ON ASSIGNMENT: Marvel and my inner child

The Iron Man Experience features an “immersive multi-sensory motion” ride, a showcase of new and familiar technologies from Stark Industries, and a meet-and-greet with Iron Man himself.

ON ASSIGNMENT: Marvel and my inner child

ALWAYS RIGHT NOW - Alex Almario (The Philippine Star) - February 4, 2017 - 12:00am

On an old-fashioned stone arch bridge near the entrance of Hong Kong Disneyland, there’s a plaque that reads: “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” It’s a plaque that can be found in other Disneyland theme parks around the world, of which there are six, but since this is my first time ever to set foot upon Mickey Mouse real estate, the words struck me. I never thought of theme parks that way before: a hiding place from the present. But I suppose that’s what “escapism” seeks to escape from. Maybe all of these things we obsess over in pop culture — the nostalgia, the futurism, the flights of fancy — are really just ways to leave the present behind.

The quote provided reassurance that kicking off 2017 by joining a press tour in Disneyland was a wise move. As the first few weeks of January have shown, a calendar reset hasn’t exactly rid us of all the previous year’s awfulness. Sometimes you just need to take your mind off of reality and bury it in fantasy.

A lot of people seem to agree, as attendance at the top 25 theme parks in the world (Hong Kong Disneyland is ranked 19) has steadily risen since 2006 at an annual growth rate of 2.6 percent, according to the Themed Entertainment Association. Theme parks are not going out of style; they are getting increasingly popular, and perhaps more and more necessary. With new rides and attractions that are becoming more mind-blowing, thanks to advancements in entertainment technology, it doesn’t look like the industry growth rate is slowing down any time soon.





Iron Man Experience

The latest of these hi-tech attractions is Hong Kong Disneyland’s Iron Man Experience — Walt Disney Attractions’ first-ever Marvel-themed ride. It is also the first-ever Disneyland ride to feature visual effects designed by Industrial Light and Magic — yes, the same industry game-changers behind the Star Wars movies (recall that Disney purchased Lucasfilm Ltd. several years back). It combines 3D technology with simulated motion to create what they describe as an “immersive multi-sensory motion experience.” Disneyland isn’t messing around.

The Iron Man Experience is in Disneyland’s iconic Tomorrowland, but as anyone who has followed the comics or the Marvel cinematic universe knows, Iron Man is more a nostalgia character than a vision of the future. He is a throwback to the space-age retro futurism of the original comics, embodied in the movies by the Stark family patriarch, Howard. Hong Kong Disneyland gives a nod to this rich history in the Stark Expo: a museum of pure Iron Man geekery that features the evolution of Stark Technologies.

Here, we see the original prototype of Iron Man’s arc reactor — that bright round headlight on Iron Man’s chest from which he derives his power — as well as the original Captain America shield designed by his father. We get to see the Mark V suitcase that Tony Stark used in Iron Man 2 as well as new technologies that he is supposedly working on, like the Everglass, a glass that regenerates when it cracks; and the new StarkVision glasses, which will make more sense in the ride itself. In fact, the exhibit at Stark Expo — a walkthrough guided by the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S, Tony Stark’s witty A.I. assistant — doubles as an explainer of the ride that comes next. The Iron Man Experience isn’t just a ride — it’s a culmination of intricate world-building, one that began with Stan Lee’s comic book creation in 1963, expanded in Marvel Studios’ Iron Man and Avenger movies, and fleshed out in Hong Kong Disneyland.

Immersive Experience

“These are the kinds of details that we swim in, that we immerse ourselves in as fans,” says Ted Robledo, creative director for Walt Disney Imagineering, the man behind the design and concept of The Iron Man Experience. Born in California to Filipino parents, Robledo has made a career out of “Imagineering,” a Walt Disney-coined portmanteau of ‘imagination’ and ‘engineering’ used to describe the process of creating Disneyland attractions. There is something almost Starkian about him: the timbre in his voice is so calm and confident that, if you listen to him long enough, he starts to sound a bit like Robert Downey, Jr. In fact, throughout the entire launch of The Iron Man Experience in Hong Kong, you get the sense that he is Iron Man and that this is his Stark Expo.

“One of my favorite parts of The Iron Man experience is the background, the setting, which is the Stark Expo, something that was introduced to us in the second Iron Man film,” Robledo says. “There, it took place in New York; now it’s living here in Hong Kong Disneyland, which is a real place. As we know, Marvel superheroes live in the real world, they don’t live in some city with a name we’ve never heard of. They live in places like New York, they live in Malibu, they live in California, they have adventures in South Korea.”

Verisimilitude of location is as important to Ted Robledo and his team of Imagineers as it is to the expanded Marvel universe. The Stark Expo you visit in Tomorrowland is a brilliant showcase marketing, but it is also part of the story of the ride. In fact, forget the ride for a minute; heed the words that greet you at the Hong Kong Disneyland entrance and embrace the combined yesterday and tomorrow of Iron Man’s fantasy world: you are there to witness the third Stark Expo, where Tony Stark is set to unveil the Hong Kong Stark Tower, a clean energy source that is powered by the largest arc reactor ever built; and the Iron Wing, a flying vehicle that is built as a sort of giant Iron Man armor. Because Tony Stark is such a big fame whore, he will be there in his Iron Man suit, ready to take pictures with you at the Iron Man Tech Showcase inside the Stark Expo. And all of these realities will converge right in front of your eyes, in startling 3D, once you wear the StarkVision glasses and ride the Iron Wing, which oddly enough, is equipped with an Everglass windshield. It might come in handy.

Flying across Victoria Harbour

Inside the Iron Wing, you get to fly across the mountains of Lan Tau island, pass the Tsing Ma bridge, soar above Victoria Harbour, make a turn just before Central, and land at the top of Hong Kong Stark Tower. At this point, what could go wrong? Evil robots sent by Hydra to destroy the Stark Tower and the Iron Wing come to ruin your Disneyland trip, that’s what. Good to know one of the Avengers is at the nearby Stark Expo entertaining fans.

This is a lot more meta than your usual movie-based theme park ride, which isn’t surprising, considering that the brain trust behind it is Marvel, the masters of multi-reality synergy. As Robledo excitedly points out, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and Marvel Entertainment chief creative officer Joe Quesada were heavily involved with the project. “These guys were heroes of mine,” he says. “It’s the first time that I’ve been able to work with the folks at Marvel, which is pretty amazing because I’m coming to it as a fan first. It’s also the first time that I’ve actually got to be a part of the team that creates a story about one of my all-time favorite superheroes.”

Does this mean that the ride is a Marvel movie Easter egg waiting to happen? That we’ll get to see the Hong Kong Stark Tower in the fifth Avengers movie or something? “I hope so,” Robledo says, lighting up at the possibility. “We’ve been working three-plus years with our partners at Marvel and I think the response from them has been great. I think, because they’ve been hand-in-hand in creating this story with us, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the unique things about Stark Expo, the Stark Tower here in Hong Kong, were touched upon in other Marvel venues and Marvel stories, at least I hope so. Maybe Joe Quesada or Kevin Feige likes the Iron Wing enough to put it either in a film or a comic book. We’ll see.”

A lot of people seem to like the Iron Wing, at least so far. As Robredo proudly shares, 97 percent of those who got to test the ride pre-launch said it exceeded their expectations. I got to try it the day before the launch and, as a fan of the first Iron Man movie, I liked it, too. What you see is the funny and bumbling-but-still-heroic Iron Man of the first movie; not the angry and brooding semi-villain we last saw in Captain America: Civil War. So it’s a ride that allows you to enter the more innocent world of yesterday by flying into the fake present, which looks like an imagined future. Here, you get to experience a crystallized version of Iron Man: all jokes and gravity-defying fun. You soar, you drop, you turn, and narrowly escape danger with him. When he pulls the Iron Wing along with you and 44 other passengers, you finally feel the power that you could only imagine from watching all his movies. None of this is real, of course. But that doesn’t matter. In Disneyland, the only thing that doesn’t exist is disbelief.

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Tweet the author @ColonialMental.


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