If you watch the latest “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” you’ll see the usual band of superheroes along with several more, and that’s the problem. There are too many characters to follow and not enough time to follow any of them so you care much about them. All the superficial attention paid to the superheroes also takes time away from the villain so the villain isn’t as threatening as he should be throughout the movie.
While “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is still entertaining, it suffers from this tendency to throw more characters into a story, which is what sunk “Spiderman 3” and the rebooted “Spiderman 2.” Too many characters mean you know and care far less about any of them. What makes the Avengers sequel work is mostly because we already know most of the characters from the original Avengers movie and from the separate superhero movies. If you look at “Avengers” Age of Ultron” as a standalone movie and pretend you know nothing about any of the characters beforehand, it simply doesn’t work because there are too many characters and not enough time devoted to any of them.
This tendency to keep adding characters is also what kills TV sitcoms when they add new characters in an attempt to freshen up the show. (Anyone remember cousin Oliver from “The Brady Bunch”?)
Adding more characters is almost never the answer. Getting to know more about fewer characters is almost always the answer. In a TV series, adding characters creates more types of interactions (hopefully) but dilutes attention from the original characters. In movies, adding more characters dilutes the overall story. Unless you’re lucky enough to have fans who already know your characters ahead of time (like the Avengers), then you’ll spend far less time with any of them and tell a weaker story as a result.
The way to handle multiple characters is to make sure they all pursue stories and goals that are similar. In “Pulp Fiction,” everyone is changing to either become a better person or die by refusing to change. Even though there are so many characters, their stories are interesting because they’re thematically similar, so even though they overlap, they appear supportive of the overall story. In “Inglorious Bastards,” all the characters are working against the same villain but it’s slightly weaker than “Pulp Fiction” because the characters aren’t necessarily supporting the same theme.
The French girl initially starts fighting the Nazi Jew Hunter, then winds up battling a German sniper instead. The American leader of Jewish commandoes winds up defeating the Nazi Jew Hunter despite never seeing him earlier. There’s little sense of theme so the multiple characters don’t support each other as much as the multiple characters do in “Pulp Fiction.”
In general, the fewer characters the better. The more you get to know each character, the more time you’ll need to spend on each character. What makes good romantic comedies work is because we get to know the emotional needs of both the man and woman. In “Sleepless in Seattle,” the man’s wife has died and left him caring for their son alone while the woman is heading towards an unhappy marriage. Because we get to know both characters and their motivation, the story is stronger. The other characters simply support these two main characters instead of having completely separate goals and stories of their own. They still have goals, but it’s to support the main characters, not be separate from them.
Knowing this, look at “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and focus on all the different characters whose stories don’t really support each other. The two subplots that do support each other involve Hawkeye trying to live a normal life with a family, and Black Widow trying to find love. In the meantime, the other superheroes have stories that don’t have anything to do with pursuing a family life and the new characters that pop up also don’t have anything to do with pursuing a family life either. When you don’t have a unified theme for multiple characters to follow, you have a weaker story as a result.