Reading the Tea Leaves: More Potter Coming?

For those that haven’t heard, J.K. Rowling wrote a little in the Potter universe again. You can find it here. Go ahead. Whatever I write will be here when you get back.

Back?

Good.

After seeing this, some fans are beginning to ask, through the foam in their mouth, “Does this mean more Potter? Will Rowling return to the Wizarding World that made her famous and captivated hundreds of thousands of young readers?”

My memories of Harry Potter go far back. My sister started reading them when The Prisoner of Azkabahn was in paperback, so we were by no means early adopters, but it does mean that all the characters of the Potter world hold a special place in our heart and feel like friends that we had the privilege of growing up alongside. They remind me of my mother, who read every book out loud to us even when I was a college student returning home for the summer shortly before The Deathly Hallows came out. It took two days, some tissues, and a good deal of herbal tea and honey to get through it, which still impresses me.
One of the news sites where I first heard about the short story, if it can really be called much more than a scene, had a poll asking if Rowling should write more Potter. Nearly 75% wanted more. Should Rowling listen to this cry and write more in the Potter universe? Is this short piece a portent of things to come?

I’ll answer the second question first. In a sense, yet it is. I expect more short stories like this, perhaps even under the guise of gossip columnist Rita Skeeter, but I don’t expect more than that. The constant cry toward the end of this piece is for privacy for the celebrities of the Potter world. I think that’s a demand that Rowling herself is likely to give them, and one that she hopes the fans will respect as well.
It seems that Rowling, like her fans, is ready to leave this world behind, but not its characters. She has already told its chief epic and, frankly, anything but the main battle between good and evil that has already been resolved would likely be profoundly disappointing.

As readers, we got to hear the best story that this world has to offer. Rowling gave us a fantastic world to enjoy reading, but also one large enough for us to tell our own stories in. Rather than clamor at Rowling for more of what we loved, let’s be happy that the books we have did not try and continue the story past what it needed to be, and let’s enjoy playing in the world she created.

“Evolution” as a Rhetorical Term: Why someone you know is likely using it incorrectly.

When I began teaching writing, specifically argument, I was working with mostly non-traditional students at a local career college. These students had been out of highschool for several years and had not written very much in the interim. Even in the more advanced classes at this school, I found that I still had to review what at many other colleges would be considered basic writing, such as spelling and grammar and giving specific forms to help them think through an assignment. Every class presented different teaching challenges, but one I encountered in the first class and taught throughout my time there was helping students understand the difference between a slogan and an argument.

In my example for students, I used the famous M&Ms “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand,” as an obvious example of a slogan. However, many slogans are more refined than that. A slogan is essentially an empty rhetorical appeal that might sound good or be memorable, but likely does not carry much weight behind it. One current example might be the NRA’s, “It takes a good guy with a gun to beat a bad guy with a gun.” That’s a fine slogan for rallying gun owners, but it’s not going to hold up as sound reasoning t support the NRA’s position. Slogans, as a rhetorical appeal, are memorable and serve to rally the support base, but are not likely to provide evidence for or against a position.

There’s an interesting slogan that I’ve noticed, and I believe it is more appeal than argument. Here I want to use “rhetoric” not only in the academic sense, but also in the more pejorative, common sense. For lack of a better term, I’ll call this the Appeal of Evolutionary Progress (AtEP) and its derivative, the Appeal to the Current Year (AttCY).

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It’s not hard to find examples of these arguments. Both AtEP and AttCY are usually responses to a way of thinking or a claim that is considered outdated. You might have seen them as a facebook post, which is where I found the one above, or as bumper stickers that read, “Oh, Evolve,” or hear “It’s 2014 why don’t we have [cause] figured out already?” It’s not difficult to see the appeal of such phrases. The AttCY certainly helps to make a debating partner’s view seem outdated. The AtEP not only has a similar effect, but also brings a scientific ethos to bear on the discussion which, while it might not win points with a conservative audience, likely will with those already on the more progressive debater’s side.

The issue is that these appeals, while they might win over audience members, are rhetorical in the worst sense of the word. They do not actually lend any scientific merit to the conversation. In fact, they usually rely on a misunderstanding of evolution and abuse it to help advance their own agenda.

When  debaters use the Appeal to Evolutionary Progress, they are essentially claiming that their views are the more evolved views. Since evolution does not have an predictable progress point and can only be measured in what helps a species to continue surviving, this is a claim that they cannot support Homo Sapiens is not more correct than Homo Erectus, merely more suited to survival. AtEP assigns a purpose other than survival to evolution. Now it not only helps species adapt to changing conditions, it also helps them generate correct beliefs over time.

AtEP not only begs the question, as we see above, but it also a rather nasty ad hominem attack. The demand that someone evolve to another’s views implies that the debating partner is somehow less of a person than the person using AtEP. The picture at the beginning of this post could easily be paraphrased, “You are subhuman if you don’t act the way I expect you to act.” This appeal is not only fallacious, it is offensive as well.

Regardless of whether or not evolution can explain morality, no one is capable of evolving at will, regardless of how it might help their survivability. At this point, critiquing someone for their morality is about as useful as critiquing them because of the color of their eyes. It is something they cannot help and are unable to change. They may appear to be able to change their morality, but if it is coded into their genetics, they are unable to truly change their beliefs about the subject at hand.

AttCY suffers from similar pitfalls. The current year has no standing on right belief. The argument essentially is expressing aggravation that, despite all the progress mankind has made, not all of humanity agrees with the person appealing to the common year. This is the inverse of the fallacious Appeal to Tradition, which states that just because we have always done things a certain way, we should continue to do them that way. As an expression of frustration, it is understandable. However, it does not add to the conversation in any productive or meaningful way. Its base assumption is that progress, specifically the progress they are supporting, is beneficial. However, it merely states this claim, but does not support it.

I can see why this slogan is appealing. It certainly does seem to rally one side against another. Once this slogan has been used, there can be very little counterargument to oppose it. It gives one side a feeling of superiority, while the other must crawl back towards the primordial ooze. However, it should not be mistaken for an argument or sound reasoning.

The Questionable Ethics of Ethics Questions

Recently, I’ve been looking for work. While I haven’t gotten a job yet, I’ve had a few good leads and a few promising and enjoyable interviews at local companies. Looking for a new job is exciting; it’s also painful and nerve-wracking.

While most of the pain and nerves come from uncertainty, recently this frustration has come in the form of the pre-hire ethics test. This ethics test is designed to answer two main questions: “Will this applicant steal from the company?” and “Will this applicant do drugs in the break room?” (Note to potential employers, the answer to both questions is “No.” At least in my case. Those other people you’re considering though… keep your eye on them.)

The main issue I take with this test is not that it exists; it is in the way it poses its (for lack of a better term) questions. Applicants are tasked with reading a statement, then answering on a scale of 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 10 (Strongly Agree) with various level of both agreement and disagreement in between the two.

While this seems fairly straightforward, the statements that the applicants are supposed to agree (or disagree!) with are so poorly worded they do not fit the task set them before them. The statements could generally be put into three categories: “So tell me, when did you stop beating your wife,” Comparison without Context, and a Statement of Fact.

The issues with the first category is that it is unclear what the test-maker intends you to agree (or disagree!) with. Like the question, “So tell me, when did you stop beating your wife?” if you answer “Last week” you are admitting to having beaten your wife, but if you answer “I don’t!” you could be saying that you haven’t stopped. The strongest example of this category was, “I used to have trouble showing up for work on time, but that’s not a problem anymore.” In my experience (employers take note) I have never had trouble getting to work on time. Should I disagree then? Perhaps, but then I might also be disagreeing to the second part of the question and admitting that it is still a problem. Should I agree? That’s not accurate either because this problem never existed for me.

Now, it could be that the second half of the statement, “But that’s not a problem anymore,” is there so that applicants feel more comfortable agreeing to the fact that they had trouble in the past. However, ultimately this type of question does not accomplish what it sets out to do. If a person disagrees, they could be saying that they have never had this problem or that they currently have this problem. If both answers are equally valid, this question cannot be useful in evaluating ethics.

The second category is the Comparison without Context. The question that stood out to me most in this category was, “It is just as wrong to smoke marijuana on your break as to have a drink at lunch.” Perhaps they are trying to make this a question about legality, as one of these is illegal, and the other is legal. However, ethics transcends legality. Legal choices can still be unethical. In this case, there is also commonality among these two practices, they both later the mental state of someone about to be paid to perform work.

While either of these interpretation are valid, the test is likely looking for a correct answer. However, the applicant cannot give an answer because they do not understand the moral context of both of these actions. It’s easy to see how a drink at lunch could be acceptable, but also how it could be unacceptable. Yet, if one agrees, they may be saying that they are alright with using marijuana and then returning to work. If they disagree, they may be saying that they would drink and then return to work, which the company might frown upon. The context is assumed, which is not enough to adequately measure a person’s ethics.

Finally, we come to the third and simplest category, the Statement of Fact. This question is just as it sounds; it simply states a fact: “Most people steal from their office at some point.” Of course, whether or not I agree or disagree with this fact is not an ethical stance. The assumption seems to be that if someone agrees that most people steal from the office, they will use this as a rationale to steal from the office themselves. Of course, this is a leap in logic and does has nothing to do with whether the fact is true or not.

As all of these clearly have issues that can easily confuse thoughtful test takers, I propose a different type of question: a story. A carefully written story can easily clear up the flaws in these prompts, while making the test much more reliable:

After not setting her alarm, Mary is stuck in traffic and is late for work. “My boss will understand,” she thinks. “This traffic is an acceptable excuse.” Do you agree or disagree with Mary?

This gives more context to the situation. Mary thinks she has an excuse, but it could have easily been prevented had she been more responsible and remembered to set her alarm.

John notices that his workmates often have a drink while at lunch. One day, John decided to smoke marijuana at lunch. Do you agree or disagree with what John did?

Such a prompt establishes the acceptable behavior and at gives more context for John’s actions.

Roger sees Genevieve taking pens from the storeroom after work. When he asks her if she should be doing that, Genevieve responds, “Everyone takes a little, have a pen.” Roger responds, “Sure, if everyone is taking it, they must not mind.” Do you agree or disagree with Roger?

Here we see an example of what I assume is the rationale behind the question.

Now, there could be something very sophisticated going on behind the scenes of these questions. It’s possible that they take aggregate data of all the questions you’ve answered, and develop a moral framework for the remaining answers. That would be cool. However, I doubt that is what’s happening. Stated as they are, these questions, and thus these quizzes, do not actually evaluate a candidate’s morality. They are poorly worded and too vague for that tasks. Brief stories, on the other hand, could help test makers and takers.

If Community’s Done, It Went Down Swinging

One of my favorite TV shows of recent years is the perennially troubled Community. For those that may not watch, it’s a show set in Greendale Community College, which hosts a variety of wacky rotating characters, as well as a relatively stable set of around 6-8 characters that appear in nearly every episode.

It’s easy to see why the show would be off-putting. It’s a bit ridiculous. Plots have included a zombie invasion, the school being taken over, a cult-like air conditioner repair school, and (on more than one occasion) enough paintballs to supply a literal small army. However, the very thing that makes the show off-putting it also what gives it its charm. Watching Community on Thursday nights feels a lot like sitting down to watch cartoons on Saturday morning felt growing up, especially shows like Recess and The Weekenders, but also campier cartoons, such as Transformers and G.I. Joe. You know you are going to see something somewhat realistic, but blown so out of proportion that it becomes ridiculous. At more than point in this season, the ridiculous proportions become the object of the show’s meta-humor, as when Dean Craig Pelton (Jim Rash) explains after the school tested an app that allowed them to rate people, which created a futuristic society based on a caste system, “I think we’re all pretty embarrassed after what happened this weekend and agree never to speak of it again.”

It’s a show that doesn’t take itself seriously, which delights its core fans and frustrates those that might otherwise enjoy the main characters and their relationships. Chevy Chase, the biggest star attached to the show, didn’t feel like he was in on the joke. Chase played Pierce Hawthorn, billionaire heir to a moist toilet company and bigot. Chase didn’t find Pierce funny, which led to conflict with the show’s creator, Dan Harmon. Due to an indiscretion on Harmon’s part, playing a private message from Chase to a public audience, Harmon was canned from the show to appease Chase at the end of the 3rd season.

The 4th season is what the show might call a darkest timeline. It was funny, but Harmon’s devotion to the show’s divisive tone was gone and the story line became mainstream. The quirks that devout fans loved were markedly absent, but those that it now might appeal to had long ago written the show off. Despite Harmon’s absence, Chase left the show as did fan favorite Donald Glover, who I believe left because writers not named Dan Harmon didn’t know how to write for his charmingly innocent man-child like character. The main conflict of the season was a relationship with Troy (Glover) and Britta (Gillian Jacobs), which did nothing interesting with either character, and graduation. The fear of leaving Greendale was as real as to the characters as it was the fans.

However, the show was picked up again and Dan Harmon was too. With Chase gone and only one other show retuning on Thursday, NBC decided they still wanted more Community. Fortunately, NBC picked up some even worse new shows and when they failed, Community got its chance to shine. The show immediately began apologizing for the last season and delivered some episodes that lived up to the first three seasons. The former students return as the “Save Greendale” committee, as determined to save the college as the actors and writers were to save the show.

The entire season had a meta-narrative of saving the show running through it. The characters actions the previous season were attributed to a gas leak in the university in the first episode of this season. The show was able to say goodbye to Pierce, who in many ways was a source of enmity from within the study group, just as Chase was in the show and gave a fond farewell to Glover’s Troy Barnes, who might be back next season (please Donald!).

The real battle for the show’s soul came in the season’s two part series finale. The group tasked with saving Greendale has completed their job, but find that they have made Greendale profitable and that the city of Greendale intends to sell the community college to Subway (yes, the restaurant).

 In saving Greendale, they find they have doomed it. The study group is torn. Two members of the group, Jeff (Joel McHale) and Britta have decided that it’s time to move on from Greendale and get married. Meanwhile, Abed (Dany Pudi), Annie (Alison Brie), and Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) try to save the college through any means necessary, resulting in a Goonies-like treasure hunt.

What’s really at stake here if again, how the fourth season relates the rest of Community. Abed is thirsty for some sort of story to break out after everything seems to be resolved. Jeff tells Abed to let there be no story, exclaiming, “This is the most boring thing that’s happened here since Troy dated Britta,” a callback to a main story in the fourth season. However, this also highlights the current “love” between Jeff and Britta. Jeff has taken Troy’s place, igniting a doomed relationship with Britta. This is not just a callback to the fourth season, but also calls to mind more boring sitcom story lines.

Those in Greendale were faced with a choice. They could adopt boring lives or try to save the college. This is the same conundrum that faced the writers of the fourth season. They could either make the show a more standard sitcom, which might bore its core audience, but might also help save the show. Of course, by saving the show, they would also be selling it out, just what happened to Greendale.

Or, as this season did, they could attempt to save the show by going deeper into the show itself. The treasure that saved Greendale was deep within the school, hidden away with the creator of Greendale, Russel Borchert (Chris Elliot). The answer to saving the show wasn’t in appealing to a broader audience, but in going into what fans of Community love about Community and giving the reins back to its creator, just as having the deranged computer scientist founder of Greendale take the reins of the college prevented Greendale’s sale to Subway.

Of course, as the group discovered in the depths of Greendale, they had to bring back the original creator of the college in order to save it. This creator has been living in the basement with his love, a computer (did I mention that the show could be off-putting?), since the late 1970s. He’s unkempt, possibly crazy, difficult to understand, possibly a genius, and out of touch with pop culture. When they bring the founder back up to the surface, Subway doesn’t want to work with him and backs out of the sale.

At this point, Community has given up on subtle allegory. The only way to save the show was to bring back its irritable, divisive, potentially genius creator, Dan Harmon. Community spent what might be its last two episodes (we’ll have to “see what fails,” as the end tag suggests) telling NBC, “I told you so,” and rejoicing in the fact that the show has, somehow, lasted five seasons.

It’s a masterfully told and wonderfully entertaining lesson in writing meta-humor. The plot is bizarre enough to stand on its own, but is a wonderful, and satisfying, potential farewell to a loyal fan base that watched the show on different nights, at different times, and no matter when it premiered from its first episode, until the world is potentially destroyed by a giant asteroid.

Because that’s canon.

The Attention Monopoly

This article came down my Facebook newsfeed this morning, courtesy of friend and Florida newsman Taylor VinsonIt spawned two ideas in my head: one related to a shift in how social media has adapted as an industry and another about how shifts in this industry may begin influencing how literacy develops. We’ll talk about the first today, and I’ll post about the latter tomorrow.

The article isn’t long, but it does demonstrate that a shift is taking place in social media. Teenagers, those arbiters of excellent taste, have been moving away from Facebook and toward instagram and twitter as their main (or “most important”) social media platform. The graph is the most interesting part of the article, as it demonstrates the shift away from Facebook and toward Instagram. Meanwhile, other social media platforms, like Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterst, have remained relatively stable, in terms of importance.

This is interesting largely as it relates to Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention. Here Lanham argues that money is not the limiting factor in 1st world economic environments: attention is. People only have a limited attention span and will spend that attention on whatever is capable of holding it. Lanham does not differentiate between positive and negative attention, which I believe to be a flaw in his argument as we’ll see later. The more attention a commodity is capable of gaining, the more people are going to spend on that commodity. It is now not important to merely gain their money through direct means, you must gain their attention first.

Facebook seems to have adapted to this in ways that its most famous predecessor, MySpace, did not. Perhaps because it was the first social network to attract a truly mammoth audience, MySpace made small changes, but largely gave the users control over their own webpage. As Facebook began to emerge on a non-college scene in 2006, MySpace went the way of the dinosaur as a new social media took its place. The operative word here is “new.” The novelty of Facebook made people curious, which attracted more attention to it and slowly choked out MySpace’s user base. That’s how the attention economy works.

Facebook seems to have learned from MySpace’s cautionary tale. First, it updates its interface and features frequently, much to the chagrin of its users. My first facebook status was, “Thanks Facebook, I’ll never use this worthless feature.” I thought the newsfeed feature was creepy. Now, it is hard to imagine Facebook conversations actually happening on a simple wall posted without the attention gained from the newsfeed. Facebook found a way to manipulate their own attention micro-economy, bringing the most relevant information your friends are posting to you, which has helped to keep people there.

Of course, as the article states, Facebook has become the “Mom and Dad version of Instagram and Twitter.” Wants mom and dad’s attention finds its way to facebook, teens do not have as much interest in it anymore. That is attention they do not want, presumably because they are developing their independence. However, I am sure this is also because they know that mom and dad will see their posts much differently than their peers will.

So, parents aren’t on Twitter and Instagram, which makes it more appealing to teenagers. Teens are leaving facebook for Twitter and Instagram, and Facebook isn’t that worried. Why not? Because Facebook owns Instagram. In one of the biggest social media news events, Facebook bought Instagram, did not integrate it directly into Facebook, but made sharing easier and proprietary. As the title of the article lets on, “Teens Are Leaving Facebook for Facebook.”

This is another lesson Facebook learned from MySpace: you aren’t here forever. You will lose to the newest, shiniest thing. Rather than losing to it, Facebook bought it while it was still relatively young. Facebook has also begun to buy other social media commodities as well, such as Whatsapp?, a mobile chatting client. Facebook is becoming a social media mega corporation that is not only capable of buying the next big thing, but also using its other commodities to direct your attention to the next big thing. In short, Facebook has the potential to become the social media attention monopoly, constantly directing people to their new acquisition and creating the next big thing based on what you are already using.

The Transmedia Marvel Pt. 2

Since my post on Monday, I’ve gotten to see the newest episode of Agents of Shield (AoS or “Agents” from now on) where “Everything Changes,” and yes, quite a lot did. While watching, I made sure to keep an eye out for similarities in the plot and references between the film and movie. I’m not usually a stickler for such things. Usually, I like to just sit back and be entertained, but this time I certainly noticed some great similarities and call backs to the Captain America: The Winter Solder (CAtWS from now on). From here on out be forewarned: these waters are full of spoilers for both the movie and the episode.

There was a lot to like about how AoS handled viewers that might be watching the show without having seen CAtWS yet. The first ten minutes of the show were spent establishing that Shield had been infiltrated by Hydra, no one was trustworthy, and that Agent Fury was dead. Even having seen the film, I didn’t feel like this recap took anything away from the episode; although I was not shocked by some things that were clearly intended to be shocking to those that had not seen the movie, like the seemingly unnecessary action beat at the beginning when Shield drones attacked Coulson and Co. The events were set into context with the film so well, that my guess is that all this was supposed to happen around the time of Cap’s elevator fight, just as Hydra was beginning to take over. However, there will be more discussion on when this episode takes place in the movie’s timeline later.

Smaller callbacks also worked very well, in my mind. There were some small, relatively insignificant references, like Fitz’s cutter, which the team used to escape the airship as it was boarded, was also used by Fury and Hill to escape vehicles in similar situations. This was moment, especially when Fitz laments that it was “never put into wide production” and Agent Garret says, “All the top agents have them.” This was fun once Marvel, but please don’t let this become a lazy “heroes get out of jail free” card any time soon.

Agent Garret also referenced Sitwell’s betrayal and Agent Hand explaining that “If we are too survive, we must learn to strike first,”  was a clear reference to the prevailing attitudes of Shield (at the beginning of CAtWS) and later Hydra, which is one reason I was skeptical of her innocence, not that it seems to matter much now.

While the show did reference and seem to situate itself well in the movie’s timeline, the problems in the show were uniquely AoS level problems. Coulson’s crew was having to deal with getting the team back together, a friend’s betrayal, and whether or not to trust Agent May. Additionally, the show extends much farther than the movie. Crisis break out at the Shield Academy and there are more important areas to defend than the Triscellion, such as the Hub and the Fridge. Additionally, the crew makes it a point to protect information they have gathered that they do not want Hydra to get their hands on. Cap is concerned with higher order villainy, like the three airships, while the Agents are trying to make sure that smaller, less dangerous secrets are kept. Still, it would not surprise me to see that some of these secrets were captured and may even show up in later episodes or films, making this first season of AoS still very important to the transmedia universe Marvel is creating.

Of course, this is still early in their transmedia experiment, and Marvel can learn a lot from what I think are gaffs. Some of these are small. In the first episode, Coulson welcomes Ward to security level 7 and says that the Avengers are not level 7 yet. However, in the film Cap is level 8. This is a small difference, but I know others will have noticed it as well, so I thought to mention it here. It’s easy to explain this away though. Cap is one of the few Avengers that has gone on to work closely with Shield, so his clearance would likely be higher.

While Shield is effectively dissolved at the end of the film, it seems to live on so far in the show. Ward and Hand mention the fact that they might be the highest ranked agents left and make a plan of action for how to contain the disaster that’s taken place. I’m not great at judging timelines in films though, and it’s entirely possible that they haven’t gotten the memo about Shield’s dissolution yet.

Finally, I do have some problems with how the timeline as a whole worked. At the beginning of the first events in AoS were around the time of Cap’s elevator fight, based on when Fury died in the movie, then events that seemed to take weeks in the film took place in the space of an evening in the show. If this evening is while Cap is destroying the airships, which is revealed in the episode, why are we just learning that Fury is dead?

 One possible explanation is that this takes place well after Fury’s death, which Hydra kept secret, and is just now beginning to emerge as information, but that too seems unlikely. Agent May was apparently keeping close tabs on Coulson and crew and reporting to Fury. Certainly, if all this takes place during the chaos at the Triscellion, she would have reported to Fury at some point when he was presumed dead. The end of the episode certainly takes place during the fight at the Triscellion, because we see the airships falling and Hand gives a nod to Cap’s exploits (this may be considered a spoiler, but did anyone planning on going to the movie think Cap was going to lose?). However, if all that fighting is happening, who is going to take the time to answer May’s call to Coulson’s private phone? Wouldn’t it have been more apt to say, “Fury’s dead and oh yeah, we’ve also been infiltrated by Hydra and things are really going south?” Get it together, Shield administrative support staff.

So, what does this tell us about how they are going about transmedia storytelling? Well, we know a few things now. First, they seem to be playing it a little safe. This is a good thing. Transmedia storytelling asks a lot of those trying to keep up with it. Keeping it to a TV show and several films is ambitious enough. I’m glad they are playing it safe.

However, they also don’t seem to be playing this entirely the right way either. At the beginning of the episode, I thought this took place at the start of the film’s second act. However, by the end of the episode, it seemed to be at the end of the film. This isn’t really a discrepancy, but engaged followers of the transmedia universe will want to have these questions answered clearly, and I didn’t think it was clear from the start of the episode. I don’t think that’s a huge quibble though.

Taken as a whole, I’m impressed by what the writers managed to tie together. This a great feat and a good job of showing two different sides of the same story. On a personal note, I’m impressed. While the higher ups have given up on Shield at the end of CAtWS, the agents on the ground are still hard at work mining through the details and dealing with the threat of what Hydra might become and that can only lead to better movies and TV shows.

The Transmedia Marvel

I understand that there were some pretty big events that happened this weekend. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that my facebook profile hasn’t been high jacked by the University of Kentucky to advertise their appearance in the championship game this evening (go Cats!). Despite doing my undergrad in the middle of UK country (and having a tad of Cats fever myself), there was only one “must watch” item on my list this weekend: Captain America.

While I won’t call myself a super-fan, Marvel’s movie universe certainly has captured the side of me that would get up early on Saturdays to watch X-men on Fox Kids. The movies are some of the few that I enjoy enough to watch more than once, even if it is only once in a blue moon, and some of the few spectacles that will make me leave the house and go to a movie theatre. Iron Man is, personally, my favorite, but I may have been more excited for this Captain America movie more than I was even for the superb Iron Man 3 (which I now want to rewatch immediately). And the reason has more to do with Tuesday nights than Saturday mornings.

This season, Disney put their purchase of Marvel to good use with Agents of Shield, which seems to be breaking out of its back and forth between freak-of-the-week serial and police procedural genre confusion. Recent episodes have been linked visually with Captain America, advertisements show the show’s logo  switching from Cap’s shield to the eponymous eagle based Shield logo with the slogan: “After Captain America: The Winter Soldier, everything changes” and “It’s all connected.” In fact, if you’ve followed both the show and the movie, there is a lot of reason for change, and I’m excited to see how this is going to play out Tuesday night.

Even though I’m excited to see how Agent Coulson (his first name is Agent) and crew will deal with the recent developments in Captain America, I’m more excited to see how this plays out as the most obvious form of transmedia storytelling since the Matrix.

For those not familiar with the rhetoric of online groups, “transmedia storytelling” is the name that Henry Jenkins gave to stories being told across a variety of media. Jenkins uses the Matrix series of movies, comics, video games and one-offs to explain why so many people found the sequels off-putting, while others found them engrossing. To summarize a chapter of his book, Convergence Culture, the Matrix movies did not tell the whole story. The whole story was contained in video games such as Enter the Matrix, a smattering of graphic novels, and a series of animated shorts titled The Animatrix. The later films feature characters, with little or no introduction, that first appeared in the video games, referenced events that occurred in the Animatrix shorts, and even alluded to a series of little read comic books about the Matrix universe. Movie viewers were confused, while super-fans that had immersed themselves in the real world culture surrounding the world of the Matrix were elated.

Now, Marvel is playing a similar, dangerous game. The events in Agents of Shield, have been fascinating in their own right up to this point. There is conflict within the team, with the current main baddie “The Clairvoyant,” and even within the Shield organization itself. However, there has been a subtle threat in the recent advertisements I’ve referenced above: “If you don’t go to Captain America: The Winter Soldier this weekend, you are going to be absolutely lost when 8 o’clock roles around on Tuesday.”

Of course, there is the other side of this coin as well. I, usually not a fan of movies, rushed to an opening weekend show. Opening weekend is incredibly important for a movie, often determining just how long as the movie will stay in theaters. I likely would have waited, but… then again… I need to know what’s going on so I can follow Agents of Shield. I’m hopeful that the writers on Agents of Shield will be able to explain the significance of the movie’s events without spoiling too much, because I know that not everyone is going to the movies this weekend. There will be a stand-alone nature to the episode. However, as a marketing gimmick, I have to admit that it worked on me. The nerd in me loves the idea that these movies are linked together and that there are levels of allusion and references to new movies and now a television show. Rumor has it that Marvel has planned their movies (to some, likely vague, degree) up through the next 14 years.

If they are smart, Disney can milk this cash cow for a long time. In my mind, one of the flaws of the Matrix saga is that they tried to do too much and went into too many forms of media. Casual fans were left behind. Not everyone that goes to see a blockbuster is going to also play video games, read comics, or seek out a dvd of supplemental animated material.

Marvel is being much smarter and more intentional about how they plan things out. They’re making it explicit that these films and this show are linked. They are also, so far, sticking to only two genres as they development their cinematic universe.

However, I’m beginning to notice casual fans entering the scene. As the credits rolled, my wife started to get up before I put my hand over hers, “Oh,” she said, “I almost forgot.” While others streamed out of the theatre, we stayed behind, with smany others, because we know that in Marvel films, you have to stay through to the end of the credits for a sneak peak at what’s going to come next. In this case, I learned a little bit more about the plot of the next Avengers film. However, it also means that not all fans are willing to engage on the same level. Even I have my limits; I’m not sure I could sit through 2 hours of Hulk smashing things to bits.

I hope that Marvel has read Jenkins and that the 14 year plan keeps itself modest. I believe that people are far more willing to engage in several different forms of media to follow a single universe now than they were when The Matrix came out, and it is exciting to be engaging with media in a time where they are not just developing movies, but a whole universe of related films. On Tuesday, we’ll all know a little bit more about how well this new transmedia experiment is going to play out.