How the ensemble superhero film became king

Christopher Goring examines Marvel's winning formula

Source: Wikimedia Commons

4 May 2012 was a day that changed the landscape of cinema. Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble, the climax of the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was an epoch-making, trend-setting, earth-shattering event, the apotheosis of Marvel’s shared universe project. Still one of the best—and most successful—superhero films of all time, it laid the groundwork for a new age of team-up films. But how has Marvel managed to remain king of the genre, despite renewed assaults by Fox’s X-Men and the DC universe?

Many have pinned Avengers Assemble’s staggering success on the work that had already been done to build up its universe; the sixth film in the MCU, each of its predecessors teed up one of the major players. Such a foundation enabled Marvel to offset many of the major problems which tend to plague ensemble films: instead of being forced to watch cyphers fail to interact in any meaningful way, or endure hours of bland hollow shells going through the motions, they come together fully-formed, the audience understanding their motivations, histories, personalities, and drives.

And yet, it is untenable to argue that this is the only road to success, not least because 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a smash hit which introduced a largely unknown cast of wacky characters. It made excellent use of Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill as a way into its ensemble cast, allowing the audience to get to grips with its universe one alien at a time. Its triumph is rooted in the regard it displays for each member of its cast: they all get their minute to shine, are all imbued with history and inner life, are all constantly forming opinions on the other characters and the group and then reforming them in the light of new circumstances.

This is the thread that links them all, the cloth from which all ensemble films worth watching are cut. Avengers Assemble, despite inheriting a pre-established cast, lets character dynamics play out organically: the ideological tension between Iron Man and Captain America, the science-based bonding of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, the animosity felt by the team towards Fury’s secrecy all feel like natural consequences of these characters colliding. This is not a team composed of vapid symbols and vacuous icons, devoid of humanity, separated from comprehensible group dynamics in favour of trite iconography.

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Marvel’s productions have notable (and well-noted) flaws: their villains are often plot devices where a character should be, their soundtracks rarely do anything more than exist, and the television-side of their universe has entirely failed to reach the heady heights of their silver-screen epics. Nevertheless, their unique character-driven formula has allowed for the creation of the best superhero ensemble films ever made. X-Men eat your heart out.