Stop me if you’ve heard this story before: there’s an ensemble cast in an action/sci-fi/fantasy/superhero movie (especially superheroes). First, the viewers get to know all the characters separately. Then, the characters unite under a common cause, fall apart after some disagreement, and reunite with an even stronger bond to take down the greater evil. This is an increasingly common storytelling archetype, and I’ve been thinking about it a great deal recently; with Marvel’s The Defenders arriving on Netflix and the most recent episode of Game of Thrones garnering comparisons to The Avengers.
These kinds of stories are thrilling to see. Seeing the recent Game of Thrones episode, titled “Beyond the Wall,” we saw a king team up with a disgraced knight, a savage warrior, a humble blacksmith, a hulking killer, and some outlaws, team up to fight a common enemy. This was thrilling in every regard, but what truly made this combination of characters something worth seeing was the fact that we had been following these characters for a while. Sure, some of them had only been in a handful of episodes, but others we had been watching for almost seven seasons.
Starting in the 2010’s, we’ve seen an uptick in movies and television stories like this. Think about last year, when within the span of about six months we saw The Magnificent Seven remake, Suicide Squad, and Star Wars: Rogue One, all of which tell the story of various people of different backgrounds coming together to save a town, the world, and the galaxy (respectively). These movies all coming out in the same year might seem coincidental, but after a while, patterns like this begin to feel like a correlation.
The economic reason for this increase is clear; after the success of The Avengers, it’s lead to others trying to copy it. That’s why movies of this format is particularly popular for the superhero genre. Guardians of the Galaxy, Suicide Squad, Justice League, and in terms of television, there’s Legends of Tomorrow and The Defenders. This is clearly advantageous for the studios; by having separate movies or shows for each character on the team, the audience becomes more connected to the story and more willing to consume more content.
These kinds of team-ups are nothing new. Think of the Fellowship of the Ring from Lord of the Rings; the Fellowship is made up of hobbits, an elf, a dwarf, and several humans. Going even further back in time, think of Seven Samurai, on which The Magnificent Seven is based. That being said, The Avengers changed the way these team-up stories are handled. In the same way the Avengers teaming up changed the way Superhero movies (and, to an extent, movies in general) are made, Game of Thrones’ recent team-up in “Beyond the Wall,” is bound to change the way television, specifically fantasy television, builds its characters and unites them.
One the refreshing thing is, these team-ups starting to become more racially diverse. In this way, The Magnificent Seven was a delightful thing; the titular seven consist of three white men, one Latino man, one Asian man, one Native American man, and their leader, a black man played by Denzel Washington. Rogue One had a similarly diverse cast, which was also pleasant to see. And after many movies, racial diversity is slowly becoming more common in the superhero genre. The Avengers (will) have Black Panther and the Defenders have Luke Cage, but perhaps no superhero movie team is more deserving of praise in this regard than Suicide Squad. Suicide Squad is a highly flawed movie in many regards, but it boasted a lead cast with actors of Hispanic, Black, and Asian heritage, which is definitely a step in the right direction.
Another thing that’s especially different in these stories, as shown by The Avengers, The Defenders, and the recent episode of Game of Thrones, is that the amount of time you invest in the characters separately yields some amount of payoff for when you bring them together. The Avengers was preceded by five films in which we got to know the characters, The Defenders gave its four main characters five cumulative seasons of television. Game of Thrones in its seventh season brought together characters viewers have been familiar with since the first season and never would have imagined seeing together. Essentially, The Avengers showed Hollywood what comic books had known for many years – introducing characters gradually and giving the audience time to connect before throwing them all together makes it more meaningful when they team-up later on.
The fact that these types of stories are becoming more frequent, in my opinion, is simply wonderful. It’s an important bit of cultural mythology. If we start to put greater emphasis on stories in which people of varying backgrounds, races, and ideologies can band together to fight evil, then we can begin to start to do it ourselves. It’s all about learning to set aside differences and learning to cooperate, and I think that’s very wholesome.