Lazy Luddite Log

27.11.17

Ensembles

I have always liked action and adventure tales focusing on a group of distinct characters working together. It usually draws my interest more than the lone champion single-handedly saving the day. This has impacted on many of my preferences in consuming fiction.

This is part of what makes Dungeons & Dragons, with its focus on a 'party' of adventurers, an appealing hobby. It's also why I preferred team-based arcade games like Golden Axe (1989) over the player-versus-player format of Mortal Kombat (1992) and its ilk. Yes the solo adventure Prop-Cycle (1996) was my all-time favourite due to its immersive nature but had it been a game of many winged bikes then it would have been better. Heck, the appeal of teams is even why my favourite Freddie Krueger horror is Dream Warriors (1987) and I prefer Conan The Destroyer (1984) to Conan The Barbarian (1982).

I am so attached to this format that I become vexed if ever it loses ground. From the moment the Mission Impossible (1996) movie turned into a solo adventure I lost enthusiasm for it (I'm more forgiving of its sequels because they construct a new team around the sole survivor of the first). I would rather watch something that had a team at its centre, even a reluctant one, and so much prefer The Man From UNCLE (2015). And while I still enjoy something like James Bond, the fact that they show the super-spy relying on the gadgets and data of support staff demonstrates that nobody is truly an island.

At this point you could be forgiven for thinking that I’m simply betraying collectivist political tendencies, but for me the 'team' concept enhances individuality much more than it promotes uniformity. The beauty of teams is in the differences between characters that provide for a complementary array of skills and dispositions. This make them more effective as protagonists and more interesting as characters.

This naturally takes me into the topic of ‘representation’ in fiction (which I discussed in the context of Star Trek ages ago). I selfishly value diversity in a movie because it helps me keep track of several characters I'm expected to recognize within a short timeframe. Movies made since the 60s, during which the counter-culture prompted the relaxation of dress-codes, are easier for me to follow because there is more to characters than suits, dresses and neat hair.

A more significant argument for representation in movies is that diverse audiences deserve to be presented with diverse heroes and villains. A fictional setting that looks more like our own world will seem more realistic and will give us a sense of our own role in both its mundane and fantastic aspects. Seeing someone like you playing a role in tales of daring-do can enthuse and empower (except possibly for those of us who have always been most drawn to the monsters and robots that we can never hope to be). Ensembles have the potential to do this well, even in just one story.

There is another justification for depicting diversity and it comes in the form of international cultural diplomacy. Hollywood has slowly come to recognize the massive audience that exists beyond the Anglosphere and has started to factor this into story and character design. A case of this is The Return Of Xander Cage (2017). The original Xander Cage movie was a solo spy flick with extreme sports elements, focusing on the titular character. Now in the new movie we are presented with two rival groups of agents who eventually combine into one. This group of mixed genders and cultural backgrounds includes both US and Chinese nationals. The movie was particularly popular in China and it is interesting to note which characters are 'good' and which are 'evil'.

The good characters are from many backgrounds and nations including both the US and China, while the evil characters are associated with the US government. In the flawed democracy that is the US nobody is remotely fazed by negative depictions of elites. In contrast, you cannot do the same thing to Chinese elites and hope to get a movie allowed into that one-party state. There is a smart side to representation in fiction that will slowly foster common values in story-telling.

The thing that prompted this blog post was that I recently saw Justice League (2017) and then revisited The Avengers (2012) so that I could compare the two comic book ensemble movies. The natural tendency among fans is to regard these as rivals (DC versus Marvel). I enjoyed both and think both do a decent job of giving room to some very larger-than-life characters. I also think it a mistake to regard them as arch-rivals. I partly say this because both movies benefited from the creative contributions of Joss Whedon, someone known for multi-character story-telling. I also say it because the competitors here are movie studios as much as comic book publishers and, with that in mind, we could be comparing Warner Brothers with Disney and with Twentieth Century Fox. I name that third company because another comic book ensemble movie - X-Men (2000) – is a favourite of mine.

The movie follows on from its comic book inspiration and lends itself perfectly to the characteristics that draw me to ensemble adventures. The characters all fit the one setting well because they are all understood to be 'mutants'. This is a lot more elegant than the Avengers or Justice League which both ask us to accept that our super-heroes are variously aliens, demi-gods and tech billionaires. In X-Men there is a good team and an the evil team (rather than just one enemy with anonymous followers). On both sides there are characters we can understand and even admire. And, to focus on just one aspect of representation, X-Men has a better gender ratio than either Avengers or Justice League, despite its name.

In the movie there are six heroes (Xavier, Jean Grey, Wolverine, Rogue, Cyclops, Storm) and of these, three are women. In solo movies the lone champion may be all things but in a team, different aspects or roles must be allocated. The leader and the action hero can be distinct. Likewise the point-of-view character can be different from the protagonist. Jean Grey is the in-story public face of her mutant community. Rogue is the character that young viewers can most relate to. And Storm arguably has the coolest mutant powers. This is all impressive stuff for a movie considerably older than either Avengers or Justice League.

In our Internet-facilitated present there is more communication back-and-forth between the producers and consumers of fiction than at any time since oral story-telling was the only show in town. As a result, there is a constantly refining check-list of things audiences want. It is interesting, then, to go back over movies from past decades and notice that factors like demographic representation were sometimes better then than now. How did past creators get things right in the absence of fans commenting on every move they made? We tend to forget the ebb-and-flow of historical progress. I’m still looking for more movies with ensembles in them. Feel free to give me some suggestions, so I can assess a larger representative sample...

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