My four-year-old son is like me in that being a “fan” is central to his identity. When he really likes something, he fucking loves it, and wants to experience it as deeply and completely as possible. He wants to wring every last bit of enjoyment out of it, to drink every last speck of juice out of the things he digs. And then, more often than not, he’s through with it and moves onto the next obsession. But he’s not done with Marvel superheroes. Not by a longshot. Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man and all the rest are still people he wants to get to know, personally. Which is why I had to take him to see a bunch of under-employed theater school graduates and sub-Olympian gymnasts performing a Cirque du Soleil version of Marvel’s greatest heroes. We’re talking about Marvel Universe Live! Which, as terrible as it sounds to any rational person, was actually not as terrible. Instead, it presented the Marvel superheroes in a way the films don’t. These versions of the characters were — jarringly — designed to entertain children.
In the films, the Marvel universe has reached a place of unprecedented importance, size and solemnity. Black Panther is the first superhero movie to be nominated for Best Picture since 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace swept the Oscars. (Remember that?) Meanwhile, Avengers: Infinity War ended on a famously bleak note, with one of the most unforgettable, instantly iconic bummer endings in film history. Marvel was essentially saying to comic book movie fans who helped make the Avengers movies pop culture events, “Hey, you know all those heroes you love and follow and care about? Half of them are gone now! Poof! Vanished! Maybe for good! How you like dem apples?”
With Marvel, shit isn’t getting real; it’s already gotten real in the gloomy, high stakes and ostentatiously adult world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But at the live show, superheroes were still most assuredly kid stuff. Marvel Live subscribes to an earlier, more innocent vision of superheroes as campy fun for children, not grim fodder for adults. It’s a show where heroes and villains invariably communicate in loud, declarative statements punctuated by rows of invisible exclamation points.
Prior to this, my son and I had previously experienced together the visceral horror of Paw Patrol Live, a waking nightmare featuring performers playing the titular problem-solving pups in bizarre costumes that left the performers’ heads and entire torsos exposed so that they looked like a Cronenbergian fusion of dog and man, with two heads, one human and the other canine, each in its own way as disturbing as you might see in a J-horror movie. Shudder. The boy and I really gazed into the dog-face of madness that early afternoon.
Then we went to Sesame Street Live, which was as professional and well-done as you would expect from an official Sesame Street production, if as energetically mediocre as the officially branded live show for small children format angrily demands. It was about as good as these productions get, which still wasn’t particularly good. But it wasn’t for me. It was for kids and they were clearly having a blast.
When I saw that tickets for something called Marvel Universe Live: Age of Heroes was coming to town with tickets as low as twenty dollars, I figured that would be our next adventure in hyper-branding quasi-live theater. Besides, it’s never too early to impart upon your child the invaluable lesson that daddy can’t afford the expensive seats, so it’s time to adjust your lifelong expectations accordingly.
My son has sensory issues that I was worried would cut our trip short. Sure enough, shortly before we left he had a mini-meltdown over not being able to bring a marker without a cap into our Lyft, something 100 dollars in recent damage-to-car charges told me would be a very bad idea. Yet, as is the mysterious way with small children sometimes, my son freaked out about almost nothing, then handled 90 minutes of sensory overload in the form of lasers, loud music, explosions, fire, smoke, fog and strobe lights like a champ.
It did not hurt that this was the rare instance where my boy’s default energy and volume level of “screaming at the top of his lungs for no discernible reason in excitement” matched the vibe, volume, and energy level of the show. You could scream and scream and scream and still be drowned out completely by the deafening spectacle.
So even though the cast of characters of The Avengers: Infinity War and Marvel Universe Live: Age of Heroes is largely the same (a plus-sized roster of Avengers & Pals plus Guardians of the Galaxy) the tone is markedly different. Instead of the grim gravity of the movie blockbuster, we’re treated to kid-friendly nonsense executed by singer-dancer-actor types who do all of their “acting” with wildly exaggerated arm movements designed to be seen and understood from across a crowded basketball arena.
Due to the nature of the show, and their roles, the folks playing the likes of Captain America, Black Widow, Loki, Rocket Raccoon, Wasp and the like were “acting” with their entire bodies, and you can’t exactly deliver Philip Seymour Hoffman-level performances when most of your “acting” consists of pretending to punch bad guys.
From our bird’s eye view way up in the cheap seats the set for Age of Heroes looked more like the set-up for American Gladiators, right down to its patriotic red and blue color scheme, than a conventional theatrical venue. That proved appropriate because Age of Heroes ultimately felt more like American Gladiators than, say, Six Degrees of Separation.
Oh sure, there was a nonsense plot about the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Avengers and Spider-Man and various associated characters fighting for an all-power doodad called the Wand of Watoomb. But really it was all just a thin pretense to fill an enormous, impressively dressed and continually changing stage with costumed characters squaring off against each other in a strange combination of dance and fighting, not unlike the notorious form Gymkata, which famously combined the thrill of gymnastics with the kill of karate in the cult 1985 film of the same name.
Age of Heroes didn’t call for actors so much as it called for gymnasts, acrobats, motorcycle trick stunt riders, stuntmen, manly men who’ve spent much of their professional lives taking a punch and falling down gracefully. Besides, what’s the point of acting if you’re wearing a mask over your face and it’s doubtful anyone would even be able to see you emote even if you weren’t?
In true Marvel fashion, this had an equal amount to offer small children and stoners. It overwhelmed kids and adults with a never-ending blast of trippy spectacle, psychedelic realms both earthbound and alien, elaborately choreographed fights and stunts and anything else the people behind it thought might capture the eye and tiny attention span of a child or an adult on drugs, including fire-drumming, acrobats and in one sequence at least, all manner of tricked-out motorcycle stunt riding.
On a storytelling level, a set piece where Spider-Man goes from not knowing how to ride a motorcycle in an arena full of narratively convenient ramps and unexplained fires to being able to not only ride a motorcycle but perform elaborate tricks on his bike in a matter of minutes left much to be desired. From a “holy shit, they’re doing wicked motorcycle tricks within burning distance of open fires” level, on the other hand, it was pretty fucking sweet.
My boy and I came to see Spider-Man swinging around on a series of webs like some manner of man-sized spider, Doctor Strange flying and doing that half-assed Shakespearean routine of his, a ten foot Groot stomping around uttering his catchphrase, Black Panther battling bad guys and (SPOILER?) the Incredible Hulk climactically smashing.
About twenty minutes in, after three uninterrupted minutes of heroes talking rather than fighting my son turned to me and, confused, said, “What happened to the show? I thought this was a show? When will the show begin again?”
To his young mind, these brief dialogue scenes had no place in a show nobly devoted to superheroes beating up super-villains amidst explosions, fires, and lasers. And dragons. Did I mention the dragon? Cause there totally is one. I couldn’t blame him. In this context, the dialogue scenes served the same purpose as cutscenes in video games. They existed solely to move the action along, to get us from one place to another as directly and artlessly as possible.
But they served another purpose as well: they bought the overworked stagehands time to work their magic, to transform the setting from Asgard to Spider-Man’s home turf of New York or K’un-Lun, the mystical realm of the famously shitty superhero Iron Fist, whose superpowers include White Privilege and Cultural Appropriation, without the audience even knowing.
Marvel Universe Live: Age of Heroes offers spectacle as cheesily satisfying as it is empty. In a pop culture realm where superhero stories are often somber fare for defensive grown-ups, “Age of Heroes” is dumb, juvenile fun. Unlike the famously fatal close of The Avengers: Infinity War, at the end of this particular Avengers adventure the only thing that had disappeared en masse was money from the wallets of indulgent parents (dads, mostly, from the looks of it), so that their children could continue the adventure at home for perpetuity with the many officially licensed Marvel products conveniently available for purchase at the arena.