There’s a moment in the third act of The Avengers when one of the film’s heroes reveals his deepest secret, then performs an extreme act of heroism. It’s so over-the-top that director Joss Whedon pauses for a long moment that all but begs for applause, a slow circle around the heroes, camera low, looking up at them to emphasize their godlike qualities. It’s a fantastic scene, and it points to one of the elements that makes The Avengers work so well where so many superhero films have failed: It’s first and foremost about the good guys. The film has that in common with the best of Whedon’s TV work, and that commonality suggests how giant franchise films could improve simply by looking to the small screen.
While The Avengers’ chief villain, Loki, is a fun figure, the alien force that invades in the film’s final act is painfully generic, primarily there for The Avengers to bat around and defeat. The aliens are meant to feel overwhelming, but their presence is never meant to overwhelm, right down to the way their design seems to be drawn directly from a bin of basic space monsters. The film almost goes out of its way to make this invading force as bland as possible, as if it knows that any time spent making the invading force too interesting will take time away from the film’s primary strengths.
This is similar to 2009’s Star Trek. That film’s villain—played by Eric Bana—went through the motions of an evil plot, one that even made some degree of sense. But the film kept losing interest in it in order to spend more time with the latest versions of Captain Kirk, Spock, and all the rest on the USS Enterprise. In both Star Trek and The Avengers, the bad guy’s plot is treated as an occasion for the movie’s good guys to hang out, crack wise, and bond with each other. Where many popcorn movies get caught up in following what the villain is up to at any given time—see pretty much any film featuring Batman—both The Avengers and Star Trek double down on having fun with the ensemble, watching the protagonists do their thing, and letting the antagonists blend into the woodwork.
The reason is simple: Joss Whedon, who directed The Avengers, and J.J. Abrams, who directed Star Trek, have worked extensively in genre TV, and both treat the giant franchise film as an elaborate episode of television. On TV, half the fun of any given episode is hanging out with the regulars and watching them bounce off each other. The Avengers and Star Trek work because they borrow the rhythms of television. The Avengers even directly quotes some of Whedon’s previous TV work: The scene where the heroes gather in the lab and begin fighting over what’s revealed as SHIELD’s secret plan is remarkably similar to a scene in the penultimate episode of Whedon’s Angel.
There have always been ensemble films where a group of characters embarks on some quest or another, with plenty of time to toss jaunty dialogue back and forth. Half the filmographies of filmmakers as diverse as Howard Hawks and Samuel Fuller are made up of films that fit that general description, and in recent years, everything from the Harry Potter films to Inception has told a story featuring a central protagonist, but also a rich supporting cast of players. (In the Potter films, those supporting characters almost act like a cast of regular and recurring characters, like on a TV series. Even in the weaker films, half the fun is watching everybody pop up.) But for the most part, the Joseph Campbell school of thought drives Hollywood storytelling nowadays: One hero is called to action, then faces down enormous odds to accomplish his quest, often through extreme self-sacrifice. (Ironically, the Star Wars films, which made Campbell’s “monomyth” so popular in Hollywood, feature large, diverse ensembles of well-developed supporting characters.) There’s nothing wrong with Joseph Campbell, of course, but it tends to create a lot of series where the lone hero stands up against a world that’s turned evil or gone mad. In many ways, the hero is the film in these franchises, and that’s why so many elements of an Indiana Jones film can be stripped away and still be an Indiana Jones film, thanks to the man at its center. Film heroes are increasingly loners, driven to pursue impossible goals by the fact that they’re the only people strong or pure enough to do so.
Oddly enough, this applies to nearly every film Marvel Studios made in the build-up to The Avengers, with the possible exception of Iron Man. The hero is alone, against the overwhelming tide of villains. But wouldn’t Captain America have been that much more exciting with more time spent with the Howling Commandos, so we got to know them better? And wouldn’t Thor have been more satisfying if viewers had a fuller sense of how the thunder god worked with his fellow Asgardian warriors, the better to feel his loss when he’s kicked out of his native world? But these films all follow the superhero origin story so closely (down to the obligatory boring love interest) that there’s no room for experimentation or breaking the mold. The idea of a team of goofballs embarking on some sort of quest seems increasingly quaint. The Lord Of The Rings films—giant ensemble pieces if ever there were giant ensemble pieces—were among the most technologically advanced ever made at the time of release, but their storytelling felt almost like a throwback, which might have contributed to the films’ massive crossover success.
It might seem as if the ensemble quest is increasingly a lost art, except that it migrated to TV. Because of the long hours required while shooting a dramatic TV series, the number of actors on most dramas has only increased since Hill Street Blues kicked off the trend toward serialized ensemble dramas in the early ’80s. The sorts of one-man shows that were common in the ’70s—Kojak, The Rockford Files, Columbo, etc.—are practically nonexistent now, and watching any TV series, particularly a long-running one, is as much about settling in with characters you’ve gotten to know and spending quality time with them. This is just as true of more formulaic dramas like Bones or C.S.I. as it is of TV’s more ambitious shows, like Mad Men or Breaking Bad. Is it an episode of Game Of Thrones if Tyrion Lannister hasn’t offered up a quip, or if Arya Stark hasn’t acted like a tiny bad-ass?
There have been good villains on TV, but most TV shows invest more heavily in their series regulars as a matter of necessity. (One exception: Justified’s non-villains—other than protagonist Raylan Givens or his boss, Art—continue to be among the show’s weakest characters, and the series keeps getting distracted from developing them further by its desire to watch Raylan feel out the series’ criminal underbelly.) To turn to Whedon’s work, season three of Buffy is great thanks in part to The Mayor, one of the best TV villains ever, but it’s also great because it gives us scenes where Willow begins to realize her power and where Xander sees he does mean something to the group, or where Buffy nearly sacrifices herself to save her doomed vampire lover. The villain is window-dressing. The appeal comes from watching the characters in the ensemble bounce off each other.
Granted, The Avengers and Star Trek come with certain built-in advantages in this regard. Both are based on well-known properties, and in the case of Avengers, there were several movies building up to the giant climax of all of the heroes banding together to fight the alien menace. It’s much easier to construct a movie that operates as a giant TV episode when the characters are in place and the audience already knows them. (The format also seems uniquely well-suited to comic-book films: What was X-Men: First Class if not a “pilot” for a brand new X-Men series?)
But Whedon and Abrams both avoid pitfalls that might have tripped them up as well, and they do so in a fashion that speaks to their TV backgrounds. One needs only look at a film like Spider-Man 3 to see that overstuffing a movie like this can be fatal, and that was a series that did try to use its actors as a giant ensemble. The key, as in series television, is to dole out judiciously which characters get the big story arcs and which get more minor arcs. In The Avengers, Iron Man gets the big Joseph Campbell arc of discovering the heroic quality of self-sacrifice. His story holds the movie together. Meanwhile, the other characters all get smaller supporting arcs of varying sizes, be it Bruce Banner’s attempts to accept what’s happened to him or Black Widow’s hopes of making good with a longtime colleague she unexpectedly has to fight. (Just how often did that happen with Buffy?) Star Trek, meanwhile, gives everybody on board the Enterprise a story of some form or another, but none are as important as the growing friendship between Kirk and Spock. Or look at the clandestine relationship between Spock and Uhura, which feels like it could have come straight out of Abrams’ first TV series, the goofily enjoyable soap Felicity.
By the time one of these films has ended, it feels almost as if Whedon or Abrams has guided the audience through what would have been a five- or six-episode arc on one of their TV shows. The characters’ relationships have grown, shifted, and changed. A threat has been identified and dealt with. The villain has either been defeated, or escaped to fight another day. And the final moments of the story provide the hook into the next “arc” in the season’s plotline. (In The Avengers, that’s the introduction of a new threat; in Star Trek, the idea that these yahoos are now going to be patrolling the galaxy full-time.) Not every film needs to be like TV, but something about Whedon and Abrams’ work in that other medium seems to have made them uniquely suited to showing us large groups of characters bantering back and forth on the big screen, just as surely as they would if they were making a TV version of these stories for SyFy (on a budget of $500,000 per episode). The character interplay between the “series regulars” is key; the villain, special-effects-driven catastrophes, and even the storyline are secondary.
There are other similarities between this story structure and the way a TV season—or episodic arc—might play out, with storylines for all the characters threading in and out of each other, but one or two of those storylines taking prominence. On a television series, not every actor will be featured all of the time, but the producers will find canny ways to give them all something to do, even if it’s just a quick story beat here or there. The Avengers and Star Trek attempt the same trick on a much larger scale, and both succeed by dovetailing their climaxes with the stories of each individual hero.
By applying the lessons of television and keeping the focus squarely on the “regular cast,” both films are able to provide far more satisfying experiences for their audiences, experiences that give every character a big moment or two without feeling overstuffed. And now that the central casts are so firmly established, both franchises will have more room to introduce more complex villains or new characters in future installments. Once a television series has settled into a nice groove, it’s much easier to play around with what works and introduce new elements. Why should a giant film franchise be any different? Not everyone needs follow this lead—Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films have succeeded because of how dedicated they are to their loner hero—but too many ignore the pleasures of ensemble storytelling in favor of the lone wolf, out to achieve his ultimate goal.
Maybe that’s the way Hollywood needs to start treating these giant franchises: as really big television shows that only put out a new episode once every two or three years. Franchise filmmaking is obviously here to stay, given how dependent Hollywood is on tentpole movies. It would be too bad if the only lesson gleaned from The Avengers is that cramming more and more stuff into a film is what brings the fans out. So many other films have tried to do that and failed, often because they attempted to tell ensemble stories in structures that were better for Joseph Campbell-style quest narratives. Yet there’s another medium that now tosses off terrific ensemble stories—in all genres—almost as a matter of course. Maybe the way to make these giant films more consistently entertaining is to make them just a little bit more like TV.