Courtesy Feld Entertainment

Live From Marvel, It’s Your Favorite Comic Book Characters

Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, Wolverine and more are coming to an arena near you.

During her childhood, Juliette Feld neither thumbed through the pages of a comic book nor read about the adventures of superheroes like the Avengers. She didn’t have to make believe. As one of the three daughters of Kenneth Feld, chairman and chief executive officer of the live-show production company Feld Entertainment, she found that her imagination was fueled by constant exposure to everything from clowns to high-wire acts.  

Now, years later, the petite 30-year-old brunette, who once rode circus floats and popped out of a clown car in full costume, finds herself in charge of bringing Marvel’s catalog of superheroes and villains to life in an arena show called Marvel Universe Live! The show will tour 85 North American cities beginning this month. Dates have been confirmed through May 2016, with more shows to be added.

Entertainment has long been a part of Juliette’s life. Now executive vice president and producer of the family business, she is no stranger to big arena shows. As a child, she spent winters and summers behind the scenes at rehearsals for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Disney On Ice, respectively. And she and her sisters were always made to feel they were integral to the business.

At age 7, she often wore her favorite pair of bright, multicolored shorts around her dad’s office. When she outgrew them, she was surprised to see the same pattern on many of the costumes for that year’s circus show. “It was cool to see what felt like the three of us having an impact on the shows even as kids,” she says.

Now, the youngest Feld sibling, who never read a comic book until she was an adult, is giving direction to the likes of Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk and Wolverine. She is creating a genre of entertainment, a storytelling technique that is different from either the circus or the ice show.

For her, the production is personal. There is pressure to carry on the family legacy and create a show that resonates with Marvel’s fans. “There are a lot of expectations when it comes to Marvel films, so this [production] has to be spectacular,” she says.

She and her father are partnering in the process and are learning more about Marvel’s superheroes and villains — and also about new technologies employed in the show. “In the words of Spider-Man,” she says, “ ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ ”

A big chunk of that responsibility is to the die-hards who have followed their Marvel heroes through the pages of comic books and onto the big screen. “Fans are very protective of these characters,” Juliette says. In order to make sure they aren’t disappointed, she has assembled an award-winning creative team that has worked on everything from Thor to The Magic of David Copperfield.

By the time the production opens this month, Feld and her creative team will have spent two years designing the show. Emmy-winning director and choreographer Shanda Sawyer was hired to help create the concept and storyline for the Marvel characters. A specialist in large-scale arena entertainment, Sawyer worked with Feld Entertainment seven years ago to update the circus. Her credits range from the Miss America pageant to The World’s Greatest Stunts.

One of the first challenges Feld and Sawyer faced was coordinating the superpower diversity within the Marvel characters. Some climb walls. Some fly. Some have super strength. All of their superpowers had to be considered before the team could start creating scenes that showcase the unique strengths of each hero and villain. Fans’ familiarity with the characters posed yet another challenge: At times, Sawyer felt as though she was competing with the visions created in the minds of fans when they read the comic books. “Getting inside that experience and translating it into this new medium is most exciting for me,” she says.

Projection mapping, which can use any type of object or area or even the audience as a projection surface, will surround audience members with the action, sweeping them up in the moment. “You have to wrap them in the show,” Sawyer explains. “It has to be immersive and interactive.”

Juliete Feld and Team
Courtesy Feld Entertainment

The show boasts the latest technology and features specialized flying systems and state-of-the-art laser equipment as well as original stunts. Movie-style stunts — everything from car crashes to risky motorcycle jumps — are being created specifically for the arena. At one point, it will be filled with 11 whirling motorcycles that jump and fly at one another in a spectacular chase. Veteran action director and stuntman Andy Armstrong, who worked on Thor, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, is in charge of creating the action and ensuring safety. This marks his first time working with an arena production. He has spent years working with films where he can tweak a visual effect or trick during taping or even redo the stunt if necessary. He doesn’t have that luxury now. Everything is in real time.

The new arena production will feature more than 100 stunts, many that have never been attempted. In films, actors have several stunt doubles who can fill in. In this show, the creative team has to cast a performer who can portray the character and also perform all the stunts several times a day.

During casting, Sawyer and Armstrong drew from a variety of disciplines that included professional skateboarders, international and world-class motorcycle competitors, high-wire acts, professional athletes and circus aerialists. Several of the performers were chosen because of their trials motorcycle background. As Armstrong says, “That is a more complex skill set.”

It’s definitely a skill that can tumble records. In rehearsal, the rider cast as Captain America, who is thrust straight up in the air during a chase scene with the Red Skull, broke the Guinness world record for the highest ramp jump performed on a trials motorcycle. The 2005 record was 16 feet, 9.18 inches. The new record was 19 feet, almost twice as high as the rim is on a basketball hoop. It was a stunning sight for those present. “He hung in the air almost like slow motion,” Sawyer says.

Stunts also include a high-speed chase that ends in a fiery car crash, as well as a scene that requires a character to spontaneously combust into a full-body burn. Armstrong notes the obvious, saying: “You can’t get it wrong by even a few seconds, and it has to be done several times a night.”

Many of the performers are receiving intensive training in different skill sets. Some of the female motorcycle riders, for example, have been working with a fight coordinator. “You see these tiny women flipping someone twice their size,” Sawyer says. “They are really taking on superhero personas. It’s priceless.”

All the action has to be done in the iconic costumes worn by the Marvel characters. Adapting them to the action in the arena was a difficult feat for the creative team, which is working with both pyrotechnics and animatronics experts. Figuring out how to keep Iron Man’s suit true to the original but also allow the actor to move has been a major challenge for the creative team, which has to bring the Hulk to life in 3-D in an arena.
Juliete Feld and Team at New York Comic Con
Courtesy Feld Entertainment

Feld believes the lineup for the show is impressive — everyone from Captain Marvel and Black Widow to Madame Hydra and Black Cat. In the last two years, she has thoroughly analyzed the details of each character and evaluated their powers and persona to make sure she has the cult-centric elements in place.

If she had known in her youth that the stories and the characters in comic books were so rich and complex, she admits she would have loved them. Now, she is fully embracing their spirit. “I may have even tried on Wolverine’s claws a time or two,” Feld says with a laugh. “It’s been really fun.”

Marvel Universe LIVE! begins an 85-city tour on July 10 in Tampa, Fla.

Joan Tupponce lives in the Richmond, Va., area and has written for Seventeen, Sports Illustrated and O, The Oprah Magazine. She wrote about armless musician George Dennehy in the March 15 issue of American Way.