Marvel dropped its first trailer for Captain Marvel this morning, so let's use that as an excuse to talk more about Disney's theme park plans for the brand.
Let's recap: Disney is building a new Marvel-themed land at Disney California Adventure, on the site of the former A Bug's Land. The company lacks the legal rights to use the Marvel name and core Avengers, X-Men, and Fantastic Four characters at Walt Disney World in Florida (since they are at Universal's Islands of Adventure), but Disney is building a one-off Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster in the old Universe of Energy pavilion at Epcot to get some Marvel presence at its largest resort. Hong Kong Disneyland has a Marvel land under development as a rebrand and expansion of its Tomorrowland, having already opened a Star Tours-like Iron Man ride. Disney is re-theming Rock n' Roller Coaster to the Avengers at Walt Disney Studios Paris. Everyone expects Disney to build a Marvel-themed land in Shanghai at some point. But the same Universal deal that keeps Marvel out of Disney World also restricts Disney's use of the franchise in Tokyo, due to the Spider-Man ride at Universal Studios Japan.
So, for now, the first chance that theme park fans will get to experience a fully-realized Marvel land at a Disney theme park will come at California Adventure in 2020. That gives us a couple years to imagine what that land might look like. (Or, at least a few months until firm plans start leaking.) Among the questions: where, and when, will the land be set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
The very best theme park lands transport visitors to a convincing and engaging time and place. They stand upon the world building of the artists who created the stories that inspire the land. The better the creator did in crafting a convincing and engaging setting for their stories, the better start the park will have in designing the land.
Here's my potentially unpopular opinion: Marvel has done a pretty sloppy job with its world building. And that, in turn, leaves Disney's Imagineers with a tougher job in creating an engaging Marvel land.
Granted, it's hard to maintain cohesive world building when your character universe is developed by a loose committee of artists developing separate characters — over decades — that only later will you retcon into existing in a common story space. If you want a truly robust world building, there needs to be someone in charge of that vision. Take, for example, the superhero universe that Brad Bird created for The Incredibles. Now that is a superhero universe I want to visit! (And no, Disney, the Incredicoaster doesn't satisfy that.)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe works in part because Kevin Feige oversees the character arcs among the many franchises playing within that universe. But for as well as Feige and his team has kept the MCU dominating on screen, the universe offers way too many diverse settings to wrangle into cohesive world building. With Marvel, setting usually flows from story. In franchises that lend themselves well to theme park lands, it's the other way around.
Harry Potter is not a superhero who drives the narrative in J.K. Rowling's books. The Wizarding World drives that story, and Harry's largely along for the ride. Lightning McQueen's story is driven by his time in Radiator Springs. Heck, even DC Comics does a better job with world building than Marvel. Batman is as much about Bruce Wayne's struggle with Gotham and the monsters it has created as it is anything Wayne is bringing to the table on his own.
All of this helps to make Hogsmeade, Radiator Springs, and Gotham places that fans of those franchises dream of visiting. For Marvel? Sure, fans want to meet and spend time with the imprint's characters, but where they do that really doesn't seem to matter all that much, does it? Beyond visiting Thor's Asgard and Black Panther's Wakanda (the latter especially would make an amazing theme park land), most of Marvel's action takes place in rather generic urban environments. But those boring cities are the places many of us leave to escape on vacation.
Hey, I would love if Disney laid the final blows to DCA's California theme and built us a Wakanda in the middle of that park. But given that Imagineers already have said that the neighboring Guardians of the Galaxy tower will be included in the land, it's pretty much a given that Wakanda is off the table.
But are Disneyland visitors to be left with the type of generic urban environment that Disney seems to be developing in Hong Kong? With Star Wars, Disney's Imagineers addressed the challenge of dealing with a sprawling universe of diverse settings by ignoring them all and creating a new world of their Star Wars lands — Black Spire Outpost at Galaxy's Edge.
Might they do something similar for Marvel? Granted, Disney can't even use the name "Marvel" for its "superhero-themed land." But that should not keep Disney from trying to create a physical space that is as engaging and compelling as the superheros who will inhabit it.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe did not exist when Universal's designers created Marvel Super Hero Island for Islands of Adventure in the late 1990s. Those characters existed primarily on comic book pages then, so Universal designed a land to evoke the two-dimensional look of those pages. Though the land set a high standard for the time, Marvel fans have a right to expect something better 20 years down the line.
Marvel is the biggest entertainment franchise in the world, with income surpassing Potter and Star Wars. It ought to have a theme park land equal to, if not better than, those franchises. But to do that, Disney's Imagineers will need to address one of the greatest creative challenges in their history — to imagine and develop a world as super as Marvel's heroes.
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