To talk about this topic, you first need to realise that there are 3 types of superhero movies – no more, no less:
The first is the origin story. This movie asks the who, how and why of a superhero’s story. Traditionally, people aren’t hugely keen on these stories. A lot of viewers are comic book fans who already know these origins or, if the character is Batman, Spider-Man or Superman, it is an origin everyone has seen over and over. Normal people aren’t enamoured with the prospect because, no matter the character, origin stories are pretty same-y. You take a normal person, give them an inciting incident such as a murder, experiment gone awry, discovery of a suit that makes them shrink, etc. pair them with a wiser mentor (who will die, get injured, or betray them) and then see what happens. Also a montage is a must. The challenge with doing an origin story is that, by definition, your superhero movie must wait until at least the end of the first act before it can show the hero in his glory. An exception to this is Thor, in which Thor is Thor from first minute until last.
With the origin out of the way, you get the glorious superhero sequel. With origins done you are free to run wild. Realistically you make this move same as any other. There must be conflict, rising action, etc. but with a superhero movie it is a good idea to, above all things, add more characters. If you can get another superhero in there who has the potential to spin off into their own series then do it. Also be wary of endings. Cliffhangers for your heroes are no good if next year they’ll be in The Avengers with the cliffhanger unresolved. So give your movies both definite endings and vast sequel potential. Somehow. Also make sure that your movie ends in an explosive set piece involving huge amounts of property damage to the point where people in the Marvel universe would just call September 11th another Tuesday.
The third is the ensemble superhero movie, your Avengers and Justice Leagues. And also your Civil Wars and your Batman v Supermans. So there are two kinds of ensemble superhero movie. The first is a true ensemble. This is a movie with no lead character that is both a standalone and a sequel to a variety of other movies. For example, The Avengers is the first Avengers movie but also a sort-of sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk. In the same way, Justice League will be a sequel to Batman v Superman and Wonder Woman while also possibly being an origin story for The Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg and Green Lantern (I wish Chris Terrio luck with that, because that is a tightrope made out of electrical cables). With these true ensembles you need to spin a lot of plates. You need to make a good movie first and foremost. You have to take a group of characters created by different people with vastly different backstories and power bases (science and magic) and give the main ones equal-ish screen time. Your movie needs to function as a sequel to three or four movies while also helping to set up future movies by introducing plot devices and characters to feature in movies you won’t have a hand in making.
The other ensemble movie, the false ensemble, has a clear main character surrounded by other characters from that comic universe. It can be a cash grab for some of that Avengers money or a way to prop up a lead character that hasn’t quite found his super feet yet. Or it is true to the source material (it’s called Civil War not Civil Two Dudes Fighting) or a way to justify some poor choices in an origin story i.e. Batman v Superman where Superman’s reckless actions in Man of Steel come home to roost. Either way, if the main character’s name is in the title, then it is that character’s story first and foremost and the ensemble is just for colour and background. Making the Civil War plot revolve around Bucky keeps us reminded that this is a Cap story, not Avengers 2.5. Batman v Superman being a Man of Steel sequel, or at least the next Superman movie, the filmmakers did not go for the above. Batman v Superman is definitely a Batman movie with Superman and Wonder Woman (especially Wonder Woman) being side characters. To editorialise slightly, if Man of Steel had been better received, then the idea that Clark Kent dislikes Batman’s methods would have been pushed forward and Batman would have been more the villain, making this closer to the false ensemble as described above. Instead, we get twin narratives with one more favoured than the other. Perhaps this is the third type of ensemble, the twin ensemble.
In conclusion, superhero movies have a rigid formula they return to time and again with differing results. The formula has become so rigid that even a movie like Deadpool which bucked some trends of these movies managed to stick to it by having origin montages, a damsel in distress, and ending with a big destructive (though only in a junk yard) CGI set piece. On the other hand they did say ‘fuck’ a lot in that movie so that’s definitely something new. At least until the R-rated cut of Batman v Superman gets released.
Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures