Avengers Assemble, the Marvel movie-verse’s ensemble superhero flick, has done exceedingly well at the box office, taking $1.2 billion to date globally. If you haven’t seen it yet you are one of the few. A combination of clever marketing (the smartest of which was the utilisation of short 90 second slots at the end of a number of Marvel superhero movies over the last five years, including Iron Man, Thor and Captain America), smart casting (not least the reprisal of actors who made a role popular) and a crowd pleasing script bringing good word of mouth and fan boy appeasement has meant that this ensemble film has pulled in the studio dollars, got bums on cinema seats and generally done enough to ensure a few more spin-offs and a sequel.
Coincidentally, good casting, a smart script, a competent director and efficient marketing are everything that I think a good ensemble movie needs to be a success. Avengers Assemble may well be a superhero movie, but first and foremost it is an ensemble movie. We have at least seven key characters and a few more besides, with story arcs to be played out across the course of the film and whose storylines must overlap in order to create a narratively satisfying whole – one where we don’t wonder why we’ve been jumping about between different characters but enjoy the time we spent with each one and how they all come together to deliver the punch line.
For those who are wondering this is how I would define an ensemble movie: You can have focal characters, but there must be at least four of them and there will be at least four other key characters. Each character will have their own story arc and those arcs will somehow interweave with everyone else’s to create a pleasing whole. There is also quite likely to be a strong cast of additional characters all of whom get their moment in the sun and the audience’s attention.
I’d argue that the biggest ensemble movie of all time is Star Wars (A New Hope). Six key characters; Luke, Leia, Han, R2, C3PO and Vader – and an additional cast of strong characters like Obi-Wan, Grand Moff Tarkin and Chewbacca. Along with will the guy get the girl, there was also will the boy win the day, will the Empire destroy the rebels and will the force really be enough? I would also argue that Star Wars presents us with one of the worst ensemble films ever made, which then got made again and again again, and despite its toe curling dreadfulness has been re-released and gets bums on seats – yes Star Wars Episodes 1-3 I am looking at you.
This highlights a key point – ensemble movies are difficult to get right. They require a large cast of characters and actors who are good enough to engage the audience and professional enough to share screen time. Steve McQueen famously requested equal billing and an equal number of lines to Paul Newman for the ensemble disaster movie The Towering Inferno. Fortunately Newman was able to keep his ego in check enough that he didn’t feel the need to demand top billing, a bigger font or just enough additional lines to prove that he was top dog, or presumably McQueen would have walked away and then where would cinema history be?
They also require a director who understands the format well enough that not only do all of the characters have sufficient screen space to progress their character arcs, but that they also have enough occurring with that arc that audiences care to watch them – a good script with good dialogue helps. The original Ocean’s 11, where the Rat Rack get to play at a Vegas heist, may well mean that we now have a cultural phenomenon frozen in time, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is a pretty bad film. Frank was clearly leader of the pack and gets the lines and story arc to prove it. Presumably Director Lewis Milestone knew who was paying his wages and worried about keeping Frank happy more than giving even one other Rat Packer a character to warrant being called a even a sketch. If you’re not convinced by my Star Wars argument and want a lesson in how to and how not to do it watch the original Oceans 11 and then watch Soderbergh’s remake to see how it should be done.
Speaking of whom, Soderbergh is a director who really has got the hang of ensemble movies. Take Traffic; here was a film based on a UK television drama that had several hours and weeks to play out. Weaving complex character and story arcs together to show the war on drugs from the point of view of the president, the wife of a cartel accountant, a judge, a cop and two DEA agents in a running time of 147 minutes is a feat not to be underestimated. But he pulled it off to Oscar-worthy effect and for several of the actors in it this is their finest hour. Fortunately it made money too.
Marketing ensemble movies can be a problem. Multiple story arcs mean the cut and dried “here is the star, this is who you care about” approach doesn’t work here. Generally speaking you want a good cast, and at least two A-listers to draw audiences in. Of course sometimes you can manage to get bums on seats without them. Altman was pretty good at it. MASH, Nashville, Gosford Park, the Player and, yes, even Pret-a-Porter, are all ensemble movies crafted by a master. They didn’t necessarily make big bucks, but this simply meant Altman worked with the small budgets and helped actors to get their teeth into award winning and career defining roles. Which is of course the appeal of the ensemble to the actor, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can convince a $20million a movie actor to take a role in small budget film where they will be sharing screen time with at least 10 other actors, many of whom are likely to be better than they are.
It is useful, then, when ensemble movies remind audiences about why they loved certain stars and actors in the first place, or where they allow a star who is finding themselves hopelessly type cast an opportunity to play against type; the career jump-starts if you will. Quentin Tarantino is the master of the jump start. Pulp Fiction was his second film and it proved that he had, if nothing else, a brilliant casting director.
Before Pulp Fiction John Travolta and Bruce Willis were slumming it in movies about talking babies (Travolta had just come off the third instalment of the Look Who’s Talking films). OK they were popular but these were actors who were used to opening movies under their own names – boob gags from a talking baby?! What QT seems to get, perhaps better than anyone, is the essence of an actor and how to surprise and therefore delight an audience. Whether it’s Amanda Plummer switching from loved up girlfriend to twitchy diner robber (an actress who plays psycho as well as she does should be allowed to let rip after all), or the ability of Ving Rhames to retain dignity, even as a mob boss who gets raped. Travolta had been cool, so he made him cool again, albeit as an aging hit man who wore the right suits but was too dumb to exit stage left when he had the chance. Willis, meanwhile had been an action star, an everyman, so QT cast him as an out to pasture boxer with a mob boss on his back. Do you get what he did there? Clever, no?
Audiences, particularly critics, were enchanted. The smart script, clever use of timeline chop’n’ change and the effortlessly cool soundtrack, as well as a director who manages to make his actors look and sound good, no matter that audiences had hitherto forgotten that they could. And just in case you think it is easy to interweave five short stories in to one enjoyable, narratively seamless whole just watch the utterly dreadful (Oscars or no Oscars) Crash or the equally saccharine, albeit the right side of pleasingly so, Love Actually. In my opinion failures both, although returns and awards may suggest otherwise.
At this juncture you may well be considering your favourite ensembles. Films like the Breakfast Club, St Elmo’s Fire (a personal favourite of mine, despite the fact that I could happily do without the Estevez/McDowell thread, which I maintain feels tagged on), Seven Samurai, the Great Escape, The Usual Suspects and even Airplane. But don’t forget the disasters. For every Airplane there is a Mixed Nuts. For every Great Escape a Saving Private Ryan (yes I know it won Oscars and the opening is amazing but that doesn’t change the fact that the rest of it is absolutely god awful and boring to boot). Even Soderbergh came apart following Oceans 11 with the woeful Ocean’s 12, although he did redeem himself with Oceans 13. Still not convinced that ensemble is tough to get right? Well let me remind you of Be Cool, Valentines Day, the VIPs, New Years Eve, The Poseidon Adventure and How the West Was Won – which even Jimmy Stewart managing to be sexy as hell in a racoon hat can’t save.
Avengers Assemble is still in a cinema near you clocking up enough dollars to put it in the top 5 grossing movies of all time. For everything else there is Amazon, or if you’re lucky Netflix and Lovefilm, but don’t count on it.