‘Marvel Universe Live!’ stunt show stays true to ‘Avengers’ film franchise

May 01, 2015 | 6:20 p.m.
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Kirk Jenkins, right, rehearses with Andrew Mihalko for "Marvel Universe Live!" at the Forum in Inglewood on April 30, 2015. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

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Kirk Jenkins, who plays Wolverine in "Marvel Universe Live!" rehearses a scene at the Forum in Inglewood on April 30, 2015. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

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Joshua Murillo, who plays the Hulk, is thrown through the air by Kirk Jenkins. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

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Madison Embrey, who plays S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill, drives a drift car during a rehearsal for "Marvel Universe Live!" at the Forum in Inglewood on April 30, 2015. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

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Joshua Murillo, left, and Andrew Mihalko (who plays Killian) rehearse for "Marvel Universe Live!" at the Forum in Inglewood on April 30, 2015. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

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Wolverine battles two Chitauri Warriors as he fights to save Storm and Cyclops from Loki’s clutches in "Marvel Universe Live!" (Feld Entertainment)

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Nick Fury and Maria Hill call for back up to do battle with villainous evildoers in "Marvel Universe Live!" (Feld Entertainment)

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Thor holds the Cosmic Cube, the source of ultimate power in "Marvel Universe Live!" (Feld Entertainment)

“You don’t need to wear that.”

Madison Embrey, who plays the tough-minded “Avengers” pal Maria Hill in the traveling “Marvel Universe Live!” show, noticed me struggling with my seat belt.

I had arrived at the Forum on Thursday to experience what it feels like to be an Avenger. This weekend, as “Avengers: Age of Ultron” commandeers control of American movie palaces, “Marvel Universe Live!” has parked itself at the Inglewood arena, where Iron Man, The Hulk, Black Widow, Spider-Man and more Marvel faces will punch and prance their way through a two-hour stunt show.

My hope was to learn how to fire an arrow like Hawkeye. Instead, a souped-up car awaited me on the arena floor. The producers wanted to throw me into the deep end of the thrill-ride spectrum. Adrenaline first, skills later.

Madison Embrey, who plays S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill, drives a drift car during a rehearsal for "Marvel Universe Live!" at the Forum in Inglewood on April 30, 2015. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Madison Embrey, who plays S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill, drives a drift car during a rehearsal for “Marvel Universe Live!” at the Forum in Inglewood on April 30, 2015. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Embrey was to be my copilot on my slash-and-burn jolt around the Forum. The idea was to get a sense of what it feels like to be in the middle of a high-intensity race through a city — a crash course in dodging traffic and alien slime, only without the aliens and traffic. And hopefully without the crashing.

When I got in the car, I didn’t exactly make like the suave and sarcastic-tongued Tony Stark. No, it definitely wasn’t Robert Downey Jr.-cool to grapple with a seat belt.

“Are you sure?” I asked Embrey when she dismissed the need to strap in.

She nodded as she sat down next to me. Usually, she stands on the door of the windowless car, steering the wheel with her foot. At least that’s what it looks like from the audience. In the back of the custom-built Jeep-like vehicle sits the real driver, but he’s shielded from view.

Then we were off, careening around the floor of the Forum and drifting left and then right. I don’t know what speed we hit, but the car shook and lurched with each turn. This is what a Disneyland thrill ride such as the Indiana Jones Adventure might feel like without a track. I put my hands on the wheel, and Embrey complimented my driving skills. But I was mainly concerned about whether the door to my left was bolted shut and tried to remind myself that there was a man in the back who knew what he was doing.

If we were truly being chased by aliens, I likely would have gotten myself and Embrey killed.

The heroes of "Marvel Universe Live!" (Feld Entertainment)

The heroes of “Marvel Universe Live!” (Feld Entertainment)

“Marvel Universe Live!” brings with it 28 trucks full of non-CGI special effects and a cast of 50. Among them: acrobats, motorcyclists, stunt experts, martial arts aces and 27 Marvel characters.

Why so many? Well, market research.

“We worked with Marvel and found out what movies were coming out and did a lot of demographic research to find out which characters were popular,” said Christian Stokes, the show’s performance director. “That’s why we ended up with the 27 characters in the show.”

Missing: lions and tigers, but it’s safe to say that the comic book circus has come to town.

Certainly, “Marvel Universe Live!” understands that all-things “Avengers” must be over-the-top.

Loki flies off to carry out his sinister plot in "Marvel Universe Live!" (Feld Entertainment)

Loki flies off to carry out his sinister plot in “Marvel Universe Live!” (Feld Entertainment)

“I’ve got more than two dozen high-falls that we do in one particular scene. They’re falling off an 18-foot catwalk into PortaPits,” Stokes said. “I have a 26-foot fall that’s coming off of the Statue of Liberty. I have a full human burn, where I’ve got a guy lit for right around 30 seconds. That’s a pretty intense burn.”

Cast and crew of “Marvel Universe Live!” speak with the glee of children given their very first action figures when discussing the daredevil routines and manicured-destruction of the show. Producer Juliette Feld gushed about the cars as she filled in some details about the scene Embrey and I were practicing, making it clear that plenty was missing from our Thursday-morning laps around the Forum. Those working the show must have sensed that a man in his mid-30s who is nervous about a seat belt likely isn’t superhero material.

“We have a live car chase in the show,” said Feld, describing the scenario in which Nick Fury and Maria Hill are pursued by the Chitauri around the arena floor. “Maria jumps from her vehicle into Nick’s car, and then the car flips over onto its roof, flies on the hood and bursts into flames. We do that several times per week.”

The 22-year-old Embrey, appearing in her first major show since graduating Pace University with a dance degree, loves the thrill.

“The day I saw we were going to be in the car that flips,” she said, “it was like Christmas morning.”

Superheroes have that effect on people. I know I’m not the target audience for “Marvel Universe Live!,” but I was curious about this Iron Man-meets-Ringling Bros-meets-“Disney on Ice” spectacle. I wanted to see how 22 projectors would create 3-D-like effects on the Forum floor, and, yes, I smiled when I saw cartons of Spider-Man masks. I also absolutely had to snap a photo of a giant crate marked “HULK” in green lettering.

Now if only I could have tricked the publicists to bolt from the scene long enough for me to sneak into the 100-pound-plus Hulk costume. Alas.

Joshua Murillo, who plays the Hulk, is thrown through the air by Kirk Jenkins during a rehearsal of "Marvel Universe Live!" at the Forum in Inglewood on April 30, 2015. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Joshua Murillo, who plays the Hulk, is thrown through the air by Kirk Jenkins during a rehearsal of “Marvel Universe Live!” at the Forum in Inglewood on April 30, 2015. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

A year or so ago I saw the liked-minded but competing DC show “Batman Live.” It didn’t inspire the sort of giddy excitement that still comes from a viewing of Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns,” but it didn’t illicit the feelings of horror that were inspired by “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin,” either. It was cute, and reminded me of the time I would take fake punches at a childhood friend wearing a construction-paper R to signify that he was the Riddler. I also learned that being a hero requires quite a bit of choreography and that one might have to learn how to walk a tightrope.

There’s a theme-park element to these performances — Stokes did some time working at Universal Studios Hollywood — and there’s no doubt a circus-like quality. That’s no mistake, because production company Feld Entertainment also puts on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Forum stop is one among an 85-city North American tour. But there’s also a story here.

“This is almost like a new genre,” said Chris Nobles, the director of show operations. “We have a stunt show, but the stunts and actions support the story instead of being the story.”

While “Marvel Universe Live!” may not pack the Forum like the Eagles, these family works of arena-theater can be pretty lucrative. A seven-show March stay in San Jose, for instance, grossed more than $1.8 million, according to touring industry trade publication Pollstar.

Thor holds the Cosmic Cube, the source of ultimate power in "Marvel Universe Live!" (Feld Entertainment)

Thor holds the Cosmic Cube, the source of ultimate power in “Marvel Universe Live!” (Feld Entertainment)

Writer/director/concept creator Shanda Sawyer worked closely with Marvel’s chief creative officer, Joe Quesada, in creating the story for “Marvel Universe Live!,” which will be familiar to those who have seen the “Avengers” movies. It involves a fight for the Cosmic Cube — the Tesseract — that is the source of unknown and impenetrable power in the Marvel world.

“I really immersed myself in the universe,” Sawyer said. “I just watched every movie, even the ones I had seen before, over and over again. I read everything I could get my hands on. Then I put together a concept that I thought was simple enough and yet really compelling and would appeal to fans of the Marvel universe as well as people who maybe had just seen the movies and maybe were not die-hard geeks.”

Being a die-hard geek isn’t as important here as it is in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” where not even comic fans have been able to help me understand why Vision, played by Paul Bettany in the film, has what appears to be a plastic jewel in his forehead. No, here you just need to appreciate how motorcyclists can drive down a 21-foot spiral ramp and then change course to do a 19-foot jump.

“Dialogue is one of your least powerful tools,” Sawyer said of putting on an arena show. “Even though we do have a lot of fun dialogue in the show, we’re not relying on that to tell the story.”

— Todd Martens | @Toddmartens | @LATherocomplex

Related:

‘Marvel Universe Live’: Behind the scenes of a superhero arena show

Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen discuss ‘Avengers’ heroines’ move to front lines

‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’: Hemsworth’s Thor looks beyond the god

‘Age of Ultron’: Chris Evans on Captain America’s search for home

‘Marvel Universe Live’ arena stunt show tour dates, plot revealed

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