I have seen all of the super hero movies. They have an enduring story, something that seems familiar despite the fantastic. We can relate to the struggles of individual heroes in their own lives, of course. Yet, you may wonder, what is it about super hero team movies that give them this sense of familiarity?
We relate to the struggle of working within a team. If you look more closely, you can see why. Super hero teams struggle with the same challenges our human teams do. Whether they mean to or not, the writers draw heavily from team effectiveness theory to make their fantastical stories believable.
Take the first Avengers movie. The story played out in detail the classic four stages of teaming: forming, storming, morning and performing. The team was brought together to fight an enemy but a power struggle immediately ensued. No clear structure was initially established so each member worked towards their personal goals instead of establishing common ones.
It wasn’t until monsters descended from the sky that the team came together with a clear leader (Captain America), a common goal (stop the bad guys) and well-defined roles (“Hulk, smash”). For brevities sake, norms took over quickly and the team performed, ultimately stopping the bad guys and saving the planet. We know now that Tuckman’s Four Stages (1965) is more simplistic than the way teaming happens in real life, but kudos to Tuckman for getting the thinking started and giving us a common language to talk about team performance.
What followed in the next movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, were issues that develop in many established teams, a misalignment of the mission. Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) wanted to create an artificial intelligence to take over the defense of the world. He and Bruce Banner (aka Hulk) worked on it in secret, thereby putting their individual goals at odds with the team’s goals. This misalignment was personified by a robotic artificial intelligence, Ultron. Only after retreating and regrouping to align the mission once again was the team successful in defeating Ultron.
But the latest installment with the team, Captain America: Civil War where the cause of the dysfunction has nothing to do with the team itself. The Avengers found themselves in a new context with new stakeholders and constituencies to serve. The primary struggle was whether to remain autonomous or accept oversight from an outside agency in the United Nations. Just the questions a new set of stakeholders threw our super hero team out of alignment. This worked to the villain’s (another outside constituency) advantage as he worked to further divide the team. We only find out late in the movie that Tony Stark’s motivation to accept UN oversight is an attempt to show Pepper Potts that he is working on becoming less of a loose cannon. He kept this to himself.
The moral of the story is that it is easy to overlook the context or external environment in which a team operates. However, it is the very first place every team should start when trying to become more effective. Making the implicit explicit about all key stakeholders is critical for a team to succeed.
I’m sure this trend is not going away. Movie writers will continue to mimic real life in a fantastic manner. We will soon see Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and others working to form a new alliance. It will be interesting to see if the writers continue to borrow from team theories to give us a dose of familiarity so we can suspend disbelief or come up with other devices to create conflict. The approach so far has grossed hundreds of millions at the box office.