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The Most Infamous Chosen Ones in Modern Cinema
“You are the chosen one.”
This phrase, uttered in all its differing forms, has given birth to some of the most memorable characters in modern film history. And yet, it’s also one of the most tired and cliched tropes used to bestow an unbalanced amount of power on one central character. Yes, when a script forces an audience to focus their attention solely on this all-powerful “chosen one,” it suddenly weakens the importance of every other character in the film, being that they now solely exist to aid the protagonist in successfully fulfilling fate and achieving their destiny.
Still, we all love the idea of a “chosen one,” the person upon whom rests the entire fate of the world. They’re easy to cheer for, and their dire situations often make for some compelling drama.
So, what makes for a “chosen one”? Typically, it’s a person who has no idea of their power/destiny, is made aware of it by an informed “mentor” figure, trains, develops, struggles with their fate, and ultimately embraces it in order to fulfill a prophecy of some sort.
While it’d be nice to see a movement away from using this trope in its most vanilla form, it’s still fun to take a look back and recount some of the greater saviors of modern cinema whose fate and power were foretold. For the sake of staying somewhat original, we did take out superheroes and only left the more compelling and popular figures of the last thirty years.
*Obligatory Spoiler Warning*
Bastian Bux (The Neverending Story)
The 80’s and 90’s saw a slew of terrible children’s movies that hit on nearly every trope the fantasy genre had to offer, but few are able to match the kitchy-ness of The Neverending Story.
In a stroke of good fortune, our “chosen” hero Bastian Bux stumbles across a mysterious book when he takes shelter from bullies inside an old and eccentric bookstore. Ever the moralist, Bastian takes the book, leaving a note behind that promises his return of it, then retreats to the school attic to…read. You know, like all the kids used to do.
Bastian’s narration of the book suddenly pitches viewers headfirst into the land of Fantasia, a nonsensical fantasy world where giant turtles impart wisdom, ancient statues fry oncomers for no good reason, an ominous force known only as “The Nothing” threatens all, and an eight year old girl rules the land. And yeah, Bastian is the chosen “human child” that saves everyone and everything by giving the empress a new name, which he delivers in one of the most delightfully melodramatic scenes of all time.
Bastian is a somewhat unconventional chosen one, but the kids who saw this film and didn’t recognize its many, many flaws will undoubtedly have fond memories of his accomplishment. And as dumb as it might sound, it’s hard to argue that any of us would turn down a ride on Falcor.
Neo (The Matrix)
Neo is just an average hacker in the days of AIM when he’s thrown headfirst into a massive conspiracy that ultimately leads him to discovering the truth about his world and that of The Matrix, a machine that suspends humanity in a sleep-like state in order to use their body heat and electricity for energy.
Referred to several times throughout the film as a “chosen one,” Neo is given a choice to either help the resistance fight back against the Matrix and fulfill his destiny, or to simply forget everything and go back to his normal life.
As goofy as the chosen one trope is, The Matrix still managed to make it interesting by surrounding Neo’s importance with great action and somewhat compelling moments. Sure, it’s a bit cheesy, but don’t even try to tell me you didn’t get a little bit excited when he took the blue pill from Lawrence Fishburne’s hand.
John Connor / Sarah Connor (Terminator)
When sentient machines known as Terminators have taken over the earth and driven humanity almost to extinction, only one man known as John Connor will rise to the task of leading a rebellion and taking them down.
The “chosen one” trope in the Terminator is one that is admittedly inventive due to its explanation coming by way of time travel rather than destiny, but it’s also interesting due to the idea of a chosen one almost being split between two people. Sure, John is the man that will ultimately save us all, but his mother Sarah learns of her future son’s importance before she even considers having a child.
Thus, Sarah is forced to protect herself and her future son by fighting against the evil machines, teaching him the ways of combat, and preparing him for the inevitable future. Never has a more touching mother/son story been told.
The Skywalker Family (Star Wars)
Deciding between Anakin and Luke for this list was a difficult choice, simply because both father and son are chosen ones in the strictest of definitions. Anakin is chosen to restore order to the galaxy, but ultimately succumbs to the power of the dark side, while Luke learns of his ability to harness the force and is mentored by Obi-Wan Kenobi, the same man that trained his father. Both are all-powerful, both are lauded as saviors, and both are looked to as the ones that would save everyone from the Dark Side.
In the end, it was Luke that saved everything, including the audience by providing worthy alternatives to the awfulness of the prequel films.
Harry Potter (The Harry Potter Series)
While charming and definitive of many a childhood, Harry Potter is quite possibly the quintessential chosen one both in modern book and film history. He’s made aware of his powers at a young age, is the only person to mysteriously survive an attack from the world’s deadliest wizard, and is meant to be the one that takes He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named down in an epic wizard showdown for the ages.
Yes, it’s a little more than rote, but Harry Potter’s chosen one status was enough fuel to make for eight movies that decently depicted the events in J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful book series. Plus, this image is a “chosen one” moment that will be burned in our memories forever:
Ender Wiggin (Ender’s Game)
Ender’s Game relies so heavily on the idea of a chosen one that it almost hurts its overall narrative. A perfect combination of emotional and strategic intelligene, Ender Wiggin is a third child in a world where most families are only allowed to have two. Hand-selected by omnipresent military masterminds, Ender is taken in as the “chosen one” who will erradicate the threat of alien “buggers” and save humanity from another war.
Ender’s “chosen one” status is often confusing and convoluted due to the narrative not creating a world that fully supports its claims (why are six-year-old children trained to be military leaders?), but the internal conflicts between Ender’s sensitive and intelligent sides are often some of the most compelling parts of the story. The protagonist’s ultimate struggle with their destined selection is one that is genuinely interesting, but often mishandled or even skipped over in favor of action set pieces and narrative developments. For its ability to dive into Ender’s mind and really allow viewers to understand his conflict, the story and “chosen one” element of Ender’s Game is one of the most memorable in both book and film.
Frodo Baggins (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy)
Frodo isn’t a holder of any significant power, but he does have great responsibility thrust upon him when the One Ring falls into his care. Tasked with destroying the Ring and putting an end to the conflict between Sauron and the races of Middle Earth, Frodo is a “chosen one” who was picked by circumstance alone.
He can be a bit grating at times, but the journey he takes both through Middle Earth and as a character is what makes this “chosen one” an interesting pick. In the beginning, he is a reluctant and timid hero who only accepts the task out of necessity, but later realizes its importance and grows into a conflicted being who struggles with lust of power and his moral obligation to save Middle Earth. Like Ender before him, Frodo’s constant struggle with his position as a “chosen one” makes him one of the deeper characters of recent history that embodies this trope.
David Dunn (Unbreakable)
A bit of an odd choice, yes, but the character of David Dunn in Unbreakable is a “chosen one” that is often overlooked. Essentially a super hero, David discovers his unique physical abilities when it becomes increasingly clear that his body is able to endure more than the average human. Avoidance of illness, telepathy, and even superhuman strength all begin to reveal themselves as David tests his abilities and learns of his importance from the enigmatic Mr. Glass, a man obsessed with superheroes and their real-life parallels. David’s evolution as an unknowing “chosen one” is presented in a modern-day style, making him almost approachable and relatable in a way unmatched by the others on this list.
Liu Kang (Mortal Kombat)
This 1996 original has all the trappings of a typical video game adaptation: it’s kitschy, melodramatic, and laden with fan service meant to appease the hardest of hardcore players flocking into the audience. And yeah, it’s pretty bad.
That doesn’t stop Liu Kang from being one of the most widely recognized chosen ones in gaming, however, and this identity carried over into the film as well. Driven by revenge and chosen by circumstance, Kang enters into the deadly Mortal Kombat tournament seeking revenge after the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung killed his brother. After a series of battles and steadily-escalating events, Kang finds himself the only man worthy enough to take the fight to Shang Tsung in a twist of fate.
He’s not a great character, and the acting itself isn’t all that noteworthy. But, Kang is one who recognizes his power and readily accepts his position as the “chosen one”, eventually capitalizing on it to claim his revenge and save the world.
Aang (The Last Airbender)
Aang is an example of an all-powerful being chosen by circumstance. One of a long line of Airbenders, he’s the only of his kind in the world who has been faced with the major task of defeating the Fire nation before they enslave the other element-based nations stretched out over the world. Oh, and he’s also a kid. Basically a little, all-powerful chosen one kid with no mentor who must bring balance to the fragile politics of the state. It’s a tall order for our tattooed hero, but one that he handles with a graceful amount of gravitas and kung fu.
Yes, the plot is a bit overblown and ridden with fantasy tropes, but the character of Aang and the construction of the world in The Last Airbender is actually quite decent. Touches of class warfare, identity, and even a little coming-of-age are all added to give the story themes that reach further than its basic premise.
To be clear, I’m talking about the animated Nickelodeon version. We don’t speak of the M. Night Shyamalan-directed mess that washed away two hours of our lives.
Po the Panda (Kung Fu Panda)
Kung Fu Panda is by no means an Oscar-winning film, but the way it tackles the trope of the “chosen one” is, at times, pretty comedic. Po is an overweight and clumsy panda bear working in a noodle shop when he is chosen to fulfill an ancient prophecy and become the fabled Dragon Warrior. Knowing nothing about Kung Fu, Po is thrust headfirst into a world he knows next to nothing about, with nothing but his wits and will to aid him.
The real charm to Kung Fu Panda is the way it uses the “chosen one” trope as both a plot device and comedy fuel. So many of our chosen heroes are those who have at least a sliver of skill or courage that will help them eventually assume their role, when Po has nothing but sheer enthusiasm. The fact that he is as bumbling and goofy as he is makes him endearing, all while adding a nice layer of juxtaposition to the plot that asks us to believe that a bumbling fool could be a hero foretold in a prophecy. Yes, we’ve seen it used countless times before in a similar manner, but Kung Fu Panda had fun with the trope in ways we don’t see often enough.