First Father Wins
One quick way to establish conflict for a male lead (and it is almost always a guy used in this trope) is to make them a divorced father. The story will usually open with a first act divorce or some time after it has taken place, with the children old enough to start resenting their dad for "leaving them". For whatever reason things didn't work out with his Love Interest and they separated, with her usually keeping near complete custody. Their relationship will never be completely civil or free of UST, because the lead thinks they should get back together which his ex wife will rebuff because "You haven't changed" the underlying character flaws that led to the divorce. For whatever reason, it's always implied it's the dad whose flaw(s) led to the divorce; While the ex may be snarky, resentful or exasperated in their interactions, neither the lead nor usually the children will act as if she was the problem. Still, just as often this makes us sympathise with the father more, if she comes off as seriously insensitive or unforgiving in the course of this. She will have either remarried, gotten a fiancé or is seriously dating someone else. Since she has custody of the kids, the First Dad will be worried the Step Dad will win them over because he has more time with them and he's handsomer, more successful, more empathetic and an all around better dad (though a painfully dull and "safe" rebound guy is also possible). The kids, usually boy and girl pair, will have one of four relationships with the First Dad and Step Dad: passive aggressiveness, wary distance, civil cohabitation, or a loving and respectful rapport. For variety and contrast, they usually each have a different relationship with the dad and step dad. As the plot progresses, he'll win back his ex wife, the Step Dad will be revealed to be a Jerk Ass and get killed off or sent packing, he'll completely patch up his relationship with his kids and they'll all reunite and live Happily Ever After. Contrast Parent with New Paramour, where we usually root for the stepdad who's trying to win over the kids (in these stories, there usually isn't a First Dad around to hog the sympathy). See also The Parent Trap.
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- 2012 mixes it up a bit. Step Dad Gordon is a Nice Guy, saves their lives twice, and has honestly won the love and respect of his kids. Of course, the ex-wife loves him imperfectly, not as much as her old husband who she has a flame for, but enough to not leave him. And of course he dies at the end in what seemingly is a last-moment attack by the plot to keep this trope enforced BY ANY MEANS.
- While there's no romantic rival, reuniting with his wife and daughter is William Foster's primary motivation in the movie Falling Down. Foster doesn't just have "frustrating flaws" the way so many First Dads have; he's insane to the point that his own mother is terrified of him, and his ex will do anything to keep away from him. Since it's a drama, it doesn't end well: Foster ends up committing Suicide by Cop.
- The Belgian film Le huitième jour involved this as a major part of the plot.
- Mrs. Doubtfire has the example of Robin Williams's character cross-dressing as a nanny to spend time with his kids, while meanwhile Pierce Brosnan's character romances the ex. It leads to his ex-wife gaining full custody and forbidding him any contact with his kids without supervision. Double Subverted when the ex-wife allows the dad to visit the kids anyway and their dad takes the cross-dressing professional with a motivational childrens' show.
- Run Fatboy Run is quite literally this trope. The real dad does indeed beat the stepdad in the London Marathon, thus winning back the mum.
- Night at the Museum has something similar. Ben Stiller's character main motivation is proving himself a worthy father to his son, and to himself, but he and his ex-wife have an almost sibling like relationship, with absolutely no UST and Paul Rudd, the step-dad, is shown as goofy but dedicated and never actively tries to get between Stiller and his son. Which makes him all the bigger threat.
- The Royal Tenenbaums has Royal try this to return in good graces with his family, including getting rid of his ex-wife's suitor by pretending to have stomach cancer. The Step Dad eventually sees through his ruse and they kick him out. They do eventually forgive him though.
- The War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise has this set up, and plays it to a T except for the reunited parents.
- Weatherman with Nicolas Cage has this set up... which remains largely unchanged by movie's end, save for a slight repair in his relationship with his kids as he works out some personal issues.
- The Full Monty has Gaz trying to raise the money so that he can keep seeing his son on weekends. He goes about this by... unconventional means, which backfires when the police see him and his friends practicing their strip tease in front of the kid and arrest him.
- O Brother, Where Art Thou? has the wife of the protagonist (a convicted felon) attempt to marry a man with an honest living, whose worst fault appears to be that of being boring. Interestingly, the step dad is in the Ku Klux Klan, and gets swept out of the way because of it. The protagonist and wife eventually get sort of back together.
- Played With in The Santa Clause: it begins with Charlie clearly preferring his stepdad, Neil, to his workaholic father Scott, but Scott becoming Santa Claus helps to bring the two together. This leads to a rift between Charlie and Neil in the latter half of the movie—Neil is convinced Scott is delusional—but ultimately Charlie's relationship with both father figures is repaired. There's never really any hint that Scott and his ex-wife, Laura, might get back together.
- Gender swapped and subverted in Definitely, Maybe. A closer look at the movie may suggest that daughter Maya asks her father about how he met her mother to encourage him to rekindle old feelings. But when he tells her about the three major women in his life he realizes that the woman he loves isn't Maya's mother, and Maya then encourages him to follow his heart, even if it doesn't lead her parents to remarry.
- In Taken, Bryan's wife divorced him because of his time-consuming job as a special forces commander. She has remarried a millionaire and has custody of his daughter, Kimmy. Their relationship is summed up at Kimmy's birthday party, when Bryan gives her a karaoke machine, but her stepdad gives her a horse. The trope is ultimately subverted in that even though he regains the respect of his daughter and ex-wife after rescuing his daughter from kidnappers, they don't reunite as a family. Until the sequel.
- In Bringing Down the House, the mother's new boyfriend is perfectly nice, but he's a lot younger than her (and her ex-husband.) Presumably the age difference helps her decide to go back to her ex once he becomes less of a workaholic.
- Liar Liar plays this dead straight, with a reliable but boring new father figure who winds up getting the shaft just as she and the ex-wife were about to move away together. Interestingly, it still takes the couple a year to get back together.
- Sharknado is particularly blatant with the Jerk Ass new boyfriend, but he gets all of two minutes on screen before getting eaten. Makes you wonder why they bothered, unless it was meant to be a subtle parody. Naturally the protagonist and his ex get back together at the end, despite another woman also interested in him. (Who may hook up with the protagonist's son instead.)
- Domestic Disturbance is good example of this trope. The stepfather seems to be a successful businessman, but the son soon discovers that he is actually a killer. In the end, the first father (John Travolta) wins.
- Played painfully straight in The Strain with Matt, who is a cowardly, passive aggressive milquetoast department store manager described as a safe rebound guy. He tries to sabotage Eph's relationship and credibility with ex-wife Kelly, and tries to take Eph's place with son Zack. This in the middle of a
ZombieVampire Apocalypse, which leads to his convincing Kelly that Eph's warnings are a desperate cry for attention, which leads to both being turned into vampires. The trope is played so straight he seems to have a total lack of redeeming features, and when Eph beheads his vampire form, it's a toss up as to whether the feeling is cathartic or not.
Live Action TV
- Ray Drecker, Thomas Jane's character in Hung, essentially follows this trope.
- The father in Unhappily Ever After reluctantly does this. After they divorce in the first scene of the first episode he moves into a bachelor apartment; then eventually moves into the basement of his former home; and finally back upstairs with his wife. Then his wife is killed off so they could give more screen time to The Hot Chick.
- Danny "Danno" Williams and his ex-wife Rachel play this trope to the hilt in the Hawaii Five-0 reimagining; however, as of the season one finale, Danno stays in Hawaii while Rachel (pregnant with their child) and their daughter go back to Jersey and she begins to divorce her second husband. Time will tell what happens to their relationship from there.
- Earl Hickey of My Name Is Earl is a divorced father (his first wife left him for a mutual friend while he was doped up on morphine at the hospital). His children, however, are still young enough not to resent him for leaving, and even refer to him as "old daddy," and he finds out that Dodge actually is his biological child.
- Jimmy McNulty of The Wire is the first dad. He doesn't exactly win in the getting-back-together sense, but otherwise the trope applies.
- This is part of the storyline of Mutatsu, the Tower Social Link in Persona 3, minus the step-father.
- If you see the toys-as-parents theory, then Woody of Toy Story is like this, being Andy's favourite toy, even more than "stepdad" Buzz Lightyear.