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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Sunday, February 5, 2017

xXx: Return of Xander Cage, Overwatch, Sentinels of the Multiverse, and Dealing with a Large Cast (plus a review!)

I recently watched xXx: Return of Xander Cage, and found it extremely satisfying. It’s the best kind of dumb action movie, the kind that knows what it is and pushes itself to be the dumbest and action-iest it can be.

Trying to paint a picture of it is incredible. It’s a James Bond movie where James Bond assembles his own Mission Impossible team, and when they go out for drinks, they eschew the martinis for Red Bull and Everclear. It’s a Fast and the Furious movie that wants to be Super Smash Bros. when it grows up. It’s a movie where a dirtbike get used as a weapon in hand-to-hand combat, and that’s still only the second craziest thing done with a dirtbike (the number one being, of course, when the later dirtbike chase reaches the ocean and both participants convert their vehicles into jetskis to continue unimpeded, because what else were they going to do?). It’s the Avengers, if normal, sort-of-everyday abilities like “great at soccer” or “fantastic DJ and people person” or “real good at crashing cars” were considered superpowers.

As someone who had no prior allegiance to the franchise (indeed, I hadn’t even seen xXx 1 or 2, and I don’t feel particularly compelled to go back and change that at the moment), I am super excited by this movie’s existence and eagerly await any sequels that may come.

But the characters are one of the aspects that I specifically wanted to focus on. xXx 3 has a large hero team at it’s center, and they’re an interesting and diverse bunch, representing a variety of nations and abilities. I wasn’t kidding when I drew the Smash Bros comparison earlier; it very much reminded me of the type of lineup of interesting characters a multiplayer game would draw up. In fact, there was even a specific video game I had in mind.

I started playing Overwatch over the holiday season (a team first-person shooter with 23 (and counting…) playable characters to choose from, for those not in the know), and the rosters of each had some hilarious overlaps. Sure, they’re an action movie and an FPS, so you have the range of weapons used in each, from normal pistols to grenade launchers to sniper rifles. And then there are the goofier overlaps, like both teams including an incredibly-out-of-place DJ, or both teams having female hackers who use similar weapons.

And all of those overlaps made me realize: I really liked both sets of characters. xXx: Return of Xander Cage basically has its own two hour run time to establish the entire cast (since the first two movies are barely leaned on at all for support), including the 9(-plus?) person xXx team. Overwatch includes no story mode in-game, and excluding the outside comics and lore that are available but unnecessary, all characterization is done through in-game dialog. That’s not a lot of room to work with, so how did they get such wide and interesting casts? Obviously, none of them is super-detailed, but they’re all compelling enough to draw you in, and that’s the important thing when making these types of teams for a work of fiction.

So, I wanted to pull that apart; how does one economically make these large main casts work on such limited time constraints? In addition to xXx 3 and Overwatch, I also looked at Sentinels of the Multiverse, so a quick word on that. Sentinels is one of my favorite board games, a card game where players take control of various original heroes (36 in total) to fight different also-original villains. Like Overwatch, these new heroes (and even the villains, in this case) are given surprising depth for existing only in a handful of decks of cards.

So, how does this happen? How do these works manage to juggle so many different people and make them compelling? I’ve got a couple of ideas:


-Design and differentiation
When you’re making a team, it’s important to have everyone serve a purpose; the more well defined that you can make it, the better off you are. Giving each member a well-defined role and is an easy way to make sure they’re distinct; good, individualistic designs on top of that help seal the deal. For example, look at Overwatch: even though it’s a shooter, you’ve got disparate heroes like Lucio, a DJ, or Sombra, a hacker. Or look at xXx: despite being an action movie, you’ve got a variety of characters on the main team, like Nicks, a DJ, or Becky, a hacker.

Yeah, that coincidence was a little too much for me to pass up. However, it does serve as an interesting point of comparison. Both works make use of their medium to portray these abilities; Overwatch needs its heroes to be distinct within the confines of a first-person shooter, and so, these professions are additional flavor. The characters are still based around shooting, but what else they can do on top of that or how they behave or look (or even their choice of guns) still makes nods to these backgrounds. Meanwhile, xXx can construct it’s plot however it feels without concern to a central shooting mechanic, and so, Nicks’s DJ skills and Becky’s hacking get play as abilities that are necessary to the plot.

All of this points to an important sub-point of this point: understand the medium you’re working within. Overwatch and Sentinels of the Multiverse, as games, are constrained by the mechanics of the game. But also, as a result of being a game, anyone participating in the game is more acutely aware of the minor differences in how characters handle. Sure, Tracer and Reaper both deal-wield smaller guns, and Visionary and Parse both excel at deck manipulation, but because the player is executing both, they feel the more subtle differences. xXx isn’t constrained by game mechanics, but is also not interactive. The differences in characters need to be wider to be obvious to people not experiencing the abilities, but because they can construct plots however they wish, esoteric abilities like DJ’ing and hacking can be the sole abilities one needs to be useful.

The quickest way to make a large cast forgettable is to have a bunch of similar-looking characters all serving similar roles. The best large casts make use of the constraints of their mediums to give each character a distinct role and appearance.


-Make efficient use of space
Every one of these works know how it’s limits and makes use of every inch of (metaphorical) space within those limits to flesh out its characters. Every action within the 107-minute runtime of xXx: The Return of Xander Cage is devoted to either giving characters moments to flesh them out or provide the audience with action. Sometimes, both are done simultaneously, as the action each character provides is enough to distinguish themselves from their costars. For example, there’s a big difference between the martial arts of Donnie Yen’s Xiang and the extreme sports-influenced action and straightforward brawling of Vin Diesel’s Xander Cage, or even Yen's fighting and Tony Jaa's more flashy, dance-inspired moves.

Overwatch and Sentinels of the Multiverse aren’t constrained in their runtimes, but have other constraints they’re pushing against. Sentinels loads each card in the game with art signifying story moments, as well as flavor text expounding upon the world of the game. Overwatch packs dialogue into both the taunts players can perform and the slow moments of games, to give players a chance to see how different characters behave both alone and with each other. And character design plays strongly into each case, with things like character posture and costume helping to inform the player’s understanding of the characters.


-Tropes can be used as shortcuts
If anyone has ever gotten sucked into the website TV Tropes, they might be aware of a page titled Tropes Are Tools. It used to be called “Tropes Are Not Bad”, which served my point a lot better, but this new title still works. Taking advantage of narrative shortcuts like tropes can help add depth that you don’t have time to get to. If your story wastes a lot of time, using shortcuts like this feels a little hollow. But when you’re already pushing at your constraints, using shortcuts can be an easy way to convey extra information that you might not have had the time to convey otherwise.

For an example of this, the characters of Sentinels of the Multiverse take inspiration from more famous comic superheroes to help inform the audience of their characteristics. Look at Legacy; his design and pose call to mind Superman, which gives us a starting point to consider. From there, details like art on the cards or an hour-long podcast can be used to clear up or modify those initial assumptions. Everything considered, Legacy is not Superman; but, making us indirectly consider their similarities and building from there is a pretty good way to go, as far as world- and character-building on a budget goes.


-Added depth below the surface
Lastly, as a creator working within strict constraints, you won’t be able to get everything across in your allotted space, even when you make the most of available space. But having an underlying idea of the mechanics can rub off on the viewer/player. Getting actors who can flesh out a character in their performances can help rather flat characters feel more three-dimensional. The actors in xXx 3 sometimes feel like they’re playing caricatures of themselves, but it helps in fleshing out depth at times. Tying them to real-world humans makes them feel like real people that we’re witnessing a snapshot of, rather than words on a page bring enacted.

Similarly, the creators of the worlds of Overwatch and Sentinels of the Multiverse have much wider worlds in mind from what they’ve shown. There’s an entire timeline of the world of Overwatch that I have glimpsed (but not yet felt compelled to dissect), and it gives me a feeling that I’m witnessing a larger universe. Similarly, the creators of Sentinels have an entire Multiverse (hence the name) fully plotted out. The cards touch on the stories involved (and they’ve begun digging more deeply into these stories in their new podcast The Letters Page), and while they can’t touch on everything, knowing that they exist, even if we can’t see them, gives the world a much larger feeling than it would have otherwise. 


I’m going to be honest: at first, I didn’t think I’d get this much out of this article. I had wanted to write about each one of these topics for a while (well, xXx only since I saw it two weeks ago, but the other two for longer), but I doubted there would be that much overlap. But it turns out, they all do a fantastic job of building teams of interesting characters in minimal broad strokes. Together, they make for an interesting blue print for anyone looking to build their own extended team of characters in a limited story-space.

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