I would like to give an honorable mention for movie posters where all of the characters are on the front but stare off into different directions in front of a background split between red and blue. I didn’t include it on the actual list since they technically aren’t part of the actual movies, but please, let’s take a break from this.
This is a list I have been trying to create for years now. The original draft of this was written up in the Fall of 2019, but something felt “off” about it. So, I put it on the backburner for a bit, hoping to revisit it after looking at it with fresh eyes. But that didn’t really happen. I circled back a couple of times over the past few years, each time feeling more disenchanted with my thoughts, and eventually, I had given up on it. Now it is late March of 2022, and I am ready to give it a final swing at this. If I am being honest, I still think this list isn’t as refined as it could be. Whatever I felt was missing all of those years ago seems to still be absent now. Having said that, I do think improvements to the original have been made, so don’t think I am trying to pass along shotty work. I hope you enjoy!
10 – Teamwork or Believing in Yourself Solves Everything
Why do we watch films? We primarily enjoy movies to be entertained. However, there are so many elements present in a film that can make it more memorable than the last one. I like to believe the best films are as impactful as they are because they have something important to share with the audience. Many films struggle to really justify their own existence in these terms because they were not created for any other reason than to make money by being mindless entertainment. These films are dragged down by the most primitive and simplistic messages in order to avoid any potentially challenging material being thrown at the audience.
So often, we get the most basic messages like “believe in yourself,” or “working as a team is more effective than working alone,” to effortlessly fill in the blanks of a narrative that only exists for shiny objects, attractive actors, and big explosions. My favorite example of this is in “Fast and Furious: Hobbs and Shaw”, where THE ENTIRE CONFLICT is solved by the titular characters punching Idris Elba’s character at the same time instead of one at a time. It is perhaps the most insultingly stupid resolution to a 2-hour film humanity might ever see. That not enough for you? What about in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” when Rey defeats Palpatine and essentially solves 9 films worth of conflict by activating a 2nd lightsaber and countering Palpatine’s line of “I am all the Sith” with her own “And I am all the Jedi”? Remember that? Unfortunately, I do. Not every film needs to be the next “Citizen Kane,” but would it kill you to put a little effort into writing the story?
9 – Final Countdown/Running Clock
Writing tension is a critical aspect of most third acts of a story. No matter the type of movie you are watching, an absence of stress in the closing moments can bury an otherwise fine story. An easy trick many writers use is to put a running clock. Sports films have the game clock, action films have a time bomb set to detonate, romantic movies have one character chase the other to an airport before their flight leaves. The point is, this trope can take many forms, but they always have the same purpose.
I don’t outright hate this trope, though. It can be very fun to watch the seconds tick away as we watch our heroes struggle to overcome whatever obstacles are in front of them. But come on! It’s just so overplayed at this point. You could go back more than half of a century and find this same plot device being used for the exact same purpose that it is still being used as today. We are just so oversaturated by this trope that it can lose its charm after a while.
8 – Two Attractive Characters in the Same Film Need to Fall in Love
Maybe this one is just me and my inability to understand simple human interactions. I’ll admit, I am not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to romance and the sort. I am just a weird guy who writes his opinions and sends them out into the ether in the hopes that maybe someone out there is at least intrigued by them. But maybe I am also onto something here. That will be up to you to decide.
So often it seems that a romance between leading characters is all but inevitable. And this part I get. Love is a powerful emotion and people are naturally attracted to seeing it displayed. When the love story is integral to the plot of the film itself, the romance can elevate that story. Where I see an issue is that the love story doesn’t always have anything to do with the plot as a whole, and only serves to throw 2 attractive actors into a softcore love making scene. Again, I fully understand the appeal of these scenes. I am not so far removed from humanity that I can’t appreciate the allure of it all.
I find my disconnect with this trope rises from the fact that it feels like every single attractive pair of actors that share a screen together are forced into a romance. It all just feels so predictable. The actors can have no chemistry, or their characters have no real qualities or experiences that would bond them. It doesn’t matter. They are hot so they will be together.
7 – Shared Cinematic Universes
Oh, Marvel, will you ever stop? Of course not! Marvel is the most successful media franchise in film and Disney is going to milk this cow until their just ain’t nothing left to milk. Their financial success has completely changed the landscape of blockbuster filmmaking. Every studio executive has been rabidly foaming out of the mouth, hoping their IP is the next winner of the cinematic universe lottery. But guess what. It won’t be.
Marvel is an anomaly, and it simply will not ever be replicated. That won’t stop studios from trying though! While Marvel and Star Wars thrive, the DC Comics Cinematic Universe, the “Harry Potter” Universe, the smaller “Spider-verse”, the misguided “Monster-verse”, “The Fast and the Furious” universe, The Mad Max Universe, and so many more that it feels ridiculous, all live in the shadow of the gargantuan presence of their trailblazers. All of these franchises are more closely resembling their Marvel counterparts in an attempt to replicate the financial spoils that Disney has reaped from their precious IP.
Not only have none of the other shared cinematic universes been able to reproduce the same success as Marvel, but they have also simultaneously hurt their films in their folly. Films, much like all stories, typically are self-contained. All the information you need to understand and enjoy the film is present in the film itself. Occasionally, a sequel would pop up here and there that would continue threads from its predecessor, but those would rarely stray into anything greater than a self-contained trilogy (Even “The Godfather” did this so it isn’t all bad). But, in these shared cinematic universes, the films are incomplete because the story never ends. Every film is just setting up the threads for the next film, and the cycle repeats itself endlessly until the money dries up.
Does anyone think that the Marvel Cinematic Universe will ever end? Why would it? It is so profitable and the collection of characters they can use is nearly limitless. They are going to continue this until they are physically unable to continue. I know this because they produced a film called ENDGAME which wasn’t even the end of that particular Phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And since other studios are trying (and failing) to emulate this, more and more movies will resemble this incomplete story that is just simply a piece of a greater whole. No longer are we able to just watch a story from beginning to end.
I have always said that with the DC Comics films, they should stop trying to be Marvel. They will never outperform them at their own game. But, all of those other franchises, DC included, have strengths that Marvel cannot match given the circumstances they find themselves in. Marvel can’t take risks because their films are systematic productions. DC has had wild success with their films that are self-contained and stand on their own. They struggle when they attempt to be Marvel’s little sibling.
For the sake of preserving the idea of a quality narrative structure, I hope all of these franchises just go back to telling their stories without the specter of Marvel dictating how to setup subsequent films. Marvel is a runaway freight train. There is no stopping them. But these other franchises are still stalling and there is plenty of time for course correction if they are willing to realize that they aren’t Marvel, no matter how much they want to be.
6 – “The Chosen One”
This is more of an archetype than it is purely a trope. The idea of a “chosen one” has existed in human storytelling since we were still in caves (I don’t actually know that to be true, but I will say it with the confidence of a person who thinks they do). This archetype is berthed from the need for a divine savior to come and rescue us normal people from the circumstances that we are not special enough to best on our own, no matter how hard we work. It is often associated with legends and mysticism, and it is one of the tropes that I detest the most.
My issue with this is that the idea of a chosen one completely eliminates stakes in a story. If a character is given prophetic fate, they are essentially guaranteed to succeed at their task. What is even worse is that their aptitude is given to them, not earned. Characters of destiny are shiny objects that are easy to sell, but they are ironically flawed in that they are inherently not flawed. Filmmakers work with this trope by adding hesitancy, doubt, temptation, and corruptibility to their character traits, which admittedly does help make each iteration stand out from the last in some ways. But it is ultimately inescapable that the character is destined to succeed from the very beginning, not through hard work, but because they were always supposed to succeed.
This trope expresses to us that heroes are born into this world as heroes. If you are not chosen, you need to wait for someone who is so they can carry you along with them for the ride. It is a terribly shallow lesson to build your characters around, and unfortunately, it is very commonplace. Yes, we have notable heroes like Anakin Skywalker, John Connor, Harry Potter, and Neo, but the longer the list gets, the more similar each character begins to feel. And those are just the most popular examples. There are plenty of more that fall flat because the trope leads to predictable, safe, and ultimately consequence-free storytelling.
5 – Musician Biopics
I understand that many people enjoy this genre of films, so this might not land with everyone. If you have seen one Musician Biopic (Biographical Motion Picture), you have seen every Musician Biopic. Frankly, I have issues with all biopics in general, but the ones that focus on musicians are the ones that gluttonously indulge in ritualistic cliche use. And with each passing year, I see more and more musicians be treated to their own biopics with seemingly no end to the vicious cycle.
If you’ve ever watched movie, undoubtedly you are familiar with the term “Based on a true story”. Well, guess what that means. It’s fiction! That’s right. Just because the character was a real person and some of the events existed does not mean the story you are watching is really how it happened. Many moviegoers are duped into believing they are watching a true biography of these figures, but they are watching fictional interpretations of the character.
I have no issue with creative liberties being taken. If you want facts, go watch a documentary. My problem is that all of these films, despite the complete freedom to do whatever the hell it is they want to do, ALL DO THE EXACT SAME THINGS. I have reviewed 2 of these such films on this site and by the time I got to just the 2nd one, I had already felt I had seen the entire library of the genre and was over it. “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman” have the EXACT SAME PLOT. Both are about a shy kid who adopts a flamboyant persona as they establish themselves in the music industry. As they get more famous, they are introduced to more people who want to take advantage of their success, which leads the main characters to disappoint the people who believed in them all along. They experiment with drugs and their sexuality and eventually lose themselves in their own hedonism. Then, when they finally push everyone away, they perform one last time on a big stage and win back the affection of everyone they pushed away. All character development is done by singing the musician’s greatest hits or melodramatic monologue. Copy. And. Paste.
What is so difficult for me is that these films don’t have to be carbon copies of each other. The genre is constrained by limitations that are entirely self-imposed. We already know the films aren’t factually accurate, so why must we always default to the same story each time? Why not do things differently? I understand that these films are not EXACTLY the same. Of course, some details will vary from film to film to try to more accurately depict the specific musician. But the variety is strikingly limited beyond just the few essential specifics required to avoid a plagiarism lawsuit. “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” is a great satire of this genre. Primarily mocking “Walk the Line”, it hammers home the excessive use of every cliche, and it will make it so abundantly obvious just how recycled these films are.
Martin Scorsese says Marvel films are ruining cinema, but I would argue that the Musician Biopic genre, while not as mainstream and dominating pop culture, is doing just as much damage to the state of cinema. But these films are often just vehicles for actors and directors to try to win awards. No one is concerned about thew actual quality of the film because it is a proven formula. The actors really get to ham it up in Oscar bait roles, maybe throw on a slight accent or a prosthetic, pretend to do drugs, have a sexually liberating experience or two, lip-sync a few popular songs, and then get rewarded with little gold trophies that are supposed to signify creative excellence.
4 – Bathos
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, Merriam-Webster defines Bathos as “the sudden appearance of commonplace in otherwise elevated matter or style,” “Anticlimax” or “insincere Pathos (emotional appeal).” Essentially, Bathos is when you cheapen a moment of emotional stress or growth with misplaced actions, most commonly taking the form of humor.
It is all-too common nowadays for films to be afraid to take their subject matter seriously enough to present it without a rider of comedic Bathos. Specifically, Marvel and Disney films are LITTERED with this. Whether it is making Thor fat in “Avengers: Endgame”, or Peter and his friends stopping to make fun of Doc Ock’s real name in “Spider-Man: No Way Home”, films that employ this tactic insist on diluting any potentially challenging material to make it palatable to the least common denominator of moviegoer.
Infamous middle-aged bully Joss Weadon had a famous quote “Make it dark. Make it Grim. Make it tough. But then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” Whether it was his intention or not, studios and filmmakers have embraced this message and in turn devalued true Pathos in film. Sometimes, it is ok for films to take themselves seriously. Sometimes, it is important for characters to experience emotions. Sometimes, bad things should happen. Life is about experiencing the highs and lows around us. We deserve to understand exactly what it is the characters need to overcome to fulfill their character arcs. That is not to say humor is a problem, just that when a film is indiscriminatory with the execution of humor, it lessens the impact it could have had.
I liken this to eating your vegetables. You might not love them, but in the end, they are healthy for you, and you can’t eat candy for every meal. Experiencing sadness, loss, heartbreak, or any other variety of negative feelings are challenging. But there is a beauty in the struggle and the most powerful victories are always those that stem from overcoming the greatest loss. The overabundance of bathos has systematically eradicated these victories from our realm of storytelling, and I wish filmmakers would respect us enough to attempt to challenge us more than they do.
3 – Female Leads with Little-to-No Character Arcs
With our modernized ideals and worldviews, there has been a much needed and concerted effort to create stories for characters that more accurately reflect the makeup of our world. I am well aware of the dichotomy that has formed in our society regarding diversity in film, and I feel like we have been unwilling to actually address the conflict. I believe that the goals of inclusion and diversity are what we should be striving for, but too often, whether it be out of a sense of pride or ignorance, many of those who vouch for positive change refuse to adequately explain their points-of-view. In my experience, it appears as though many feel insulted that they would even need to lower themselves to engage in a conversation with someone who dissents. But that will never change anything. If we don’t engage with each other, the best we can hope to do is talk louder than them, which will encourage them to talk louder too. And you don’t win idealistic conflicts by screaming louder than your opponent.
My rambling has a point to it. In our haste to scream louder than any potential dissent, we have created a shallow husk of our original goal of inclusion. To specify, the way filmmakers have begun to construct leading female protagonists has suffered. Yes, now we have more female-led films in our mainstream culture than we ever have before, and if success were completely number-driven, we would be well on our way to an idealistic victory. But it isn’t and we aren’t. Captain Marvel, Rey, and even the rebooted Mulan all share a quality that actively destroys all they were supposed to achieve beyond the surface-level victories of representation. They all are existing absent a character arc. The filmmakers obviously hoped that these characters would become “strong female characters” and in their haste to create that, they removed their character arcs and created finished products.
None of these characters ever face any opposition that can be considered legitimately challenging. For Rey, she is self-taught, self-motivated, and self-guided right from her introduction. Captain Marvel is the single most powerful being in the galaxy. There is no antagonizing force in her film that could ever challenge her for supremacy. There is no profound lesson that changes her from the beginning of her film to the end of her film. She just learns that the real villains are not who she thought they were in the beginning, that she should believe in herself more, and then goes to single-handedly destroy an entire army with an ill-defined and overpowered skillset. The rebooted Mulan is the most depressing of all because her character was tremendous in her original film. There she had to work hard to overcome the struggles of fighting in a war. She begins as someone who is not physically equipped to handle the challenge in front of her, so she has to learn to overcome these hurdles, using her cunning and growing physically. In the reboot… she is born with magic powers and was always better than everyone around her.
Yes, I know there are terribly written male leads too, and yes, I know it is unfair that there is a century plus of films over-saturated with male leads. The fact is though, female leads have an uphill battle to fight, and we are fumbling the opportunity we have right now to achieve our goal because we are being impatient with the way we write our female leads. A poorly written character hiding behind the guise of identity does harm the goal of representation in the long run. We can’t be so afraid of having a female character be viewed as weak that we forget to show them earn their strength. The best way to make sure the principles of inclusion are upheld is to put in the effort to make female characters flawed, present them with a legitimate challenge, have them struggle, then ultimately grow from the experience. It doesn’t have to be that “cut-and-paste”, but the idea remains true. We need to respect our female leads enough to make them imperfect, and so far, we have not done this.
2 – Deus Ex Machina
Time for another quick vocabulary lesson. Deus ex machina can be translated from Greek to mean “God from a machine,” and Marriam-Webster defines the phrase as “a person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.” And, since this isn’t an SAT Prep class, I will simplify it one step further. Think of this as an unearned solution to an obstacle.
I don’t think this will be a controversial take, but I would like for the characters in the story I am watching to actually earn their victories, whatever they may be. When Finn and Rose are on The First Order Juggernaut ship and are about to die, they aren’t freed by their own guile or strength. They are freed by a sudden action by characters that had nothing to do with their story. Then, they get to cleanly walk to the single preserved escape ship that survived the destruction around them. Their story just works out because of circumstances that they did not earn or achieve on their own.
In “The Batman”, Bruce Wayne is nearly completely exhausted at the end of the film and looks to be almost beaten. But just when it looks like he is done, he injects himself with a previously unknown green substance and he gets back up and kicks some ass. Where did he get it? What is it? How did he know he would need it? The substance just appears right when he needs it most and it helps him resolve the main conflict. Fortunately, this moment is the outlier in an otherwise well-deserved victory for the character, but it goes to show that many of the more competently written scripts still succumb to this issue.
Thankfully, these pitfalls are easy to avoid with just a little effort and clarity. Filmmakers just need a clear path forward when they are creating the story and these acts of God can easily be setup within the narrative before they have consequential roles in the plot. Stories are always more satisfying when the struggles of their characters are overcome with their own abilities. I doubt this trope will ever be completely removed from film because it has existed since the times of the ancient Greeks, but hopefully we can look to avoid this more and so it becomes a novelty, rather than an actual tool in mainstream storytelling.
1 – The Word “Dark”
Look at all those films with Dark in the title! As bad as all of the other cliches I listed above are, there is no single greater FORCE OF NATURE than a film studio slapping “Dark” into a title and script of a film. What hurts about this the most is that some of my favorite films are possibly the genesis of this trope. “Darkness” penetrated mainstream consciousness could begin when “Star Wars” introduced the Dark Side of the Force in 1977 (although I am sure the concept of dark filmmaking already existed), which is a proper noun and not just abstract darkness. However it is the seeds that have been harvested into the leviathan of nondescript, general “dark” stuff we have gotten today. And if “Star Wars” just planted the seeds, the meteoric commercial and critical success of “The Dark Knight” kicked off the harvest that we have been experiencing for almost a decade and a half now.
The reason I hate this so much is because the trend is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of what made “The Dark Knight” so successful. It stems from a smooth-brained interpretation that fans enjoyed that film because it was “dark and gritty” and not just because it was an expertly constructed film. Studio executives saw that film and said, “The fans want dark movies, and we’ll give it to them!” So, instead of looking towards “The Dark Knight” for inspiration on narrative structure, casting, set design, directing, musical composition, choreography, or special effects, studios are attempting to strike gold by recreating their idea of the tone of that film.
It might sound as though I hate the idea of gritty realism and am advocating for more lighthearted camp in my films, but that isn’t the case. Tone itself is something that should not be ignored, so if filmmakers want to make “Dark” films, they absolutely should. I draw my issues from this because in the desperate attempt to pander to hypothetical audiences by hitting their darkness quota, filmmakers have been taking inexcusable shortcuts. They substitute actual pathos and ethos with broad, generalizations about abstract darkness, and then lean heavily on that borderline ethereal concept to justify plot points.
If you’re craving an example, I will gladly point you to one of the movies I have most heavily critiqued: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”. Thankfully, this movie didn’t throw the word darkness into the title, but it is a prime example of this modern trope at its absolute worst. The scene where Rey confronts Luke about his past with Kylo Ren, Luke reveals to Rey that one night, while Kylo Ren was asleep, Luke looked over his body and “felt the darkness”. This motivates Luke to ponder MURDERING HIS TEENAGED NEPHEW IN HIS SLEEP, which eventually causes Kylo Ren to go AWOL and betray his uncle. Do you see the problem? We are never told what exactly “the darkness” Luke felt was. It is just a substitute for “bad stuff”. Any information that could add even a shred of depth to these feelings is completely brushed away for the simplistic crutch of darkness. We could learn about who Kylo Ren is as a person, where these feelings originated from, what was happening in his life that challenged him, and how he was managing these feelings. But we were given “I felt the darkness” instead.
You will also find plenty of other examples of films just abusing the term “Dark”. “Terminator: Dark Fate” and “Star Trek: Into Darkness” are some of my favorites because of just how insultingly obvious they were with their executions. Both of those films have nothing to do with darkness, but the term is just thrusted into their titles to sell tickets. What does “Into Darkness” or “Dark Fate” even mean in the context of the films? Nothing! You could replace the term “Dark” in almost every film with “bad stuff” and I’d wager there is no significant change to any of their stories.
That’s my list! Constructing this was a very long process and I still feel like it is missing something. I had considered leaving this unpublished again in hopes that I would eventually figure it out, but I think that this at least gets my thoughts out there, which might help me think more clearly in the future. I hope someone will read this and can tell me what they think is missing, what I got wrong, and hopefully, what I got right.
One thought on “Top 10 Overused Movie Tropes and Cliches”
Great post. I myself have written a couple of manuscripts only to learn at the end that they were tropes. Maybe tropes are tropes for a reason, because they have a predictable structure for the audience to follow. Anyway, there’s a website somewhere covering all the tropes in SFF, and I have to say that most of the ideas I’ve ever had are all tropes. Not sure how I feel about that, lol. Btw, thanks for this post!