Greater Than the Sum of Their Parts : Why We Like Superhero Teams

“There was an idea – Stark knows this – called the Avengers Initiative.  The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people to see if they could become something more, to see if they could work together when we needed them to, to fight the battles that we never could.   . . . Well, it’s an old-fashioned notion.”  Nick Fury, Avengers Assemble


Super hero teams have been around, at least in the comic books, almost as long as lone super heroes have.  Shortly after The Phantom donned his mask to fight evil in 1936, Marvel and DC comics teamed up to create the first super team – The Justice Society of America.  But it wasn’t until recently that the celluloid  incarnations of Superman, Batman, and Spiderman made way for the blockbuster superteams – X-Men, S.H.I.E.L.D, the Fantastic Four, and most notably, the Avengers, a merging of heroes who had already made their independent cinematic mark – Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America – and the addition of the Black Widow and Hawkeye.  To date, The Avengers Assemble is the top grossing super hero movie of the last decade, far surpassing the number two contender, The Dark Knight.  What is it about superhero teams that inspires us to pay over $600 million to watch them in action?


As Nick Fury says, “It’s an old-fashioned notion.”  We are entertained by watching loner mystery heroes triumph over the bad guys before fading back into their mundane workaday existence. But we relate to the interaction of flawed, strong-willed characters somehow forged together by a common purpose.  Journalist Abraham Riesman says, “Much as superheroes can express an individual struggle writ large, the most interesting superteam stories use extreme violence, anguish and triumph to dig into group dynamics.”   Those dynamics include “love triangles, racial tensions, opposites-attract friendships, mistaken identities, angry resignations, poignant mentorships . . . the full range of human emotion.”


The most successful superteams are portrayed like a close but competitive family or “band of brothers” who overcome their individual foibles and egos, hold each other accountable, and complement each other’s gifts to achieve what they could never accomplish on their own.  Despite Tony Stark’s rogue initiatives, Bruce Banner’s fear of The Hulk’s uncontrollable destructive nature, Thor’s disdain of mortals, and Captain America’s survivor’s guilt, the finale of each Avenger’s films is a “marvel” (no pun intended) of choreographed teamwork in that plays out like a ballet of grace and power.


Dave Wraith, writing in the blog, “Leadership in the Movies,” even finds in The Avengers a metaphor for Bruce Tuckman’s “Forming Storming Norming Performing” team development model.  Fury’s “forming” of “isolated, unbalanced” individuals into a team to fight a global crisis quickly gives way to “storming” as their personalities clash.  Team members go their own way and mistakes are made.  But this necessary stage is soon replaced by “norming” as the members are impressed with the gravity of their mission, learn to appreciate each other’s strengths, and understand their own roles in the business at hand.


Finally, the team is ready for “performing.”   The well-oiled machine created at the end of Avengers Assemble is in evidence the highly coordinated opening sequence of The Age of Ultron, where each team member plays his or her part in storming the fortress that houses the scepter of Loki.  “They’re a unit now,” says Chris Evans, who plays Captain America,  “so it’s not growing pains anymore.  It’s now just trying to operate as a team.”


At the end of Avengers Assemble, as the heroes go their separate ways, Nick Fury comments that the team will be back “because we’ll need them to.”  But Ultron ends with new faces being recruited into the team.  The ending of teams and creation of new ones, of course, reflects what happens in real-life teamwork.  But in the movies, it makes for more interesting sequels.  Stay tuned for more superteam movies.