As winter slowly (way too slowly) gives way to spring, the franchise movie season at least is heating up. Two weeks ago saw the premier of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, not just an entrant in the “most pointless subtitle ever” contest, but a major investment by Warner Brothers, not only in the movie itself, but as a means of establishing a DC Comics movie franchise to rival Disney’s very successful Marvel Comics movie franchise. For Warner Brothers, more is at stake than the whether Batman V Superman makes money (which it will, despite a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). The fate of a whole slate of upcoming movies–Suicide Squad (2016); Wonder Woman (2017); The Flash (2018); Aquaman (2018) and on and on—depends on the buzz and anticipation created by Batman V Superman.
But not just Batman V Superman. As with the subtly named Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and Marvel’s Agent Carter in the rival Marvel universe, other DC properties also exist on television in the form of The Flash, Arrow, and Gotham, as well as in former series such as Smallville. Just how all these texts relate to each other is a question for both media scholars and everyday fans alike. Do you need to keep up with the Avengers movie series to make sense of the Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD television show? (Kind of). Is The Flash preparing me to make sense of the upcoming movies featuring The Flash? (Maybe not). And I haven’t even brought up whether we need to be keeping up with the comic books where all these characters first appeared. In an article last year by Jessica Rawden on CinemaBlend, the president of DC Comics Geoff Johns refers to the relationship among all these different projects as a “multiverse”:
We look at it as the multiverse. We have our TV universe and our film universe, but they all co-exist. For us, creatively, it’s about allowing everyone to make the best possible product, to tell the best story, to do the best world.
Multiverse, universe, movies, comic books, television . . . to this list we can add the “prosumer” world of fan fiction, YouTube mash-ups (like this slightly lower budget action sequence:)
and other user-generated content. In this digital age welter of constant remixing and reinvention across an equally vast array of screens—what scholars call “transmedia”—which of these hundreds of possible texts is the “real” one? Add in the accelerating process of franchise reboots—we’re getting ready for our “third” Spiderman since Sam Raimi’s Spiderman in 2002—and we’re left wondering just what “Spiderman” really refers to. A character? An idea of a character? Is there any “original” text left?
These are fascinating and ultimately impossible questions to answer definitively, but they also leave a historical question begging: has it always been this way? Caught up in the confusing and unpredictable mess of contemporary media, it’s easy to imagine that culture was more clearly defined in the past. A book was a book, a movie was a movie, and that was that. But consider the case of the movie fan magazines that were a dominant and lucrative force in American movie culture from the first decade of the twentieth century through the 1960s. Let’s take a look at the May 1914 issue of Motion Picture magazine. Thanks to the Media History Digital Library, you can literally take a look right here:
It’s always fun to leaf through old magazines. There are the ads (“Let Him Give You a Real Command of English”; “Dr. Hill’s Sexual Knowledge”) that speak to the anxieties and concerns of 1914 . . . or at least, how those anxieties (how to speak for success; overcoming fears of sexual inadequacy) expressed themselves at the time. There is the gallery of stars, some household names at the time—Helen Marten, Frankie Mann–who have since faded from public memory, and others who still resonate, such as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. But for our purposes, even more interesting is the collection of “Photoplay Stories”: fictionalized versions of the latest releases based on scenarios supplied by the studios. These stories are not source material, but early version of the later practice of “novelizations,” books based on movies. Yet the novelization holds out the promise of a long-term immersive reading experience. These Photoplay Stories could be easily over a lunch hour.
But why “read” a story meant to be watched? In part this is a question of all adaptations—why watch a movie version of a novel meant to be read? A novel, though, is a long-term immersive experience. But there’s something disposable about how these Photoplay stories are presented, as if reading the movie and watching the movie were all a part of the same media experience. They were also designed to be read either before or after the movie. It is true that these Photoplay stories were more popular during the “silent” era, where they could add more external dialogues and internal monologues than could be experienced in the movie theater. But this effortless movement back and forth between the two mediums, between print and the movies, suggest a form of transmedia move culture at the dawn of cinema.
You’ll even find versions of fan culture here in the form of poems sent in by readers inspired by movies, movie culture, and in this case, by Margaret Goldstein’s appreciation of the Essanay movie star Evelyn Selbie:
Transmedia experiences crossed over to the sound era as well. The screen age of the studio system in the thirties and forties coincided with the rise of radio as a dominant mass medium as well. As I discuss in Screen Ages, before a popular movie came to your town, you might very well listen to a radio version of the film first, often featuring the actual stars of the movie. Or, as with the Photoplay stories, you could “relive” a movie on the radio. Again, the change in media seems puzzling; from the intensely visual experience of the screen, to the solely aural experience of radio. Here’s a particularly odd example: a 1938 Lux Radio Theater version of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, broadcast a year after the premier of this landmark animated movie.
Underline the word “landmark.” While the movie featured a collection of songs—“Whistle While You Work”; “Someday My Prince Will Come”—that became popular standards, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made media history as a work of animation. The story was not original, although its particular bowdlerization of that story was all Disney. By any standards, it seems the whole point of Disney’s movie was to see it, not listen to it. Yet here is radio program, one enjoyed by millions of Americans, many who undoubtedly replayed the movie in their imaginations as they listened.
Of course, in the 1930s once a movie left your local theater, there was no seeing it again unless it were rereleased, often years later if at all, so this form of transmedia storytelling does fulfill the role of “better than nothing.” Even with the advent of movies on TV in the 1950s, movies were not readily available as home consumer products until the videocassettes of the 1980s. But Disney was also an early innovator in the idea of “synergy,” of creating a Disney “multiverse” of media experiences ranging from movies to music to books to comics to theme parks to television shows. Disney understood early on the appeal of a “transmedia” movie experience.
If there is a key difference between the fan-generated poetry of Motion Picture magazine and the transmedia world of today, it’s the gatekeeper function performed by the magazine. As a fan, to share your movie-inspired poetry with others, you needed the circulation of Motion Picture, which put editorial control in the hands of Motion Picture—and often by extension the movie studios with whom the fan magazines closely worked. Now, the multinational conglomerate creators of media franchise multiverses are competing alongside fan cultures which are constantly creating and recreating their own versions of Spiderman and other characters, along with a fan-generated critical universe that renders instant judgments on the latest franchise entries, one reason for constantly rebooting and reconfiguring these franchises.
The results can be confusing and even overwhelming, but if Motion Picture and Lux Radio Theater show us, transmedia experiences are nothing new. And just to remind us that the world of the fan magazines has not left us completely, I leave you with poetry inspired by Star Wars, in the great tradition of Margaret Goldstein and the other poets of the fan magazine era: