DR #35: How and Why Superhero Teams Work, Pt 4

Dear Reader,

So, we’ve covered what you need in a superhero team, both from a narrative and a strategic perspective. Let’s break down some of your favorite hero teams and see who’s doing what.

Hm? What you say?* These aren’t, in fact, your favorite teams? Well then I must have been talking to somebody else, mustn’t I?

Rude.

 

Avengers, 2012 Film

Team4 Pic 1

Roster: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk, Hawkeye.

On the narrative side, Captain America is the Superman, Iron Man is the Party Dude, Black Widow is the Chessmaster, Thor is the Maverick, Hulk is the Inhuman, and Hawkeye… kinda doesn’t spend enough time not-brainwashed to count, but if I had to put him somewhere I’d call him a second Maverick.

Strategic roles are a little muddy with this team, as they’re explicitly not “We hand-picked these people” and more “This is who we happen to have!” But I would call Thor the Tank, Captain America the Investigator, Iron Man the Deus Ex Machina guy, Hawkeye Search and Rescue, Black Widow the Diplomat, and Hulk the Nuclear Option.

Avengers is the perfect example of how mixing up your Diagetic and Non-Diagetic roles can make for interesting character treatments.

  • Captain America is the Superman, which means he’s carrying the ideals and optimism, but he’s also the Investigator which means he’s entertaining suspicions, which gives him kind of a Disappointed Father attitude to S.H.I.E.L.D. and to the rest of his team.
  • Iron Man is both the Party Dude and the Deus ex Machina guy, so he comes off as irresponsibly mellow until it’s time to whip out a solution to a problem.
  • Black Widow being Chessmaster/Diplomat is what lets her pull off the iconic scene of interrogating Loki without him realizing it.
  • And Bruce Banner as the Inhuman/Nuclear Option is what makes the “I’m Always Angry” moment so satisfying, because it means that the thing holding him back the entire movie was himself and so for him to finally let go is enormously cathartic.

One thing that made this roster of characters so memorable was how nobody was the obvious combination. As the Superman, genre conventions would dictate that Captain America should have been the Tank, but no, that was Thor. Chessmaster usually doesn’t pair with Diplomat, but that’s what made all Black Widow’s manipulations look so stylishly effortless. The only combination I’d call obvious is Hawkeye as Maverick/S and R, and he has by far the least screen time.

 

Justice League, 2001-2004 cartoon.

Team4 Pic 2

Roster: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkgirl, Martian Manhunter

I’ll just be talking about the core cast, before we brought in like every DC hero ever in the latter seasons, because I’d prefer this letter to be shorter than The Wheel of Time.

As this is a much more straightforward superhero team than the Avengers, they have much more obvious combinations. Superman is the Superman (shock!) and the Tank, Batman is the Chessmaster and the Investigator, Wonder Woman is Superman/Diplomat, Flash is Maverick/Deus Ex Machina, Green Lantern is the Superman/Search and Rescue, Hawkgirl is the Inhuman/Tank, and Martian Manhunter is Chessmaster/Deus Ex Machina guy.

Notice that all the combinations are kinda expected. It makes sense that the Superman role, who is there to inspire people, would pair well with Diplomat for Wonder Woman. Flash as Maverick/Party Dude is an obvious choice. Chessmaster makes sense with Investigator for Batman, and with Deus ex Machina for Martian Manhunter.

Notice also the absence of a Nuclear Option team member. You can argue that Superman or Batman or even Flash stepped into the role at times, but nobody stayed there long. Since “whether it’s ok to have a Justice League” was the main arc of the later seasons, it’s maybe better that no specific person was in the “too powerful” role.

 

Teen Titans, 2003-2006 cartoon.

Team4 Pic 3

Roster: Robin, Starfire, Cyborg, Beast Boy, Raven.

Robin is the Chessmaster/Investigator, Starfire is Superman/Tank, Cyborg is Inhuman/Deus ex Machina, Beast Boy is Party Dude and somewhere between Search and Rescue and Diplomat, and Raven is the Maverick/Nuclear Option.

Unlike the Justice League cartoon (which it might have been in continuity with? Maybe?), Teen Titans was much more about the characters than the continuity, which meant you had a much tighter focus on the roles and relationships of the team. Accordingly there was a much more balanced spread of roles.

The roles only tended to show when each character got a focus episode. They all essentially played Superman/Tank until they got an episode centered around them, then went back to straight up superheroics in the background of the next teammate’s episode.

  • Robin adopts a new secret villain identity to infiltrate a suspected conspiracy, and the rest of the team distrusts him when they find out… for the rest of the episode.
  • Starfire gets trapped in a future where she was absent and discovers the team has fallen apart without her as the emotional glue, and returns determined that it won’t ever happen… for the rest of that episode.
  • Cyborg worries that he’s not really human anymore for one episode.
  • Beast Boy goes off on his own and has zany hijinks for one episode.
  • Raven loses her temper, does something to Dr. Light that we don’t get to see which reduces him to a quivering heap of terror and makes him so afraid of her that he afterward surrenders on sight… but they never try using this on any other villain.

It’s a primary colors approach to superhero storytelling (which is already a primary colors medium).

This may be one reason why trying to make the colors even more primary didn’t go so well.

Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014 movie.

Team4 Pic 4

Roster: Star Lord, Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Drax the Destroyer.

Star Lord is Party Dude/Diplomat, Gamora is Superman/Tank, Rocket Racoon is Inhuman/Investigator, Groot is Superman to Rocket and Party Dude to everyone else/Deus ex Machina… tree?, and Drax is the Maverick/Tank.

The notable thing about this team composition is the lack of almost any planning role. There’s no Chessmaster. There’s no strategist. While Rocket does come up with plans, schemes, and devices, it’s always improvised, always shortsighted, and never works. They even have a whole scene about how at best they have only 12% of a plan.

What does work is Star Lord hitting on/talking down/distracting people because those are the only cards he’s holding, while Groot does something plant-y that nobody knew he could do because nobody but Rocket can talk to him. It might not be balanced for a superhero team, but it’s perfect for the story that they wanted to tell.

 

That’s the point of all four of these letters, I guess. Composing a superhero team is less about finding the best balance that would win in internet arguments about who could beat up who—it’s more about finding the right cast for the kind of story you want to tell.

Avengers wanted to be a story about how imperfect people can pull together to do something nobody thought they were capable of, so they used role combinations that don’t look like they should work. Justice League was about seriously exploring superhero tropes, so it was a seriously composed team. Teen Titans about exploring superhero tropes in a fun way, so it was a much more fundamental team. Guardians was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, Flash Gordon-style pulp space opera, so you had a team designed to say “Screw it, just do whatever.”

Which implies that the question isn’t so much “Who would your superhero team be” as it is “What kind of story does your answer to that question mean you want to tell?”

 

If The Answer Is “Beast, Wolverine, and Sabertooth,” Then I Know A Bar You Should Go To,

-The Guy Who Wrote This

(*Hm, that you only meant well, well of course you did…)

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