Thursday, February 26, 2015

My Un-Marvelous Experience of The Marvel Experience

Featuring all of your favorite heroes...and The Vision

Pretentiousness is a bitch.  Far more times than we've been able to keep count, we've been hit by promises of creative games and toys wherein the only limit is our imagination, films and books that take us on journeys and adventures instead of just informing us of them, candies and drinks that take us on hallucinogenic drug trips, and similar bold-faced lies, and we eventually get numb to it there.  Yet once in a while, something unfamiliar, presented as a novelty belonging to a bold new era of culture, regains the ability to pull people in only to underwhelm them.  In this era, where Marvel fandom is no longer the exclusive domain of stereotypical nerds, The Marvel Experience is just such a thing, and its general banality is only made worse in comparison to its over-the-top presentation.

For a particular poignant point on pretense, see this ad for the event's showing in my area:

This is blatant false advertising; at no point in the event did I get to become Captain America, or even an average schmuck holding his shield.  More on that later.  As to saving the world...oi; I know nobody even buys that, so I'll move on.  Here's a more descriptive, but still inflated ad for what the event actually is:

Here's the truth.  The Marvel Experience is essentially a technologically powered revival of the circus, with a Marvel paint job, except worse.  That's a loaded statement; I understand.  Circuses have a seedy reputation, of being bad for their animal performers, not even very good for their human performers, forcing a life of cramped quarters and restlessness, pawning suckers out of money at side attractions, scaring more children than they entertain with their clowns.  They've been losing ground to television, and now the Internet, and for many it's good riddance to bad rubbish.  Still, the kid in me loves his memories of when the Carson and Barnes Circus came to my crummy little podunk (that I lived in then) and made it a little less crummy.  The moment felt particularly unreal because the circus set up right on our Elementary School's soccer field, which meant that in Physical Education class, we jogged our usual laps around the unusual big top, then relished going back to our campus at night for the big show.

The Marvel Experience briefly revived those experiences with the over-the-top way it stoked our fandom at the gates, but when we got into its modernized version of the big top (it's a bunch of white dome structures), it soon dawned how empty it felt.  Ultimately, it was a collection of quaint-but-cheesy sets, serviceable-but-short films, really terrible video games and live actors, and a mediocre 3-D film and motion simulator ride.
Through the thick of it all is an increasingly transparent message of "You're special!"  From the moment you get through the front gates, you'll be constantly hearing about how S.H.I.E.L.D. has recruited you all to help Marvel's named superheroes save the world from a new, dire threat.  An early attraction right out there takes the form of photo booths where you can enter information and have a photo taken for your own personal ID badge.

A brief anecdote about those illustrations: This was held at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, and we were presented fliers for an upcoming horse show at the toll booth.  I had the amusing idea to hold the flier up to the camera in the ID station, as I thought it would be funny to make myself a S.H.I.E.L.D. badge with a horse portrait on it.  Sadly, I will never know how funny it actually is, because at the end of the event, I was disappointed to learn I needed to pay over ten dollars for the badge, and I had no intention of doing that.

A particularly odious thing about this attraction's pretense is that it mandated crowds be delayed from entering at a normal pace, so more pep talks could be delivered, either by employees (who were, in my judgement, more likely to have been locally contracted proles than a troupe traveling with the show) or characters in videos.  This kept us stopping where we were, first outside, and then in a lobby where we watched some videos...and then in another lobby where we watched some more videos.

The two lobbies are marked in the lower-right quadrant of the map.

The first video we watched was by Captain America, the second by Iron Man (with Pepper Potts coming in to snark it up), the third a collaboration between a generic female reporter, a thinly veiled expy of Stan Lee played by Stan Lee, and J. Jonah Jameson, and the fourth by the whole Avengers team, plus a feminine robot hostess who may or may not be original to this event, and who was, but-for no visible nipples or camel toe, essentially naked.

The "Recruit Staging Area" was beautifully-lit by color-changing spotlights, for absolutely no reason.
Captain America talks up the weaklings.
Is "Megan Fox the New York Reporter" the new TMNT film's main contribution to pop-culture?
"Hi there; Virginerds!  I'm hear to make you not regret spending your money on this!  (No promises.)"
The "Shield Mobile Command Center" was full of glowing machines that didn't do anything.
A bit more about these videos.  They weren't bad; in fact, we chuckled a lot in the right places, but what's weird is that they chose to go with a cartoony CGI approach.  In an event that promoted itself as immersive, wherein Marvel characters came to life and interacted with real people, that seems like a bizarre choice.  Anyway, we "learned" via these videos that the world was under threat by "Super Adaptoids", evil robots that could replicate the abilities of Marvel heroes, and that's why they needed us to come train with the heroes and defeat the Adaptoid menace.  With that briefing out of the way, we stepped into the most visually impressive part of the exhibit, to begin our "training".

Well, this is neat, but what the Hell is it?!
The "Recruit Training Center" (Yes; I'm putting all of the official location names in quotes) was a visual spectacle that looked like some bizarre cross between a casino, a video arcade, and a museum, and it actually did give a surreal sense of immersion.  I really love colorful, practical set design, something I think some action films have lost sight of in the CGI era, and it felt cool to be stepping inside one such set.  The centerpiece was a defeated Super Adaptoid encased in glass, with mirrors beneath the container creating the impression of a larger void.
Is that sky?  Is this supposed to be the Helicarrier we're on?
Unfortunately for me, the immersion ended abruptly, because I needed to pee since getting into the front gates, and so rushed for the restrooms as soon as I saw a sign, only to be greatly disappointed by them being anarchronistic peripheral.  You will note on the map pictured above that the restrooms were not included in the main dome, but down what appears to be a hall, but it was even worse; there was no hall.  All there was was a Marvel-themed sign, pointing out a door to restrooms outside of the event.
There were both outhouses and a trailer of regular, flush toilets, like this one here.
Back in the "Recruit Training Center", I dove into the various attractions, many of which were informational.  There were touch-screens we could touch to play videos about various superheroes, diagrams of Super Adaptoids and their abilities, and one exhibit that was literally just a collection of book covers.
I actually own a book collecting these.  "Blablabla transistors bla!"

Cox made an interactive exhibit of sifting virtual Adaptoid parts out of virtual dirt and reassembling them.  Weird.
There was one bit of the informational side of the event that I thought was pretty cool, and that was its collection of iconic Marvel props in display cases.  Iconic weapons and armor are cool to see treated like serious museum subjects, with informational plaques and all!  The closer one got, the faker they obviously looked, but I still have a soft spot for such prop design.

Hey; I think I've seen these at Toys 'R Us!
Sometime between last Thor movie and now, I guess they developed walls that could hold up Mjolnir.
Pictured: Not vibranium.
Marvel villains are a metrosexual lot.
Nick Fury's nerf gun.
The more interactive bits of the event were generally not good.  One exception was "Avengers Encounter", which let people stand in a televised spot and strike a pose, which would cause members of the Avengers to join them onscreen.  Much as in the other videos, they didn't look terribly realistic, but it was still cool to see, and easily my favorite part of the event.  I took a lot of pictures of it, some of which I am in.

That picture was taken while I stood in line for the Iron Man "Mark 47 Flight Training".  That brings us back to the bit about Captain America mentioned earlier; at no point does this event simulate you being Cap, but if these simulations were anything to go by, it may be a blessing in disguise, because they were abysmal.  You would think that a "game" simulating an Iron Man suit would at least let you lie on your stomach in the pose Iron Man usually flies forward in, but no; it's a bad Kinect-style affair where you just stand in front of a screen, leaning right and left to steer and raising your hand to shoot--and I do mean bad!  Perhaps because there was a huge variation in size of the people who played the booth, the camera didn't seem to work well at capturing leaning motions, and the shooting, though better, was delayed.  It hardly mattered, though, as all you had to do was shoot pieces of junk that came and hovered in front of you.
If you're disappointed you can't see any gameplay, don't be.  It sucked.
There was another bad simulation video game like that, which let people "be" the Hulk, meaning they could stand in a spot and punch oncoming objects.  This was more amusing, as I decided to put actual power into my punches as my workout for that day, but the docents didn't explain it well, so I never figured out how to punch lower targets.

I don't have a picture of that one, but speaking of somewhat physically exerting tasks, there was also a booth where you could wall-climb like Spider-Man...except not really.  It was two standard rock-climbing conveyor belts, plus one that had a ladder instead, and a screen up above showing a video of Spider-Man monitoring your progress--maybe.  I did it, and it was fun enough, but that's not really how Spider-Man does it, at all--he doesn't need to grab outcroppings; he just sticks to things.

One other "video game" was available to play in the "Recruit Training Center"; this was a lightgun game in a theater where people all got a gun and shot at Super Adaptoids on a screen.  I put "video game" in quotes there, because save for the numeric designations of our guns appearing on the screen when we aimed and fired, I don't think there was any actual effect on the outcome, although they did tally up scores afterward, somehow.

After that, I actually stood in line for the Avengers Encounter segment I had photographed a lot while standing in line for other things, which means I finally got photos with myself in the action.
Black Widow kicks me in the face.
Now Hulk punches me in the face.  This was the highlight of my evening here.
On the subject of attractions involving Black Widow, on that map is marked a "Black Widow Agility Maze", but I didn't see it here, so I don't know what happened.  Also, some may recognize that as a Marvel-themed shirt I'm wearing.  I've had it a long time, and don't tend to wear it much these days because it's got some holes that need fixing, but here it felt only right.

Having done all of the things in the central dome, I went into what was supposed to be a Quinnjet, but they did a terrible job at it.  The thing had no floors of its own; merely walls separating its interior from the rest of the dome.  In this was one more really bad video game, entitled "Villain Tracking", where you watched videos describing villains, after which you touched an interactive world map with "threats" displayed, and after clicking them, you'd decide how much of a force you would need to dispatch to take care of them, and then read the results.  That's it; that was the whole game.
Are you sure this thing is aerodynamic?

These stills are from a video with Maria Hill describing Red Skull.  By the way, Nazis are never mentioned.
The "cockpit" was just a picture behind a window.
The door on the other side of the "Quinnjet" led to the "Transfer Dome", where we were given kitchy little bracelets that most of us couldn't fasten on properly without each other's help. (Remember that.)  After some time there, we entered perhaps the most bizarre portion of the event; the "Simularium".  This was one of those dome-shaped theaters with screens surrounding people, such as exist in some museums, plus 3-D glasses.  Such venues do well for science documentaries, displaying long shots of such things as forests and the stars, but for this sort of video, it just was strange.  The movie involved superheroes attacking a Super Adaptoid base, and because of the perspective, they looked like giants, or maybe viewers just felt small.  The 3-D also was not very good, but it seemed to put a focus on making characters' butts stick out; including those of all the Super Adaptoids when they were shown.  So if your fantasy about meeting Marvel characters involved you shrinking and looking up at their know; I'm just assuming it didn't.  Anyway, the movie concluded with the revelation that Red Skull, Madame Hydra and MODOK were behind the Super Adaptoid invasion, and we then departed for the "Transport Cooridor".  Here, we watched a video by Spider-Man, explaining proper motion simulator etiquette, at one point hacked into by Red Skull.

The video ended with Skull's goons shooting at what was supposed to be the place we were, and jamming the door out, after which Hulk leapt into action onscreen to yank it open, and we then saw a cute practical effect of his big green hand receding into a curtained nook besides the door.  Through that door was the "Transport Hangar", ostensibly a sort of mini-helicarrier embedded in the domes, in reality a mediocre motion simulator ride.  The ride's footage was supposed to depict the event itself, as seen from the outside, but there was one problem; the surroundings of the event simply didn't match.  Ahead to the right in the video were a bunch of generic tall buildings, which simply don't exist in Del Mar; also the region seemed to be a desert, while Del Mar consists of many flood plains; hence the name.  A bunch of stuff flies across the screen, and then the villains board a massive mech and attack.  After the heroes swarm over it, they request people's help, asking them to hold up their hands wearing the bracelets received in the "Transfer Dome", which supposedly caused a bunch of laser beams to hit the big mech on screen, and blew it apart.

There.  That was the whole "We help save the world" bit the whole event was building towards.  Wow.

After that was the "S.H.I.E.L.D. Shop", with a generic inspirational Stan Lee plaque, a quite limited selection of merchandise, a spot for people who actually wanted to to buy their own S.H.I.E.L.D. IDs, and very unconvincing fake incarceration pods for Red Skull, Madame Hyrdra and MODOK.
"Well then; onto the next endorsement!"
Final thoughts?  In case it isn't clear already, The Marvel Experience is not good.  It is outright bad at many parts, in other places its simply not good enough given the alternatives, and the few truly good parts of it, like the set design (in some places) feel wasted on something like this.  I've heard the defense that "It's meant for kids, and the people who are young at heart" multiple times, but that badly underrates both groups and their tastes.  A slightly more apt description might be "n00bs"; those newcomers to the Marvel mythos who want a lively primer, but even there, so many better alternatives exist.  There are far better Marvel video games people can play, far better Marvel movies people can watch, actual Marvel books people can read instead of just little blurbs, and for people who like summaries that let them absorb many characters' histories in a shorter time than it would take to read the books, there's, which is free.  The Marvel Experience is to these things what a Magnadoodle is to paper, pencil, and crayons; a trumped up technological amalgamation whose ostentation distracts but fleetingly from the fact that it can't do its job as well as the cheaper, simpler alternatives.

It's sad, because the idea itself isn't without merit.  If they were more interested in noting their competition and finding out the sort of themed attractions that actually appeal to people, they could've made an experience as good as its concept, but here they just got too ambitious, and tried to do too much for too many in too little space and too little time with too little money, to do any of it right.  It's my hope that since Disney now owns Marvel, eventually we will get something better, preferably a sedentary Marvel theme park that's bigger, better, and broader (in its demographics).  For now, though, The Marvel Experience is a waste of time and money.  In fact, whatever the Marvel experience really is, it's not this.

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