Scriptwriting Tips: Ensemble Superhero Movies

by Charles Miller on October 12, 2003

After seeing both X-Men 2 and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen this year, I have come to the conclusion that Hollywood has great difficulty writing a script for an ensemble superhero movie. As a theatre patron, I would like to suggest the following script guidelines for anyone attempting such a movie in the future.

  1. If you can, make the back-story implicit.

    We don't need to see how these five people came together to fight crime. Or if we do, it can fit in the prologue. Details can be fleshed out through well-chosen dialogue and interwoven with the relationships between characters.

    If you can put this exposition into an exchange between characters during an action sequence, even better. The fewer ‘one character just randomly deciding to talk to another about how he or she had a tragic childhood’ scenes you have, the better.

  2. Have at least one scene in the first act with all the heroes working together.

    Before you start tearing them apart in the second act, the audience need a sequence that shows how powerful the heroes are as a team. If you can fit this into a prologue, even better. You need to make the audience respect what the heroes are capable of before you start weakening them. Think of the James Bond movies, and how the prologue for each one establishes Bond's competence before the main plot has even kicked in.

    And no, the fact that they did it in the last movie doesn't count. Don't count on your audience having seen the last movie in the last year. Or even at all.

  3. The more characters you have, the shallower they've got to be. Live with it.

    There's only so much you can fit in a movie. X-Men 2 was very obviously edited to ribbons because it tried to give every character depth, and couldn't fit it all into the allotted time. Peter Jackson can almost manage it for most of the Fellowship of the Ring, but then he has ten hours in which to do it.

    Pare down the characterisations and relationships that don't directly affect the plot. If you still have too many, lose the associated plot-points as well. Feel free to leave some of your ensemble shallow and under-exposed. If the movie is successful, you can always focus on them in the sequel.

  4. Limit yourself to three threads

    You're probably going to split your characters up near the end. Never ask the audience to follow more than three groups of characters at the same time. This includes the bad guys. The audience can follow more, but you end up with the action so diffuse that the movie loses focus, usually at the time when it should be at top momentum.

    If you have three groups of good guys fighting or chasing three groups of bad guys, that's fine. But the moment one of those fights splits up far enough that you need two separate points of view, you're over the limit.

  5. Don't cut away from a thread without having advanced the story

    If you have two narrative threads going on at once, you're going to cut between them. If you cut to one, you mustn't leave it until something has happened that either advances the plot or affects the audience. Don't just cut to thirty seconds of fighting to remind the audience it's happening, and then cut back.

As a final note, something that isn't script-related at all. An action sequence is a narrative.

You wouldn't have a scene where all the characters were shouting at each other so loud you couldn't work out what anyone was saying, yet that seems to be de rigeur for action sequences at the moment. An action sequence must tell a story, and it is incredibly important that even in the midst of chaos, it is obvious who is doing what to whom, and why.

Haven't we learned from Hong Kong action movies yet? Pull the cameras back a bit, and space out the edits. Let us see the shape of the scene, and linger long enough on each event that it melds into the choreography.

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