At the end of the Sunday matinee performance of Marvel Universe LIVE! at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center in Birmingham Alabama, Cyclops danced.
After the performance, he and all of the other characters from the show, and there were a lot of them, lined up along the rim of the set that filled half of the arena floor in order to take their bows and receive the applause of the adoring crowd of children and parents.
And then Cyclops danced.
Cyclops did not have a single line of dialogue in the entire production. He and his fellow X-Man, Storm, were held captive throughout most of the show by Loki, who was draining their mutant powers in order to reconstitute the tesseract that was destroyed and scattered across the globe by Thor in the opening act. (Yes, the plot was that dense.) So, for most of the action, Cyclops was curled up like an exhausted hamster inside of a plastic sphere.
But at the end of the show, while everyone else was taking their applause with their hands heroically on their hips or held triumphantly in the air, Cyclops did a little dance.
I think that it was more than just stretching his legs after his long confinement; it seemed genuine – it seemed joyous, as if he could not contain himself. He glanced across the arena and took in the cast, all Marvel superhero icons. He appeared to make eye contact with Spider-Man. (It was hard to tell for sure, what with those masks obscuring their eyes.) Then he flung his arms in the air, spun around in a circle and danced a quick, fleeting version of something that resembled the Twist. It happened fast and there were a lot of other things going on, but I feel certain of what I saw. I don’t think I imagined it.
Cyclops danced. Not a staid, formal dance, with dignity and grace. Not a romantic slow dance with Jean but a genuine, spontaneous, can’t-stand-still sort of dance. An I can’t believe I’m on stage with Captain America and Spider-Man sort of dance.
This may not seem strange to those outside the circle of comicbook fandom; maybe it only seems strange to me. But I have always seen Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops, as an uptight, overly serious, never has any fun kind of guy, not the kind of guy who dances spontaneously, especially not in front of thousands of people.
But there he was. Dancing.
When my fifteen year old son and I bought tickets to Marvel Universe LIVE! we told each other that we wanted to see Marvel’s live-action arena show in an ironic way. Ten years ago, even five years ago for that matter, there would have been no irony at all. My son would have thrilled at the thought of seeing his favorite characters live and on stage: Thor’s hammer bursting with laser lightning, Spider-Man swinging from his web, Captain America throwing his mighty shield, Falcon sailing overhead, Iron Man blasting the bad guys with his repulsor rays! The kid who thrilled at every live-action show at Disney World would probably have hyperventilated in anticipation of this. It would have been his every dream come true. As his dad, you had better believe that I would have been there with him every step of the way.
He’s older now and so am I.
When we bought the tickets we both knew what we were in for. Marvel Universe LIVE! is a live-action, special effects, and stunt motorcycle arena show aimed squarely at the under-eight crowd. We both knew the costumes were going to be a little cheesy, that the dialogue was going to be strained, and that the characters were going to be two-dimensional versions of the heroes (and villains) that we love to read about in the pages of Marvel Comics and love to watch in the latest 3-D movie spectacular from the studio that just can’t seem to lose. We both knew that Marvel Universe LIVE! is just the latest example of the Disney-fication of Marvel Comics, and that when Disney acquired Marvel this was just the sort of “Disney on Ice” for boys production that the executives must have dreamed about.
We were going, but with a smirk on our faces, a knowing look in our eyes.
And I have to admit that it was pretty laughable.
Granted, it was fun seeing all of those superheroes on stage together: Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Falcon, Captain Marvel, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Nick Fury, Maria Hill. Likewise the villains: Loki, Red Skull, the Lizard, Rhino, Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Electro, Black Cat. No movie, and few comicbooks, have ever had this many characters on display—fighting, web-slinging, smashing, and jousting with verbal zingers and one-liners.
Some of the special effects were pretty cool. I liked the way the characters flew around the arena on cables suspended from the ceiling. I liked the loud, unexpected explosions that made both the kids and the adults in the audience squeal in surprise. I liked the motorcycles, at least until the smell of carbon monoxide threatened to asphyxiate a whole generation of future Alabama comicbook fans. (Who knew that Bruce Banner could hold his own with Wolverine on a stunt bike?)
But there was a lot about Marvel Universe LIVE! that was pretty bad. Sure, the flying was cool, but the illusion was never complete because the cables were always in view. Maybe the six year-olds in the audience believed that these supermen, and women, could fly, but I never did. Instead of meta-humans and godlings, in all honesty they looked like living marionettes, like colorful super-powered Pinocchios.
And the costumes? The costumes were even worse than I had feared. Iron Man’s helmet made his head look enormous. The Lizard looked like he should have been singing his ABCs along with Barney the purple dinosaur. The Hulk was teased for the first hour and the transformation was obviously meant to be one of the coolest parts of the show, but the actual reveal of the Green Goliath was terribly disappointing; the over-sized puppet was awkward and anything but threatening.
The best scene in the whole production, a battle atop the Statue of Liberty, could have been cool, despite the fact that Thor had so much trouble taking out the Rhino. Actually, it was cool, right up to the point where Doctor Octopus lost an arm.
The real low point came, however, as Wolverine battled a small army of Chitauri. We thrilled to watch the mutant drive his claws into the evil alien, then cringed when we realized that his claws had come loose during the assault. For the rest of the show, Wolverine was clawless on one hand. Adamantium sure ain’t what it used to be.
So we laughed, we giggled, not so much ironically as in embarrassment.
Maybe we’re just too old; at forty-seven and fifteen we’re clearly past our prime. The kids seemed to like it. Maybe they didn’t even notice when Wolverine accidentally crashed his bike or when the action was slightly out of sync with the pre-recorded dialogue. Maybe it was good enough for the kids.
But here’s the thing. Unlike Disney’s animated features, Marvel comics and Marvel movies are not made for kids. Sure, kids can enjoy them. Sure, the fact that they are (mostly) kid-friendly drives sales and helps to develop the market of the future. But, despite what a lot of people may think, Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor and all the rest are not children’s characters, not in the way that Mickey Mouse, Aladdin, Anna and Olaf are children’s characters. (And, yes, I understand that adults can and do like those characters just as much and sometimes more than kids.)
Disney on Ice provides children with live-action versions of marvelous characters from children’s movies. Marvel Universe LIVE!, on the other hand, has tried to take characters from movies and comicbooks that were made for adults (and that are accessible to children) and make children’s characters out of them. This can be done, and has been done in comicbooks and in animated cartoons, but to be successful it has to be a whole lot smarter than Marvel Universe LIVE! turned out to be.
I also suspect that it is easier to go from an animated movie, like Frozen, to a live-action show than it is to go from a live-action movie to a live-action show. When Olaf skates across the arena ice, he is magically transported to the real world, the world in which we live. Since we have never seen him in that world before, the difference between the screen character and the costumed skater doesn’t seem all that jarring, or perhaps it is just that the jarring differences are expected in that case.
But the Marvel movies are not animated films, at least not in the sense that Frozen is an animated film. The Avengers takes place in the real world. Real people portray the characters on screen. In the real world, Iron Man should look like he does in the Iron Man movies, like Robert Downey, Jr. in a suit of armor, not like the big-headed monstrosity that leads the action in Marvel Universe LIVE!
You know what? Now that I think about it, I refuse to accept that I am just too damned old to enjoy it. I’m not too damned old. I love superheroes. I was ready to love Marvel Universe LIVE!
But here’s the thing. I’m glad that I saw Marvel Universe LIVE! and my son is too. We wouldn’t have missed it for the world. As my son kept saying: “I don’t care if it’s any good or not. It is enough that it exists.”
That’s the kind of fans you have, Marvel. We’re just grateful that these characters that we love have another venue to inhabit. I can’t believe I’m being so honest, but here goes: I would see Captain America in anything. Anything.
And so, at the end of a lackluster show – a show in which Doc Ock lost an arm, Rhino gave Thor a run for his money, and Wolverine’s claws fell off like the foam appendages we’ve always secretly feared they were – all it took was a little dance by Cyclops to make it all worthwhile.
When Cyclops danced, I danced too. I knew exactly how he felt. Captain America. Spider-Man. Motorcycles. Cool. It is enough that it exists.
“Good enough for the kids” just isn’t good enough.
I’ll give you a pass this time, Marvel. But we both know that you can do better.