When you have a single, major character, your choice of protagonist and throughline plot is obvious. However, when you bring in other major, high-powered characters into play, they all compete for attention and control of the story. While ensemble casts bring their own host of problems, they also have the potential for intricate and powerful plots. If done well.
One of my favorite ensemble cast stories is Marvel’s The Avengers. Writer and director Joss Whedon had a lot of challenges to balance to make the story work. First, Whedon had to create a story that honored decades of rich comic book history. In the weeks leading up to the release there was a lot of speculation if the movie would live up to fan expectations or if he would be buried in an avalanche of nerd rage. Secondly, he was responsible for closing Phase I of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Avengers needed to both tie up what had been done before and launch the franchise to the next level. Finally, most of the characters in the movie were played by big-name actors and actresses, all of whom brought their own quirks, personalities, and storytelling philosophies to the project. He had to manage all their visions of what the movie should be while also staying true to his own intent.
Difficult, but not impossible for a writer of his skill. And he did it awesomely.
Writing a successful ensemble cast story isn’t only a matter of managing competing demands, but also knowing how to use those cross purposes to make the story stronger. Though each member of the Avengers agreed that Loki needed to be stopped, they each had their own views on how exactly that should happen. There was no one protagonist, but rather each character played a spectrum of story roles. Sometimes they acted as protagonist, as companion, as contagonist, and even sometimes as antagonist to one another. The Avengers wasn’t a single plot, but rather the union of several character journeys woven into a single story. It’s an extremely difficult balance to pull off.
The key to Whedon’s success is that he didn’t write a movie about superheroes. Rather, he treated each character as a person first and a hero second. Their personality was more important to their journey than their power. Furthermore, he let them conflict and bicker with one another, make mistakes, and pursue their own ends at the expense of the common goal. Then he gave them all a reason to put aside their differences and unite behind a single purpose. That decision, the choice to put the needs of the individual aside for the needs of the world, was the turning point both for many of the characters and the story as a whole. It transformed them from a band of individual heroes into a unified ensemble cast, the Avengers.