At any other moment in time, a pop-up exhibition focusing on a mega-successful film franchise might feel like a simple cash-in: a crass attempt to further bleed dry a fanbase via the vague promise of an “immersive” experience. But today, with Toronto families facing their darkest and loneliest winter in god-knows-how-long, Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. arrives like manna from the heavens. Even if those heavens might be subsidiaries of the Walt Disney Corporation.
Opening Nov. 20 and running until Jan. 31, 2021, Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. (that’d be “Scientific Training And Tactical Intelligence Operative Network,” but know that there are zero science lessons to be had here) takes over a 25,000-square-foot space at Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre. Like other S.T.A.T.I.O.N.s around the world – there are three operations running in Las Vegas, Beijing and Seoul – the space acts as a museum dedicated not to the history of our galaxy, but to the ever-expanding and profitable Marvel Cinematic Universe.
There are props and costumes and gigantic sculptures of guys both good (Hulkbuster) and bad (Thanos). There are interactive exhibits in which you can pretend to be the Incredible Hulk or Thor. A special section, exclusive to the Toronto location, devoted to Black Panther’s home of Wakanda (with a space reserved for a tribute to the late King T’Challa himself, Chadwick Boseman). And soundtracking the entire experience is the booming Avengers score, occasionally interrupted by a retro 1980s pop tune plucked from the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack.
But because the space is opening in the thick of a pandemic – and yes, even though Toronto is currently in a “red/restricted” zone, whatever that means, Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. is still set to open so long as Yorkdale isn’t off-limits – its creators have had to completely reconfigure the space to be a safe one.
Paquin Entertainment Group and Victory Hill Exhibitions, which first started planning the Toronto location a year ago, have created a completely touch-free experience. Entrance is timed to limit occupancy, touchscreens have been replaced with individual and frequently sanitized styluses, physical distancing signage is everywhere, hand sanitizer is copious (and coloured like a Hulk-y green goo, all the better to entice children), and staff members are constantly on the floor to clean up after any children who might not be able to contain their excitement at wiping their hands across Captain America’s shield. Masks are mandatory, too, though given that this is a superhero-centric operation, that might be a feature rather than a bug.
“As the world was learning about COVID-19, so were we learning how to operate safely,” says Justin Paquin, director of live events for Paquin Entertainment Group. “We’re unique in that we have such a large space and a particular set-up. There are few opportunities where a new operation can open now and be sustainable.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the space works. It is bright and splashy and totally frivolous – this isn’t like an excursion to the Royal Ontario Museum or the Art Gallery of Ontario – but it is necessary escapism. I might not have felt so strongly if everything were normal, and, say, the multiplexes were crowded with MCU fare (2020 marks the first year that a Marvel movie hasn’t premiered since 2008).
Yet the opportunity to simply have a destination that embraces all the Hollywood thrills of the Before Times, and in a safe manner, is beyond welcome. And for Toronto families feeling similarly cooped up, and with temperatures dipping so low that park excursions are no longer hours-long affairs, I can imagine Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. being a genuine godsend.
“It’s a mental-health thing, too. After the last lockdown, we felt it was important to give people a way to get out of their homes,” says Mark Fraser, the space’s creative director. “The Christmas season is already a stressful time without COVID, so we want to give guests a safe environment to escape reality and come into a new one.”
Of course, such escapes don’t come cheap. Tickets start at $40.68 (including taxes and fees) for children aged three to nine and $45.20 for those 10 years or older, and reach up to $248.60 for something called the “VIP –Time Stone Pass.” Naturally, you also exit through the gift shop – perfect time to buy a Captain Marvel coffee mug – and then are spat right back into a giant mall, just outside the Lego Store.
But the space is still a zippy and unique way to kill an hour or two, and provide your family (and yourself) with a wholly different memory of this year. Iron Man saves the day once again.
Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. runs Nov. 20 through Jan. 31, 2021, at Yorkdale in Toronto (avengersstationcanada.com)
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