Marvel’s THE AVENGERS: Through The Eyes Of Discovery

The king of modern blockbusters, and its immersive Times Square exhibit.

Discovery Times Square has played host to everything from The Dead Sea Scrolls to the Terracotta Warriors, to the remains of Pompeii and The Titanic. In 2011, it housed costumes and props from the recently concluded Harry Potter series, introduced by tour guides in Hogwarts robes and with badly put-on English accents, something not too far off from your regular theme park attractions. This was before Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye and The Hulk teamed up to defeat Loki’s army just 4 blocks away, changing the face of cinematic storytelling as we knew it. While Harry Potter had made the long-form franchise a possibility, The Avengers was gearing up to expand the format laterally before jumping mediums altogether, so it’s fitting that it now occupies the same space, but uses it an entirely different way.

It’s also quite fitting that Marvel’s Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N.stands just opposite Toys R Us and The Disney Store in Times Square, Manhattan’s own distillation of the self-perpetuating American capitalist machine, repackaged and marketed to both America, and to the world. The once downtrodden red-light district is now a handful of city blocks that folks from all corners of the globe flock to because it advertises to the people. At times, it even advertises the people, with massive LED billboards that showcase you and your loved ones before you go in and buy something expensive. The M&M store, The GAP, Hard Rock Café; If there were an epicenter of the tornado of corporate consumerism, Times Square would be it! And if you’ve been on the internet any time in the last few years, you would’ve likely seen a similar sentiment towards superhero movies; a soulless representation of the corporate studio conveyor-belt.

While I can’t even begin to articulate just how wrong-headed the accusation of soulnessness is when it comes to these films, there’s no arguing that Marvel is a massive machine that exists in a state of symbiosis with our culture and popular consciousness. They make more because we want more, and we want more because they can make it. Superheroes becoming mainstream was an inevitability, but to the point where people would delude themselves into believing there were too many superhero movies? That’s an incredible feat. While I’m sure we’ll get to that stage eventually (five, maybe ten years from now if we’re lucky), Marvel’s domineering presence in the blockbuster news cycle is something that most of us couldn’t really comprehend when it was starting out, which is part of why the “too many” argument exists. You can’t go more than a day without some film website or blogger bringing up the Marvel Cinematic Universe in some form. For better or worse, that’s quite an achievement. And, like that giant Sephora store on 43rd & Broadway that showcases the consumer alongside the product, it makes us want to be a part of it. Part of the world. Part of the story, before luring us in. It gives us a reason to want to open up our wallets, selling more than just an item on a shelf. Like that one guy said on that one show that just ended, it sells us a feeling. It sells us an experience, one that begins well before we’ve sat down for the previews, and one that lasts well after the credits have rolled.

Big movies are meant to do this, especially in the age of social media, but Marvel’s road to success rests on the shoulders of more than just advertising (Or forums, or post-movie conversations for that matter). They’ve taken advantage of our desire for that expanded experience, and filled in the gaps for us. We get their movies in the summer, their TV shows in the fall and winter, and their Netflix shows in the spring before the cycle repeats itself. Their mantra of #ItsAllConnected, combined with the fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes place in real-time, gives them the ability to inter-twine their reality with our own, and gives us the ability to do the same. The big blockbuster precursors have either taken place in magical castles, mythical realms or on distant planets, but The Avengers takes place in the heart of urban civilization itself, right where the modern superhero was born. The events of the film have since become analogous for September 11th (“Nothing’s been the same since New York”) and have allowed the subsequent installments to deal with real-world issues such as global security, data-mining and PTSD, and while that’s an extremely dark road to go down if you really think about it (even the comic universe hasn’t fully addressed 9/11), it’s made sure keep a positive outlook. The MCU knows that we live in a dark, messed up world, but it demands the best of us regardless.

The Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. (Scientific Training and Tactical Intelligence Operative Network, in keeping with Marvel’s tradition of ridiculous acronyms) is an interactive exhibit that exists both as an outside-in look at costumes and movie props, as well as a fun walkthrough of what it would be like to be a S.H.I.E.L.D. recruit in a post Avengers-world. Well, minus the whole HYDRA thing, but the chronology of this particular window into the Marvel Universe seems to be immediately post The Avengers, with the characters and their universe being at their optimum before things go to hell. It’s like the new S.H.I.E.L.D. at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron (or the new new new S.H.I.E.L.D. if you follow the TV show), designed to support the Avengers themselves, and you get to be a part of it. Think Star Tours, except you’re doing a little more than just sitting down.

After entering your information into a kiosk, you’re given a personalized, bar-coded Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. recruit ID that lists your agent status as Probationary. They want you to be a part of this world, but they also want you to work for it! The station is an underground warehouse that’s set up like a sprawling sound-stage, with an open ceiling where the lights and wires are in full view, but the floor and four walls are decorated and detailed. A stern but friendly station ‘Agent’ leads you into a briefing room, wearing a t-shirt as opposed to a suit, but his earpiece makes him look just official enough. The folks running the place have no qualms admitting the façade, and just like the movies, much of it is pure entertainment. But, also just like the movies, it’s much more if you let it be. Here in this massive white room, laser scanners determine whether or not you have clearance for the first briefing video (you do, obviously) and after the doors close with a bit of a rumble, Titus Welliver of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Item 47 welcomes you aboard. The mission, as both the movie and the exhibit state, is to bring together a group of remarkable people to protect our planet; only here they’re not just talking about the six Avengers. They’re talking about a chance for us to be part of something greater.

The empty white hall gives way to an intricately designed control room, decorated with LED panels displaying detailed maps, and a variety of familiar S.H.I.E.L.D. insignia. A second introductory video plays on the monitors built in to the desk, extolling the cinematic backstories of Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor and Captain America, the four characters upon whose films The Avengers was built. In essence, that’s part of what makes it so special, the fact that it was conceived as a crossroads between four different franchises, but that’s not all. A key point about why the film was so hard to pull off (and why its success seems like such a miracle) is how incredibly different these four characters and their films were. It’s a superhero spectacle that’s also the meeting point of four difference kinds of heroes, four different genres if you will, and the S.T.A.T.I.O.N. takes full advantage of this.

Once we get to see the outfits worn by Nick Fury, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Phil Coulson and Maria Hill (each with an adjacent monitor where you can play videos about them), the “recruits” are directed towards an SSR Memorial, the only part of the exhibit lit by warm light, where props and documents from Captain America: The First Avenger are on display. The collectible trading cards are now faded, and the World War II-era documents from Camp Leigh have modern day S.H.I.E.L.D. stickers on them, as if they’ve only been allowed on display with the organization’s permission. Steve Rogers is a relic of the past brought into modern day, an encapsulation of a forgotten era, and the introduction to his section of the exhibit feels distinctly like a museum. Even the massive machine that turned him into the Super Soldier is on display behind glass. This then opens up into the “Ready Room”, a training area where a series of badge-activated monitors and grip devices allow you to test your strength, speed and intelligence. You get points for each task, and you’re even allowed to share you score (in comparison to Cap’s) on Facebook directly from the monitors. It’s a great advertising strategy, and while the tasks themselves feel quite silly, it does tap in to the escapist power fantasy that might draw kids to a character like Captain America, the idea that superhuman strength is an achievable thing that comes wrapped in a colourful flag. Finally, we get to see Cap’s outfit and shield on the way out, the latter of which is behind a glass casing that doubles up as a monitor! The technology is pretty simple, but it’s not something we see a lot of in our daily lives, and being able to scroll through the history and technical details of Captain America’s shield on the same panel of glass protecting it as S.H.I.E.L.D. as it gets.

The next room is the “Bio Lab”, or “Dr. Banner’s Research Lab”, which involves a number of interactive scientific displays. The ones down for repairs are listed as “Recalibration In Progress” and the ones that are still working allow you to see a variety of microscopic images (from neurons to skin cells) before and after their exposure to gamma radiation. Not real gamma radiation of course, that would be pretty weird, but the kind of gamma radiation that turns the cells big, green and angry, which can be seen on monitors right alongside Dr. Erskine’s frozen serum. There are even microscopes and swabs that allow you to look at your own DNA, and were it not for the sterile white walls, this high-school laboratory would seem almost out of a horror movie, which makes sense since The Hulk feels like he jumped right out of a creature feature. If Steve Rogers represents the peak physical and moral side of heroism, the ultimate action hero so to speak, The Hulk is his darker equivalent, dealing with the twisted side of science and loss of control over nature, and some of the fun things about him from a geeky perspective are the comicbook logistics of his transformation. The end of the lab section features the very reason that Banner was brought on board to begin with (or so it seemed), the device created by Loki to control the Tesseract, which required his expertise on all things gamma. You can also activate it, at which point the lights start to flicker and the floor starts to shake. Pretty spooky, eh?

Things get a little close for comfort in the next hallway, or the “Containment Room” where you’re flanked on either side by Chitauri armour and weaponry (including Item 47 itself from Marvel’s One Shot, as well as a massive Chitauri chariot) next to the WWII era Hyrda weapons that also come into play in the film. Red Skull’s suit is also visible, though his ‘status’ is listed as Classified, because like any good Marvel villain, there’s every chance of him coming back at some point. This hallway is only a minor part of the exhibit, but it feels like an important one. It’s not only a bridge between two separate sections, but everything in it is a bridge between films. The villains and technology of Captain America: The First Avenger are part of what lead to the events of The Avengers, and the tech therein is still being used at the beginning of Age of Ultron. We even get to see Loki’s scepter with its eerie glow, shorting out the lights above its containment case. Unbeknownst to S.H.I.E.L.D. at the time, its gem houses an Infinity Stone, something that’s going to keep coming up between now and 2019.

The Avengers was our first look at Thanos, the big bad of Marvel’s two-part grand finale, and it was also the first time we saw what kind of havoc two of the six Infinity Stones could wreak together, but it was equally the turning point for everyone we’d already been introduced to, as well as the inciting incident that got a lot of the other wheels turning. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Daredevil are a result of its logistical and economic fallout. Its geo-political ramifications which were first explored in Phase II films such as The Winter Soldier are likely going to carry over to Captain America: Civil War, and that’s just the Earth stuff! Thor was Marvel’s first bridge between Earth and its larger cosmic universe, and while Asgard is most certainly a realm of fantasy, the film managed to integrate (pseudo) science and magic to help explain it. The next room in the exhibit, “The Observatory”, is set up for the purpose of exploration. A giant panel of screens, each the size of a home theatre, stands before a smaller touch screen that allows you to navigate the setup. With the help of NASA, The Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. has a fully operational (though rather pixilated) rendering of the nearest stars and planets in our galaxy, and all it takes for you to explore them is a swipe of your fingers. There’s even a second, equally large screen dedicated to the Einstein-Rosen bridge, because science is cool and why the hell not? Oh, and Thor’s outfit is nearby too, though like the other costumes, it doesn’t have the actor’s name anywhere near it. In fact, the description states that it was donated “To our brethren of the order of the S.H.I.E.L.D.” by Odinson himself – which is a pretty neat touch.

The conclusion to the exhibit follows suit with its own scientific trajectory, an “Engineering Bay” that touches on the technological side of things using Iron Man’s armour. A mini-particle accelerator allows you to use a combination of elements to create and name your own (not really of course, but there’s more rumbling effects and you can share your discovery on Facebook) followed by a couple of Stark Industries-branded exhibits that are an absolute delight. The “Exosuit Neural Interface” is a optically calibrated flight simulator that allows you to target just bu blinking, and a similar series of cameras & screens allow you to see yourself suited up and flying around Stark’s garage while learning to steer with the repulsors on your hands and feet. Another installment just around the corner allows you to control one of Iron Man’s actual gloves and make it perform a series of movements and gestures just by moving your hand in front of a motion detector. Yes, it even wags its finger at you if you try and use it to flip someone off. It’s so silly, but so cool at the same time. What little kid doesn’t want to be Iron Man for a few minutes? The floor is lined with moving lights that look like they’re all flowing towards an arc reactor in the center, and the last thing you get to see is the Iron Man suit itself, the very thing that started all this awesome madness seven years ago. Once you walk out, you’re greeted by a giant poster of the Avengers themselves, and you can trade in your Probationary recruit I.D. for one that has your picture on it and lists your status as Active. You’re now part of the team!

Much like Steve’s enhanced strength & old-world resilience, Banner’s eerie, rage-induced transformations and Thor’s mystical yet scientific connection between Asgard and Midgard, Tony’s technological exosuit is one of the four pillars upon which this superhero team is built, like four different kinds of stories that weren’t supposed to crossover, and not only did, but could because they were all rooted in Marvel’s weird brand of ‘anything goes’ sliding soft sci-fi, making room where necessary, but still fulfilling the needs of those of us that care about the logistical nitty-gritties. Sure, while I do wish Black Widow received more attention since her role in the film is quite important, the exhibit is dedicated to the culmination of four different kinds of movies coming together to deliver a superhero spectacle, just like the film’s central question is whether or not these characters can overcome the odds and do the same.

The Avengers’ success was dependent entirely on whether or not this audacious idea could work, and the fact that it did is not only miraculous, but ingenious in terms of how we got there. One of the things that Marvel excels at is intertwining its themes and central questions with the audience’s perspective. Can Tony Stark function as a solo character after a big team-up? (Iron Man 3) Can a black & white character like Steve Rogers live in a modern world with moral greys? (The Winter Soldier) But in the case of The Avengers, that central question was the plot and premise of the film itself. Can we bring together these capable but remarkably different individuals? Can these characters with wildly different backgrounds and outlooks gel together as a team? Can ‘The Avengers’ as a concept really work? The forces opposing that idea are Loki and a bunch of shadowy figures on screens, constantly re-iterating their position that the idea is destined to fail. They’re the film’s antagonists – the antagonists within the film, and the negative forces opposing it from the outside. Nick Fury defies the world council, the Avengers defy Loki, and in the process, we, the audience, defy our own doubts about the idea, and the reward for believing in the film is the film itself, especially the final battle. The reason we can now walk through a life-like display dedicated to a soldier out of time representing old-world ideals, a tech-savvy billionaire as the waning conscience of America’s military industrial complex, a Norse God wielding a magic hammer, a giant monster re-directing his rage towards the bad guys, a former assassin looking to make amends, and a powerless archer who can’t help but want to protect people, is because this movie works, and as Bob Chipman points out in his new series, the entire film is, both literally and thematically, all about building up to this moment:

The iconic shot where we see the Avengers assembled for the first time. A moment that not only the film itself, but Marvel’s entire risky game-plan had been leading up to. A moment that precedes one of the most incredible spectacles in blockbuster history. A moment that would go on to not only go on to define Marvel’s trajectory, but the trajectory of mainstream cinema itself. A moment that changed what was possible, both in terms of how we made movies, and how we watched them. This right here was the moment that changed everything, and the exhibit that now stands in Times Square, while a fun but expensive escape, is a tribute to this very moment, and to the crazy, uneven, fun, flawed, bizarre, wonky, and ultimately triumphant film that sprung from it.

In a century defined by war, terrorism, economic recession, and the encroaching idea of inevitable self-destruction, The Avengers was exactly the kind of film we needed. A film about good people putting aside their differences and working together. To avenge? Yes, but also to defend and protect. It was, and still is, an appeal to the optimist in us, asking us to do the same so we don’t repeat the mistakes of our past. A plea for us to be better. To be heroes.

“The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people to see if they could become something more. To see if they could work together when we needed them to. To fight the battles that we never could.”