Thursday, July 30, 2015

What the Educational World Can Learn From the Marvel vs. DC Cinematic Universes

By EdTechManiac, Blair Einfeldt

I'm a FanBoy. My fandoms vary on many levels but encompass what much of what people my age would call nerd culture. I watch Doctor Who, and own an accompanying Tardis and Dalek Salt and Pepper Shaker. I love Star Wars and claim my greatest accomplishment as a parent was having my daughter Elliot use a force push on Darth Vader at Jedi Academy at Disneyland. I watch Game of Thrones and have a myriad of theories on Jon Snow still being alive and constructed my own Iron Throne for my teaching desk.

None of these fandoms, however hold a candle for my love of comic books. As a young boy I owned not just comic books but comic trading cards. I scheduled my day around the X-Men Cartoon and Batman the Animated Series. I currently own a pair of Batman Converse All-Stars with matching belt and tie. My Classroom last year was decked out and lined with many of my favorite comic book panels. I feel as though I have adequately established my Ethos as a Comic Book Nerd.

With that being established, I have always grown up leaning more towards Marvel in the DC vs. Marvel comics debate however I always felt like DC had some of the more iconic characters with Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and essentially the entire cast of the Justice League and the accompanying villains (e.g. the Joker, Lex Luther). I always thought my affinity for Marvel was the same reason I rooted for the Mighty Ducks, the Karate Kid or Rocky. I mean we all love the Underdog and in a fair fight, the Man of Steel would run )or fly circles around my childhood hero, Gambit. I mean he was good with a bow staff and threw magical exploding playing cards, but how can that even compare with a billionaire with a secret lair, an amazing suit and boom-a-rangs named after him. You can't.

Over the last few years, however, with the rise of the Super Hero narrative at the box office, the debate between Marvel and DC has intensified. With a deeper lens, this debate and dichotomy can give us great insight into what is effective in the world today and especially into the world of education and the implementation of technology and innovation.

What DC did:
In 2008, coming off of it's reboot of the Batman Franchise with Batman Begins, the critically acclaimed Christopher Nolan, directed the film the Dark Knight. The demolition this film did on the box office record books was nothing short of astonishing. In it's first week, the Dark Knight smashed the box office amassing the first day, first week, and quickest to 200 million dollars records and nearly eclipsed the total box office intake of it's predecessor, Batman Begins, in only 5 days. At the time it was the highest grossing comic film adaptation and 3rd highest grossing film of all time amassing $533 million dollars domestically and over a billion dollars worldwide. Christopher Nolan and the Batman franchise, in 2009 emphatically staked its claim on the  top spot in the comic and super hero world.
                                           Image result for the dark knight vs. iron man

What Marvel Did:
That very same year, Marvel Studios chose to release the first installment of the Iron Man franchise. It was no coincidence that their release was 2 months prior to that of Batman. Marvel was attempting to stake their claim on the superhero world with arguably it's 2nd most recognizable characters, to Spider-Man. It cruised to 98 million its first weekend and over 300 million domestically. Not too shabby but obviously was outmatched by Batman.

Marvel knew that they could continue to be moderately successful in their current model, which we will get into further below, but ultimately reaching top level success and surpassing their opponents, most specifically DC, required a few things to change within the company.

At the time, 2008,  Marvel Studios had sold many of the production rights to many of its characters to other companies. Spider-Man was owned by Sony, Fox owned the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and so on. Each story was great as a stand alone narrative but the continuity between the stories was virtually non-existent. Policies and contracts didn't allow this.  However their research showed an increased desire of 21st Century viewer was leaning more towards large arcing narratives against the historically popular standalone stories (think the Simpsons where each episode requires no prior knowledge of characters or story-lines and each story ends where it began). First with the rise of DVD box set sales and then subsequently Netflix and binge watching, serialized connected story was the direction statistics said they needed to go.

They also knew that they couldn't do this alone. Money strapped, in prior situations such as Spider-Man and Hulk films, Marvel Studios was forced to contract out many of their distribution rights to help bank roll their movies.  They couldn't continue down this road and be able to pass up what Warner Bros was doing with the DC characters. Enter Disney. Disney purchased Marvel Studios in 2009 and began a new vision. The vision was not to make money, but to make a Universe and the money would come.

So to recap, finding themselves a distant second in the race, Marvel did what all should do: Seek data, use the data to create a vision and direction, and seek and receive help from those who know where to go.

What does this have to do with Education?

We have found ourselves in both situations. As a nation as recently as 20 years ago we were ranked #1 in the world in education. Just like Batman and DC any other country was a distant second. Fast forward to 2009 we had dropped to 18th, by 2011 we were ranked 22nd and in 2013 we reached our lowest point at 30th followed by a 28th ranking in 2014.

A graphic released with the 2012 PISA results shows the annualized change in performance in average math scores between 2003 and 2012. The chart includes only nations that have comparable data from both 2003 and 2012.

We have found ourselves in a similar spot as Marvel did. We are doing fine, but we are falling behind. We are at a crossroads. The questions of the effectiveness of No Child Left Behind, Common Core and Every Child Succeeds can be debated on another forum. But I'd like to examine the direction the two companies Marvel and DC have gone and use them as examples of what we should or should not do.

The next step for Marvel:
Kevin Feige and Joss Whedon were put in control of the Marvel Universe in 2010. These two were not only tops in their field of film production and story telling but actual comic book FanBoys all grown up. They laid out a clear plan in a series of phases to restore continuity and direction. The established a why; a clear cut goal: to create a connected universe. 

Iron Man 2 rolled out to begin Phase 1, followed by a connected Captain America Movie. These were all successful films but not the blowout blockbuster they were hoping for. Patience and renewed focus on the goal became the mantra. The first Thor movie was released with many Easter Eggs, hints and connections to its two predecessors; all part of the vision. However seemed to again, not be the blockbuster they were looking for finishing 12th that year in the box office.  After three mildly lack luster films, they could have changed their plan, they could have given up. I mean they had their trilogy.  But they stuck to the plan.

What DC did next:
DC released The Dark Knight Rises. It was the third in a trilogy. The old model had always been a trilogy with Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, the Karate Kid etc. To put it bluntly, they did what had always been done. Christopher Nolan had signed on for three films as did Christian Bale. A trilogy was the way they had always done it and it was going to work again.

And it did. The Dark Knight Rises was extremely popular grossing over 400 million domestically and over 800 million worldwide. In fact it was successful enough to net it the 2nd place of the year. 2nd only to...

What Marvel did next:
The Avengers, Marvels fourth movie from the studio, in 2012 was the not only the highest grossing film of 2012 but broke all of the before mentioned records of The Dark Knight on its way to nearly 700 million domestically and 1.4 billion worldwide.

They had achieved the obvious goal of surpassing DC at the box office. They could have then rested and sat back. they had found a formula. But that is not what Marvel did.  In fact, shortly there after Marvel then announced what they called Phase 2. Phase 2 included a Guardians of the Galaxy film, a set of misfit Galactic Super Heroes set to save the galaxy from an alien dictator. If you think about it, this recipe is one of many disastrous films. This was ambitious as it was not only a connected story but one that most people were not familiar with. 

Guardians of the Galaxy grossed over 300 million dollars domestically. The vision of a connected universe worked again.  The movie soundtrack was number one on the billboard charts for four weeks straight and became the first movie soundtrack to top the Billboard Charts filled with previously recorded music. Marvel had now crossed over into the music world to expand their universe. Anyone who has seen Groot dance to I Want You Back by the Jackson Five, knows what I'm talking about. If you haven't...well...check it out below're welcome.

As part of phase 2, Marvel also rolled out two television shows that were also connected to the Universe. One, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., follows the life of a side character in the Avengers, Agent Coulson. The second, Agent Carter, follows the life of Agent Peggy Carter, a side character in the Captain America film that has fantastically tackled many societal feminism dilemmas. All of this to follow the main goal: Create a connected universe.
       Image result for agent carter coulsonImage result for agents of shieldImage result for netflix daredevil

As part of Phase 2 Marvel also released the Daredevil TV series, also connected to the Universe. Daredevil reported that 10.7% of all 29.4 million Netflix subscribers tuned in to binge watch the series the first weekend it was released. To put that into perspective that is the same number of average Simpsons viewers that tuned in to watch 12 hours of one show for a weekend. Thank about that! the same amount of people that watch a 20 minute episode of TV every week chose to block off 12 hours to binge watch an entire season of a Marvel show.

Recently, after yet another successful Avengers movie, Marvel rolled out Ant-Man; its tiniest and least known superhero yet. With so much connectivity to the Marvel Universe, it felt more like a middle piece to a huge puzzle, the story surprised all projections and is currently enjoying its third week as the number one film in America. Whats even more impressive is the fact that with Ant-Man, Marvel became the first studio to have 9 straight films top the box office in their respective release weekend. No other studio even has 6. And all of this is done with different characters, different directors, different mediums but one clear and accepted goal.

Seeing the clear success they are having, even Sony recently has agreed to allow Spider-Man to return to Marvel Studios for the upcoming Captain America; Civil War film. When others see your steady and clear direction, they are less inclined to fight and more inclined to help.

They were on top but didn't rest. They didn't and haven't rested because the goal was not and is not complete.

What DC has done lately:

After literally proclaiming their power and strength as the best, DC kept status-quo. Each story was its own and lacked connection. They scoffed at what Marvel was doing and even at one point called them gimmicks.  Now, in response to the massive success of Marvel, DC and Warner Brothers have begun filming Batman vs. Superman however Christopher Nolan is no longer at the helm. They are changing actors for both Batman and the Joker. Their new film for the Justice League and the Suicide Squad look like less of an attempt to create a story through a vision and more to keep up with the competition.

The WB has bought the rights to produce a handful of TV Shows including the Arrow, the Flash, Super-Girl and an upcoming Atom series. This is great however DC Film officials have stated that they are not connected to the film universe. Fox has produced Gotham, which also is not part of either Universe. to combat the constant complaints of the problem of connectivity, DC studios director Geoff Johns earlier stated that the lack of continuity allows them all more freedom to explore their own separate universes, however this comes across as a feeble attempt at rationalizing their inability to give fans what they want. It also shows a level of arrogance that has begun alienating many of their fans and adding to the fuel of their already loud critics. Recently Geoff Johns has posted on his personal web page a quote from the Green Lantern stating "Believe it or not, I still have a plan." The plan for them is obvious to regain their top spot. However, they haven't addressed the root of the problem: a clear understanding of the why with a large picture goal.

How does this connect to education?

20 years ago we sat at the top of the world educationally. We rested and patted ourselves on the back. As others started being innovative many in American Education continued to do the same thing expecting the same result. As we have fallen further behind other countries we have begun looking at our goal to return to prominence.

I know this sounds idealistic and soap boxy, but I feel we are headed down a path to become the DC Universe; successful in spots but wholly unorganized and unable to pinpoint how, or why we do things successfully.

If we follow Marvel's Model, here are the steps to begin to repair this (and any situation):

1. Realize that we have a problem - This sounds simple but being in the trenches I have found this isn't always the case. Many teachers have stated "this is how we have always done things and it was good enough for me 20 years ago." Does this sound like the DC thinking, post Batman or the Marvel thinking post Iron-Man?

2. Seek help from those that know - Most super hero movies involve a mentor. I suggest we as a nation seek a mentor. This means going outside of our own nation to find help in how others in other places are doing things. This requires a large large amount of humility. However, if we can humble ourselves to seek help, we will begin to grow again.

3. Utilize data in efficient ways - I know this has become a buzz word in education that is both loved by administrators and hated by many teachers. I'm talking about important data. Numbers that tell us which practices are effective. Embracing change based on these statistics. I'm not talking about trivial common assessments or standardized tests, but real world data that will help students achieve in the workplace, in the job market, in life. Not numbers that will help them do better on a test. I think we all know what this means and can be discussed on another topic.

4.Put people in charge who are passionate about education - I have seen many schools where people making decisions are not educators. I do understand that the criteria we place on higher up positions almost all but eliminate career teachers since the time to get education in these areas all but takes someone out of the opportunity of being able to do both. Marvel, however, found two people to head their company who were lifelong fans. They knew the stories and had relationships with them. They knew actors and film-making and had relationships in that arena. Shouldn't we do the same?

5. Have a clear goal that we are all backing. Start with the why - Marvel stated their goal. It wasn't to make more money, although everyone knew that if they achieved the goal, money would come. The goal should not be something to please voters, or an arbitrary or worse an unachievable statistic or standard. A vision, a direction, a Utopian ideal that we all can get behind. This shouldn't be a goal to be the greatest school system ever, or even the best in the world, but something we can all be proud of and excited to be a part of.

6. Be patient - Maybe it is because of the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately culture we live in or the weird need for instant gratification we all need. Or maybe, even as John Oliver argues, it is our love for the lottery. I don't know, but I do know in education I have seen many initiatives and programs adopted only to be dropped 6 months later because it didn't work, or people didn't like it. Just like Marvel, they could have dropped their vision prior to the Avengers, since their movies were mild successes. They kept the direction and stayed with it and have built a powerhouse. We need to all join in and be patient with the direction.

7. The only thing that should be constant is change - The world is changing daily. Many of our students are being taught and trained for jobs that don't even exist yet. We as educators need to be constantly adapting to the changing world. Marvel saw Netflix and said, yes let's do that. They saw Guardians of the Galaxy and said "yes, let's try that." Having a positive attitude and embracing change will allow us to reach kids in that changing world they live in.

Years of rooting for the underdog has paid off in the sense that we as the American Education System are in fact the underdogs. Just like Rocky, the Mighty Ducks and now Marvel we will have to play a role we are not used to. Resorting to trying new things like the flying V, chasing a chicken, or for some of us simply starting a class YouTube Channel or trying out a new teaching style. I don't have all the answers, but I do know this, if we continue down this path I fear we will be left as unorganized and scrambling to keep up, like it seems the DC Universe is doing.

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