Transmedia storytelling, sequels, and the art of the shared universe

Expanded and shared universes are all the rage. They’ve exploded, and even imploded, in the case of STAR WARS. But what have they got right, and where are they going wrong? Everyone is looking at Marvel, and finding the cracks in the MCU. Sure, Nick Fury’s motivations are completely opposite in the WINTER SOLDIER than they were in THE AVENGERS, and they use some script spackle to explain that. Sure, Tony Stark fights drones in IRON MAN 2, only to create drones in IRON MAN 3. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m taking about how to make effective transmedia, and how to do world building right.

The best sequels are the ones that remind the viewers that everything they saw in the previous film was wrong. In an effective sequel, we learn that we really knew nothing about this world we came to love in the previous film. Take Aliens, generally thought to be the best sequel of all time. Aliens not only expanded the world, but took the entire premise of the first film, that there’s only one creature (hence the title, ALIEN), and destroyed it.

Take STAR WARS, and let’s see how it fits into this theory. Does EMPIRE take everything that viewers think they know about the first film and overturn it? YES. In the first film, we think 1) the empire was dealt a major blow after the destruction of the Death Star, that 2) Darth is the most powerful person in this empire, and 3) that Darth is trying to kill Luke. ‘WRONG, all wrong’ the sequel  shouts. Hence, the best sequel ever. And when a film simply repeats the tropes of the previous films, and supports your understanding of the world, rather than reformulating it, you have a terrible sequel. Jedi.

Let’s look at this again through the lens of my favorite sequel of all time, and also the most demonstrative of this theory – TOY STORY. In the first film, we get to know the characters, or at least we think we do. And then the second film spend the entire run time showing the viewers that they really knew nothing about the world of the two main characters, which are so iconic in the first place. There’s a true revelatory experience in TOY STORY 2 when the main characters look at their own hands and realize that they are strangers in their own bodies. What they thought they knew about themselves was an illusion – Woody is one of a kind, and Buzz is one of a billion. Moving the plot forward does nothing to deepen the experience or broaden the world. The only thing you can do is deepen the audience’s understanding of the world. That is what makes a good, no great, sequel. Based on this analysis of a good sequel, you know already how I feel about TOY STORY 3.

So how does that contradict the entire premise of the concept of the shared universe? We’ll have to look at the fundamental principles of the most successful shared universe ever, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Leaving out the comic books, novels, cartoons, and other Marvel stories in other forms of media, Marvel has created sequels that are not sequels, making a shared universe. We all know this, this is all anyone talks about, and DC is primed to copy this concept with even less  foundation than Marvel did, which wasn’t much foundation to begin with. Marvel’s shared universe is based on events from one film effecting the next film in the franchise, not necessarily the next film in that particular series. There are flaws, yes, some of them are written about here. But the biggest problem is this – none of these new films deepens your understanding of the character, which I outlined in the beginning as the key to an effective sequel. Not only that, but the events in one film don’t even have an impact on the next film, as many people have already noted. Check out this article about the MCU and its flaws. Nor do any of the TV shows deepen our knowledge of the characters, or provide us with those revelatory experiences we have in EMPIRE or TOY STORY 2. When the Winter Soldier reveals himself, there’s no dramatic umpf. It’s more like, ‘who cares’, because it speaks nothing to who Steve is as a character. But that pales in comparison to the fact that in each film, we get no new insights into the characters. New motivations as to how the characters came to be who they are. We are constantly moving forward, but never deeper.

So if the sequel films in a series aren’t deepening our understanding of the characters, then the spin-off books, TV shows, comics and video games surely will, right? If done properly, these new side- stories, called transmedia storytelling by media guru Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner Entertainment, should give us what we need – depth. Starlight Runner is working to expand the storytelling experience by expanding worlds, such as Men in Black. But the key is that the story has to be good. It has to be worth telling. It has to give us more insight into the characters and the world. And, as I said that the beginning, we’ll only feel as if we made progress if you blow away our understanding of the world, rather than just add to it. Instead of additive storytelling, where you pile new information on top of the old, storytelling must be transformative, where the audience’s understanding of the world actually shifts. What we thought we knew must turn out to be wrong, not right.  And that’s where everyone is getting it wrong.Let’s look at the MAD MAX comic books that just came out. The problems we find are not just with tone and origin story details, (like in the MAD MAX comic book spinoff about Furiosa, that apparently totally went away from the things that made her character so great). You can’t just keep heaping on more of what we already know, even if we like it. That’s indulgence. How many times can Luke swing across a pit? Wouldn’t it be great if we find out that what we thought we knew about the breeder women in MAD MAX, and their handler’s empire, was all wrong? That there were other players, other stakes, other interested parties and other victims?

Note, this is more than just the standard double-cross. This is not the ‘oh, that character is really a bad guy’ or ‘he’s actually a good guy’. This is telling you a new story that informs the audience about the nature of a character.

So in the end, its not world building that we want, but world transforming, which is really mental evolution. We want that moment when everything come crashing down. We want that, ‘wait, you mean that Servus Snape is actually…’ moment that worked so well in EVERY HARRY POTTER BOOK AND MOVIE. That’s right, this was Rowling’s model for every single book, and for the entire series as a whole. Let’s remember. In every Harry Potter book (OK I’m exaggerating) a lot of mysterious stuff happens, and we get world building. Then shit goes down and there’s a huge battle, and Harry ends up in the hospital. When he wakes up, Dumbledore is there by his bedside, and explains what REALLY happened. And we get that ‘oooooooh’ moment. So we have world building, and then world destroying. More accurately, we have transformation of the readers understanding of the world. And then she slam dunks it by taking the readers understanding as a series as a whole and transforming it. The seven novels are not about Harry at all. The entire series is about saving the soul of someone else, someone more vulnerable, someone more at-risk, someone more in danger. And everything we knew about Snape was wrong. She just kills it, she nails it, she rocks it. Every book, and in the series.

So, if she does make a sequel to Harry Potter, as was just announced, she’d better transform the world, instead of just heaping on more Death Stars and zany  animated toys.

One thought on “Transmedia storytelling, sequels, and the art of the shared universe”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *