By Mark Kennedy
Marvel Entertainment, which muscled into pop culture with comic books, TV cartoons and movies, is gambling on attracting new fans as it tackles 3-D — but forget the silly glasses.
A new live arena show called "Marvel Universe Live!" — a first for the comic franchise — has begun an 85-city tour over the next two years, flooding stages with a dizzying array of actors and upping the technological ante for theatrical events.
The show, which fills 25 cargo trucks, began a five-day stand Wednesday at Brooklyn's Barclays Center and then moves to Uniondale, New York; Washington, D.C., Virginia; South Carolina; Alabama; North Carolina; Kentucky; Florida; Tennessee; and Georgia.
Next year, it's due to hit Indiana, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, California, Nevada, Washington, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Hampshire and New Jersey. In 2016, it's set to visit Missouri, Oklahoma again, Colorado and Utah.
"We pushed ourselves so much on this project to do things that have never been done before," said producer Juliette Feld, who is a Feld Entertainment executive vice president. "This show is actually more like an action movie than anything else."
Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Black Widow, Wolverine, Nick Fury, Spider-Man, Storm, Green Goblin and Red Skull are among the heroes and villains that constantly battle during the two-hour show.
The show leverages many of the elements that Feld Entertainment has pioneered, including its motocross show Nuclear Cowboyz and monster truck spectacular Monster Jam, and even Disney on Ice and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.
There's projection mapping, LED screens, aerial stunts, massive set pieces that emerge from the ceiling, motorcycle stunts, pyrotechnics, real fire, martial arts, smoke and lasers.
"We're performing movie stunts in a live setting," said J. Vaught, Feld's vice president of ice and stage operations and creative development. "It's not CGI. Gravity's real. Solid objects are really solid."
Feld spent two years making the show, twice its typical research and development time. But none of the previous spectaculars had 11 motorcycles, 53 performers, 25 projectors, 10-foot falls, car crashes that end in flames and 37 cameras beaming video content.
"We've put in probably the largest and most sophisticated touring video system ever conceived, and then we've added a lot of tricks on top of that to really leverage that technology," said Vaught.
One jaw-dropping effect is the use of 3-D projection mapping, also known as video mapping technology, which turns objects into display surfaces for video projection. Video content will also be sent to tiny beacons embedded in performers' costumes to ensure that special effects like laser blasts stay smooth. "After all, Iron Man does not miss," explained Vaught.
The tech team will beam images across the arena's back wall — 110 feet across and 36 feet tall — and the floor, which is 70 feet wide by 140 feet long. A gigantic, 26-foot cylinder drops down for more storytelling, including a spiral motorcycle chase between Captain America and Red Skull.
The man picked to carry Captain America's shield is Phil Smage, of Elkhorn, Wisconsin, someone as comfortable on snow as he is in the motorcycle saddle. He grew up an X-Man fan, competed at Winter X Games and was touring with Nuclear Cowboyz when he learned about the new arena show.
"It was really a perfect fit because I had already known about everything in the show and then when I heard they were going to incorporate motorcycle riding into it, it was meant to be," he said.
The show's fate hinged on The Hulk, who has been a hero of comics, a TV show and several movies but never a live-action show. Feld said he had to be massive yet agile — and 8-foot-5. "We start with the really tough stuff and then we go from there." The end result: a half-man, half-robot powered by a pair of car batteries.
"What we've created is a mix of an incredibly athletic, acrobatic performer on stilts who is also working with a very sophisticated robotic system to manage the arms, the hands, and then we have someone manipulating his face so he can express a wide array of emotions and expressions," she said. "It's really amazing."