This morning I walked through a new land at Disney California Adventure — the first proper space dedicated to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in one of Disney’s North American parks — and what I remember most is a moment of silence, a collective pause clearly dedicated to the late Chadwick Boseman, the star of “Black Panther.”
Avengers Campus, opening Friday in Anaheim, boasts a new interactive ride and a glossy, silver airship. But what truly contrasts the land with others in the Disney parks is its devotion to theater, its embrace of the present and its lack of fear of the so-called “real world.”
Here, you may not mind standing in lines for food or rides — or maybe you’ll mind a little less — because you might catch the royal female guards from the world of “Black Panther.” When the battle spear-equipped warriors known as the Dora Milaje make an entrance, it’s safe to say audiences will stop and pay attention.
We are all directed, we are all sermonized and we are all encouraged to flash a little confidence, and maybe show a little rhythm. The theological-like references to strength, courage, the sun and the ocean may not be as inspiring as an ancient philosophical text, but it does the trick, and takes seriously the multiple African-inspired cultures of Wakanda.
Its tone is one of optimism — this is a theme park after all — but it is stately and solemn.
“Before we begin, let us take a moment of silence for all of the kings and the queens who have left us and joined the ancestral space,” says a performer acting as “Black Panther” character Okoye. “Peace be to the ancestors.”
The rest of the 10-minute show didn’t feel as much like going to church, but theme parks are for many a temple devoted to tradition, a place where multiple generations of friends, families and strangers can feel a part of a broader community. Avengers Campus doubles down on the latter concept, so much so that we share a group moment of silence before we play, a call to reflect before we hopefully make more memories.
The word that stuck with me throughout my two-hour preview of Avengers Campus was “performative,” as in this is a place where we come to act, and are asked to believe in higher powers, be it the mysticism of the multiverse of “Doctor Strange” or the soul of the collective of “Black Panther.” It’s also, in the case of its new Spider-Man-themed ride, a place to make gleeful fools of ourselves. But mostly it’s a spot to interact, to hang out and to remember hokey lessons that a superpower isn’t the ability to wield some toy-looking hammer or a corny gemstone-outfitted glove as much as it is simply to believe in oneself.
That, at least, is the big picture theme of the land, one that looks more urban and city-like than any other place at the Disneyland Resort. Some areas, such as the building that houses the new ride Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure, could live in downtown L.A.’s Arts District — its look a warehouse rehabbed to be trendy. The sharp, tiered steps of the Avengers headquarters — a building that has been talked about as the entrance to a future ride — is more striking, but it wouldn’t be out of place amid Disney Hall and the Broad museum on Grand Avenue.
Of course, any city or campus, even a mock one in a theme park, rises and falls based on its population. Avengers Campus will lean on its three shows to come alive and inject a bit of magical realism into such a down-to-earth setting.
In addition to the “Black Panther”-themed training show, there are old-school illusions courtesy of Doctor Strange in a meditative-like sanctum that promises to glow with color at night. There’s also an incredibly impressive acrobatic robot dressed as Spider-Man that will make like an Olympic gymnast more than 65 feet in the air. One can witness this feat throughout Disney California Adventure, and until or unless we’re all outfitted in jetpacks it’s probably the closest we’ll get to seeing someone fly. Once the robot lands, a very real Spider-Man performer will crawl down the side of a building, itself a worthy act of stagecraft.
Still to come is another action show featuring Black Widow and the villain Taskmaster, although it was only alluded to briefly at the media event and Disney has not set an opening date. Provided our pandemic world continues to cooperate, however, one doesn’t have to work in marketing to circle July 9, the release of the “Black Widow” film, as a potential launch date. It should be noted, too, that while Disney CEO Bob Chapek boasted in 2019 of a ride that will take guests to Wakanda, Walt Disney Imagineering has gone silent on when — or even if — this attraction will materialize.
For now, Avengers Campus will be anchored by the existing Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout! and Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure. The latter continues the most dominant theme park trend, at least when it comes to rides of the last decade, which is that it is a video game. But we’ve come a long way from Toy Story Midway Mania!, essentially a console game in a life-size box, to the likes of Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run next door at Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and now Web Slingers.
An argument could be made that as an attraction Web Slingers is somewhat slight — it relies on screens rather than audio-animatronics and it flashes player high scores as if we’re in a giant arcade. But I found it charming, a pleasing lark of a ride in which we wave our arms and flick our wrists to shoot imaginary webs at digital robots making a wreck of the Avengers Campus. Think of the Microsoft Kinect, except here our gestures are actually recognized, and we can help Spider-Man round up those robots or just look to make a mess of the subterranean theme park world.
More important than achieving a high score, however, is the fact that Web Slingers naturally encourages us to communicate, not just with the ride but with our fellow riders. To have fun on it, you’re going to have to be silly, and play is powerful when it can break down the social boundaries that inspire awkward, stilted reactions. For all the pre-release attention it’s received for the plastic toy power-ups one can buy to change the experience, Web Slingers is a celebration of absurdity.
As for those toys, think of Web Slingers as the first theme park ride with real-life video game skins, that is the ability to change one’s appearance. I purchased them, and they’re not necessarily cheap.
The base ride accessory, called the Web Power-Band, is $30; add-ons themed to different characters are $25. I bought attachments that are connected to Iron Man and Ghost Spider, but haven’t yet had the chance to fully explore how they affect the ride. Don’t expect a different experience so much as the ability to create unique visual interactions, such as lighting-filled static-like webs. It’s a way to personalize a theme park ride, not unlike the way we might dress our characters in a “Fortnite” or “Animal Crossing.”
What struck me most, however, was how self-referential the ride is. It’s connected to the Guardians ride as well as the entirety of the Avengers Campus, so much so that we see a digital re-creation of it. While Soarin’ Around the World ends at the park and Smugglers Run shows us a broader view of Galaxy’s Edge, the overall idea that we are actually in a place that’s in Anaheim is a pivot for Disney. If we think of a theme park as a giant game board, we are stepping into one to displace us, to transport us out of our daily life and to allow us to play heightened versions of ourselves.
Avengers Campus doesn’t want to trick us that we are somewhere else. Rocket on Guardians calls out Disneyland, and Spider-Man in the stunt show gives a shout-out to the Incredicoaster in nearby Pixar Pier. So while the 6-acre land isn’t the large-scale, roleplay-light experience of Galaxy’s Edge, where we are on an alien planet and meant to be tourists, it still is something of an experiment.
Avengers Campus wants to put us in familiar settings, to bring superheroes to our world rather than craft something that could only exist in our imaginations. It is the argument that theme parks are not an escape to another place so much as an additive to our own.