Princess Shuri welcomes me as part of the team the moment I suit up in Avengers: Damage Control, the new MCU virtual reality experience from ILMxLAB. She sends me and the rest of my teammates on a mission to stop the villain — Ultron, a blast from the past. Just when we think we’re beaten, Doctor Strange swoops in to save us, and has a helpful update on where the world has been since Iron Man destroyed the Infinity Stones, “in case you were snapped.”
Eventually, almost the entire roster of Avengers has come to our aid, and they all congratulate us on a job well done while they smash the bad guy to bits. It feels like some form of indulgent fanfiction, which I say with the utmost praise.
ILMxLAB experience director Ian Bowie tells me that one of the best parts of crafting this story was working with already established canon. But unlike pure fanfic, technically all of Avengers: Damage Control does exist within the canon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — well, in the same way that the upcoming Avengers Campuses in Disney theme parks will be.
“Spiderman is wearing the same costume here that he’s going to wear in the Disneyland ride,” executive producer Dave Bushore adds. “We want people to connect the dots in different ways.”
What makes Avengers: Damage Control unique is that the virtual reality goes beyond what’s on the goggles. When you reach for a wall, an enthusiastic staff member tells me, you will feel a wall. Instead of remaining in one place, the experience prompts you to move along, touching and interacting with your environment. It’s all done with props and surfaces, but the VR goggles turn everything into a movie set piece.
The VR part enhances the experience of just wandering around a room full of props. Walking down a spiraling staircase in Doctor Strange’s sanctum, for instance, I reach for the handle of the staircase and feel it solidly as I descend down the stairs. In reality, my teammates and I are just walking in a stagnant circle.
Most of the experience is stationary and works within the existing confines, usually placing the participants on a ledge with some sort of barrier. Occasionally we go through doors and portals. At one memorable point, Ant-Man shrinks us down. While the experience pushes the limits as much as it can — and quite successfully at times — sometimes the illusion doesn’t hold up.
Right before the final battle, I stand on top of landing pad and while I wait for my team to follow my lead, I notice that the barrier isn’t a fence, but a long drop — could I step off the ledge and into space? Would I just smash into a wall or actually plummet down? Do I need to step away to trigger the scene transition, or is it my teammates’ lagging that is causing the scene to stall? By the time I work through my curiosity of the matter, my remaining teammate steps onto the platform and the scene transitions.
As with any team activity, the success and enjoyment of Avengers: Damage Control depends on communication. Unfortunately, my taciturn and reserved team of strangers don’t exactly jump into the action with as much enthusiasm as I do. During a moment when we have to start up a jet, only I step into the escape pod to boot up the second engine. I figure out what we need to do pretty quickly and relate the info back to them, but they linger in the main cockpit, leaving me to configure both engines in the escape pod on my lonesome.
This, however, ends up giving me the coolest part of the experience: As the jet fires up, the escape pod blasts away, seemingly hurtling me alone towards the helicarrier. At first, I freak out internally — did I do something wrong? Was I supposed to jump into the main cockpit?
In reality, my teammates are literally right next to me the entire jet ride to the carrier. The magic of VR means that my isolation was just in my head. The escape pod still makes it to the carrier and we reunite, ready to fight off Ultron.
The whole experience is fun, though wrapping your mind about what this means for the greater canon isn’t worth it. Why Ultron, you might ask? Both Bowie and Bushore agreed it was mostly for the fun of it — but it was also about breathing life into some scrapped ideas. Bowie referenced a moment at the end of the experience, where Ultron reassembles himself out of multiple robots to become a super big robot.
“[That] was an idea lying around back from when Joss and that team were working on Age of Ultron all those years ago,” he excitedly tells me.
While bits and pieces of this experience — like Spider-Man’s suit, for instance — may trickle into other canon, Avengers: Damage Control, much like the rest of the theme park attractions, are best viewed as parallel to the main MCU experience. It’s a cool self-insert fanfic where you get to team up with the Avengers, have Peter Parker compliment your outfits (thanks Peter!), and save the day, but thinking too long and hard about just what it might mean ruins what’s a totally enjoyable experience.
Avengers: Damage Control runs at The VOID locations worldwide till Nov. 10.