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The enduring appeal of the Ocean’s movies, explained

They’re popular for the same reason the Avengers movies succeed.

Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. in Ocean’s 11, and Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett in Ocean’s 8
Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. in Ocean’s Eleven, and Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett in Ocean’s 8.
Warner Bros.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

What makes the Ocean’s movies so alluring?

It’s no surprise that America loves heist movies with sexy, star-studded casts. And it makes sense that Hollywood loves them too (just take a look at the box office numbers). But there are lots of heist movies with ensemble casts, some of which, at the end of the day, are probably better films.

So what makes us keep going back to the Ocean’s series? The first movie came out almost six decades ago, in 1960, and starred five members of the “Rat Pack” — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford — alongside a host of other well-known actors, including Angie Dickinson. In 2001, Steven Soderbergh remade the movie, this time with George Clooney and Brad Pitt in Sinatra and Martin’s roles and a murderer’s row of established and emerging movie stars: Bernie Mac, Don Cheadle, Andy Garcia, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Casey Affleck, a baby-faced Matt Damon, and Julia Roberts.

The cast of the original Ocean’s 11, which came out in 1960.
The cast of the original Ocean’s Eleven, which came out in 1960.
Warner Bros.

That film was so successful that it spawned two more, Ocean’s Twelve in 2004 and Ocean’s Thirteen in 2007. And with each new addition, the cast just kept adding luminaries like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Al Pacino, and Ellen Barkin. The critical opinion on the films has grown tepid, but audiences still flock to them, and their popularity is enough to have spawned a new film: Ocean’s 8, which exists in the same universe as the trilogy but tells a new story. And it stars mostly women, in stark contrast to the four films that came before it.

Five films in — one original, one reboot, two sequels, and now a kind of “sidequel” — it’s worth asking: What’s the special appeal of the Ocean’s films? There are lots of answers to this, but one thing seems obvious: The Ocean’s movies feature the OG superhero supergroup — on not one but two levels.

The Ocean’s films scratched the Avengers itch before the Avengers made it to the big screen

Certainly the characters in the Ocean’s films aren’t literal superheroes. But Danny Ocean’s gang of thieves aren’t all that far off either.

Both the 1960 and 2001 versions, for instance, spend a lot of time (half the film, for the 1960 version) assembling the team — a classic move in superhero supergroup movies — and naming each of their individual strengths that make them a vital part of the team.

And those strengths seem pretty impressive. Some of them are just very good at diverting attention. Others are excellent at lock-picking or pickpocketing. There’s the contortionist who can worm his way around ladders and the guys who know everything about explosives — and, of course, there’s Danny Ocean, whose main superpower is basically convincing people to do what he wants them to do.

The Ocean’s trilogy crew: a suave superhero supergroup.
The Ocean’s trilogy crew: a suave superhero supergroup.
Warner Bros.

None of these characters alone could pull off a heist as big as the movies want them to (stealing precious and heavily guarded jewels, for instance, or knocking over a bunch of Las Vegas casinos). But together, their powers combine to make something great. They’re not trying to save the world or defeat any villains; they’re just trying to settle scores and get a bunch of cash. But their combined abilities make them extremely powerful.

The films never spend too much time explaining how or why they got this way. In fact, we don’t know a lot about the characters at all — there aren’t really any individual origin stories, only the team’s origin story. In the 2001 version, Clooney’s Danny, arguably, is the most fleshed out, but that’s only because we know about his time in prison and his marriage to Roberts’s Tess. In the 1960 version, the most we get about almost anyone is that they were all members of the 82nd Airborne during World War II, and the heist is partly just a way to relive their glory days.

Watching them assemble to complete what seems like an impossible task (and then another, and another) is undeniably exciting in the same way that putting together a team of actual superheroes, as in the Avengers (or, if you prefer, the Fellowship of the Ring). How, we find ourselves wondering, will each character use their power? How will each piece of the puzzle fit together to pull off the perfect heist?

For my money (so to speak), Soderbergh’s 2001 reboot is the most fun of all of these: It has the thrill of finding out which cool, suave actor will show up next, but it also sails along rhythmically in a way the 1960 film doesn’t, skillfully building up tension and excitement. It’s like watching jazz, or a soccer team setting up the perfect play. Something about it is an unmitigated joy — even if, at the end of the day, you would never condone thievery.

Matt Damon, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Twelve
A snapshot of Hollywood heartthrobs, circa 2004.
Warner Bros.

But they’re supergroup movies of the second order too

There’s a second level of pleasure to the movies as well: We’re not just watching top-notch multitalented characters; we’re also very aware that we’re watching bona fide movie stars. The Ocean’s movies are all about actor supergroups.

From the start, the Ocean’s trilogy has always been about the fun of watching a whole bunch of your favorite glamorous stars show up in the same movie and appear to be having a great time — a tradition the new film ably extends. Like the Marvel or DC universes, which generate a great deal of excitement purely through casting announcements (Iron Man likely would never have been as big of a hit without Robert Downey Jr. in the lead), they’re built to advertise themselves to audiences purely on the strength of who’s in them.

That’s why the original film starred the Rat Pack, many of whom sing in the film as well. You’re not just there to watch some cool dudes steal some money; you’re there to watch some cool actors have the kind of good time together onscreen that you imagine they have every weekend at someone’s posh poolside party, and wish you were there too.

That’s why the trilogy starred Clooney and Pitt, undeniably Hollywood’s leading men in the ’00s, and added all kinds of faces to the mix that would give audiences the hit of happiness that comes with seeing your favorite actor onscreen. The films also tried to make it clear, in a slight and teasing way, that the actors were in on the joke; the clearest example of this is the bit in Ocean’s Twelve in which Tess (played by Julia Roberts) is part of a plot that involves her uncanny resemblance to ... Julia Roberts. (It’s foiled by the appearance of Bruce Willis, playing Bruce Willis, who of course knows the real “Julia.”)

The cast for Ocean’s 8 is stacked with talent, in keeping with the whole franchise.
The cast for Ocean’s 8 is stacked with talent, in keeping with the whole franchise.
Warner Bros.

Ocean’s 8 has followed this trend, casting Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean (Danny’s estranged sister), alongside Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Awkwafina, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, and Rihanna. The marketing for Ocean’s 8 has been pretty clear: You want to see this movie because these women are all terrific actors you already love. And basically, you know what you’ll get — a fabulous heist (with everyone in excellent coats) and the pleasure of watching some talented thieves pull off an impossible heist.

There is, of course, a lot about the assembly of actors that feels old-fashioned (even in Ocean’s Thirteen, made barely more than a decade ago). Save for Tess, Danny’s (estranged) wife, the main cast in all four movies is made up of men, and for the most part, they’re white men who don’t seem particularly down on their luck except in their own eyes — all of which seems like at least a lack of imagination on the part of the filmmakers about who counts as a “movie star.”

But that is in many ways a relic of an older Hollywood — and as Fran Hoepfner put it in her great Bright Wall/Dark Room piece on the trilogy, “They’re truly of the zeitgeist, from a time in which we still wanted a group of mostly white men to get over on all those guys. The sweetness, the style, the pop culture references, the banter ... That’s the enduring magic, the backflip.”

And in the end, that may be the biggest joking wink of the Ocean’s films: They are true star-studded heist films, not just because of what happens in the story but also what happens in the audience. We know they’re a little silly — but they do too. We know they’re here to steal our hearts and a little of our money and time, but we’re okay with it. In a lot of ways, it’s a pleasure to be tricked so smoothly, and with so much panache.