Too many characters spoils the movie

The quality of characters in movies can mean the difference between a decent film and a great one that impresses movie fans for decades.

In some movies especially those with ensemble casts there is only so much screen time that can be devoted to each character. Think X-Men, Transformers, Spider-Man and Star Wars. The movie makers make use of character traits that we can easily and quickly identify with. By intimating certain character traits the viewer can infer as much information about the character that is necessary to move the plot along and make the movie effective. Some films do this very well and some don’t.

In the movie X-Men by Bryan Singer there are around ten characters that the viewer needs to be familiar with. The main protagonist Logan when introduced in the movie is shown fighting in a cage bar brawl competition. This establishes Logan as a violent and unpleasant person from the off. Logan is given ample screen time in the film so that the impression of him is different by the end of the movie. By the end he is still seen as violent and unpleasant at times but he is also revealed to have a heart of gold.

Not all characters in the X-Men universe are given so much screen time or even any dialogue. For them it is important that the movie establishes their character quickly. In the X-Men sequel the character Collosus only has one line but he is judged by his actions. In two short scenes we see him defening the school children from military attack and offering to help Logan stop the intruders. This shows him to be a formidable foe as well as being generous and kind.

Where the X-Men movies tripped up big time is with the third movie The Last Stand in which even more mutants are introduced. The character Warren Worthington otherwise known as Angel is quite comical in the lack of impact he has. There is one scene at the start of the movie where we are shown Warren as a young boy trying to cut off and hide his wings. Later we see Warren fly out of a window. Then we see him turn up at the Xavier mansion. Then at the end he flys in to rescue his father from a plunge off a building. I think Warren has one line of dialogue. When he does fly in at the end the viewers don’t care a jot. Why? The scenes he appears in tells us nothing about him other than he is quiet and he has wings. We don’t know if he’s brave, scared, noble, deceitful, cool, nothing. Other notable X-Men last stand character failures include Rogue, Iceman, Pyro, Juggernaut and Callisto.

Another example of characterisation going awry is in the Transformers films. In the first one the Autobots are all introduced and their specific talents talked up by Optimus Prime. They then each get a few scenes each where we see them do or say something. In the second movie they are not so lucky. As well as the surviving Autobots from the first movie many more are added in the form of Sideswipe, Arcee, The Twins and Jolt. Sideswipe gets a scene at the beginning of the movie where he rips a Decepticon apart and tells us how awesome he is. Fair enough, we can now assume that he’s a confident and deadly Autobot. Jolt or Arcee? Nothing, Jolt doesn’t even say anything but I suppose it’s another toy to sell. The Twins get lots of scenes so we get to know them pretty well. In the new movie Dark of the moon this is remedied somewhat with the new Autobots getting more scenes and dialogue.

There are some movie franchises with ensemble casts that manage characterisation well such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter films. Harry Potter in particular adds new characters in each movie but they are always given enough scenes and dialogue to get the character across to the viewer.

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