Walking into the bright and airy Sackler Wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, I looked up at The Temple of Dendur, a gift from Egypt to America in 1965, in all its sandstone splendour and wondered if I was seeing things.
I glanced beyond the temple towards the museum’s impressive glass wall, slanting floor to ceiling and opening up the cavernous room out on to Central Park. And I saw it again. A flash of blue and red against the green grass, blurring past the window. With that I blurted out words I never thought I’d ever say.
“Look, Spider-Man!!” I squealed, pointing. A jolly looking woman in leggings and a purple sweater swung around and gasped. A muscly jock bellowed: “Spider-Man!” and dashed across the marble floor. Even an ageing hipster raised an eyebrow from behind black-rimmed glasses.
“Are they all in on it?” a member of my group hissed in my ear, subtly nodding towards the excited cluster of people pointing phones at the man himself, now striking poses from the other side of the glass.
He had a point. Were they, weren’t they? The doubt! The paranoia! At 4.40pm of possibly the most bizarre day of my life I was getting used to such uncertainty. I’d already witnessed a busker playing The Sound of Music soundtrack on a wood saw, met a blind and batty fortune teller and helped orchestrate a flash mob in Greenwich Village. This wasn’t the usual sightseeing wonder trip around New York – no Broadway shows or leisurely strolls through Central Park. Now standing there in the Met museum I wasn’t an extra on the new Spider-Man movie either. But at the same time I couldn’t be sure who was acting and who wasn’t. Maybe Spider-Man just has this affect on everyone?
What I did know is I’d found myself at the centre of an immersive superhero theatre experience. And as a group of 10 we had one mission – to save New York City from evil villains. All in a day’s work, right?
The day had been choreographed to celebrate the launch of Disney and Marvel’s first-of-its-kind collaboration on a new video game: Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes 2.0. The new game pulls its players into a Disney Marvel universe with classic characters from Tinkerbell to Thor ricocheting against each other while original storylines play out.
It follows the success of Disney Infinity, which launched worldwide last year and reaped a $1.2billion profit and arrives in the 75th anniversary year of Marvel. Now Marvel and Disney had decided to bring one of the new storylines to life for us against the backdrop of New York – home of Peter Parker, Captain America, The Avengers and Marvel HQ. And as a result we’d been transported into what felt like the 1997 Michael Douglas film The Game, but with Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor and a few crazies thrown in – as well as a slice of ancient Egypt.
If Marvel were the chief puppeteers, the guys pulling it off on street level were a small local theatre company called Accomplice (www.accomplicetheshow.com). They put on immersive theatre experiences for tourists and locals every day and sum it up as, “part theatre, part game, all fun”. Although we didn’t know it at the time, they’d helped to set the course of our adventure, “aided by clues and mysterious cast members strewn throughout various locations such as street corners, parks, iconic landmarks and out of the way spots”.
The day began on the 15th floor Sky Terrace of The Hudson Hotel on West 58th Street – where we were staying – with a delicious al fresco breakfast of warm croissants, pancakes, fresh fruit, and pressed orange juice overlooking the sun drenched neighbourhoods of Midtown West, Manhattan.
We’d received a letter explaining in vague detail we’d been chosen, “very specifically for this mission,” and to meet at 9am. “Do not be late.” We also had a small silver box each with a wooden block inscribed with writing. Put together they read: “At exactly 10am exit the front of the building and wait for the man in green.”
And so it began… “Let’s go shall we?” Matt McCrowsky, our photographer and video guy for the day, hollered, checking his watch.
“It’s already 9.45am!”
Matt, originally from California, but now living in Brooklyn as a jobbing photographer, led the way. Next thing we were racing out of the lift through the dark lobby of the Hudson Hotel. Even in such a rush it was impossible not to pause for a second to admire the 40ft high ceiling, enormous chandelier and crawling ivy – all magic touches of renowned interior designer Philippe Starck. Even the outside of the building looked mysterious with a futuristic stone front and sign-less entrance. “Hurry up, Judy!” I heard, as I dashed down the single escalator – a tube of neon green panelling to street level.
Before I’d even seen the stony-faced American soldier dressed in army greens (he’s our guy in green!) and obediently clambered into a waiting minibus I felt like a big kid. A buzz of excitement surged through the group as we waited for instructions with no idea of what might happen next.
The soldier got into the vehicle and introduced himself as Sergeant Robert King. “I assure you that your presence here is not only necessary, but vital to the peaceful existence of our world,” he said. But now what?
Sgt King switched into an opening monologue. He told us he had come straight from Cairo, Egypt, where after “rampant blizzards” the city had frozen solid, all thanks to evil villain Loki Laufeyson, the scorned brother of Thor (of course!). King’s friend Tony Stark (AKA Iron Man) was stuck in Egypt and told us via a live link (obscured face, sunglasses, a fur-lined hood) that Loki was threatening to freeze New York next among other world cities and needed our help to stop this happening.
“What do we have to do?” asked a member of the group, his furrowed brow revealing the fact he was taking this rather seriously.
Five shards of the ‘Gem of Infinite Suns’ were scattered across New York City within a 20-mile radius. We had to find all five pieces, reform the gem and only then would the world be saved from frostbite.
“But if the gem lands in the wrong hands, even one shard of it, our fate is sealed,” King warned. He then gave us a mobile phone, which Matt looked after, and left the bus, before leaning his head back in the door to say: “Good luck, guys.”
If you’re lost, don’t worry. I was too at this point. At least until we arrived at The Superhero Supply Store in Brooklyn, where I got carried away with it all. It stocks everything any self-respecting superhero needs or wants. Capes of all colours and lengths, tins of invisibility paint, shrinking gas and jars of super stretch gel – not to mention stacks of teeth-whitening products.
Inside the tightly packed store you can take a ‘How Evil Are You?’ test, sit under a mind reader (that looks suspiciously like a retro hairdryer) and test your cape in a powerful wind tunnel. But what’s interesting is the shop has a second, secret identity – like any good superhero does.
It is the brainchild of Boston-born writer, editor, and publisher Dave Eggers who had fitted a fake book shelf on the back wall. It’s a vault-like door, behind which is a room dedicated to a non-profit writing programme with workshops focusing on improving the reading and writing skills of local children aged six up to 18. Whether it’s by writing comics, poetry, essays, songs, short stories or novels, kids are encouraged to be creative and confident with words. Who said superheroes don’t make the world a better place?
Today we were there to meet a wacky guy called The Scientist, who explained further the science behind the all-important gem, while standing in front of large boxes reading “Vapor Blaster” and “Photon Shooter”. He armed us with some supplies – a bag of tricks with super powers to help in our mission, before helping to decode our first clue.
The Scientist believed there was a gem hiding in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in the Japanese Garden area. And by midday we are in the gardens first gem in hand. Hurray!
Next stop was Washington Square Park. Situated in Greenwich Village, it is one of New York City’s 1,900 public parks and most famous for its arch, honouring George Washington and its fountain. Like many fountains around the world people throw coins into it and make a wish, or hope for good luck. Only in New York will you see a man readily fishing out the coins to slip in his pocket, as a dog wearing shoes trots past!
After buying an ice-cold drink and a salty pretzel from a roadside kiosk, we refocused on our mission. Tony Stark had already called us on the mobile a couple of times with shouty instructions. He had eyes and ears everywhere and knew exactly when we were off track (“pretzels aren’t part of the plan”).
He led us to a red-headed female busker playing show tunes on a wood saw just north of the fountain. She helped us solve another clue and pointed us in the direction of La Lanterna di Vittorio (www.lalanternacaffe.com) a little Italian eatery two blocks away on MacDougal Street. Its fuzzy-looking owner Vittorio Antonini was sitting under the restaurant’s green canopy when we arrived. I didn’t tell him this, but from the outside it looked like a nondescript place to eat, one of hundreds of Italian restaurants in New York. But this one opened up into a gorgeous garden room out back, with tall turquoise and lilac marbled lamp shades, swirling fairy lights and patches of infant ivy sporadically finding their way up the walls and over the top.
Regretting the big pretzel I’d recently devoured, we ordered cheesy green pesto lasagne with warm Italian breads and rocket salad on the side. With every delicious mouthful I thought how lovely it was of Mr Stark to give us time out from saving New York to refuel, and in such a find of a restaurant.
That was one of the great things about the day so far – I’d visited the city once before, but we had covered more ground in just a few hours this time, than I did in four days two years ago. And it helped that we’d fallen upon a beautifully sunny day, too.
The next few hours saw us meet the mad fortune teller, who gave us a blue whistle that when blown freezes time – obviously. This is where the flash mob came in. One of my favourite parts of the day involved us walking into a restaurant, blowing the whistle and seeing staff and customers immediately freeze in action. They stayed frozen until we found another gem in a secret safe hidden behind a hanging copy of the Mona Lisa. Before leaving we blew the whistle a second time to unfreeze the crowd. And a third and fourth, fifth and sixth – until Tony called and told us off!
By this point we were back in the minibus and travelling towards the Met museum to meet “the Guard(Ian)” on the building’s beautiful roof-top garden. He promptly told us he’s just a guard called Ian and is very touchy about being mistaken as a Guardian despite his name badge. So Ian-the-guard sent us to the Temple of Dendur to decode yet another clue and release the penultimate gem, which was hidden in a box next to a Sphinx.
Things went a little awry thanks to the appearance of Peter Parker’s blue and red alter ego, but after more dashing around the city and an icy pitstop to Minus 5 Ice Bar at New York’s Hilton Hotel, we acquired the last gem. To then quickly misplace it. It turns out our teammate Matt the photographer was in fact a mole sent by Loki to sabotage our mission (DUN DUN DAAA!). “I owe you all an apology, I neglected to do a thorough enough background check on our friendly photographer!” Stark admitted later, tsk tsk.
But Spider-Man saved the day, caught our traitor and the Gem of Infinite Suns was restored, saving the world from being frozen. Phew!
One thing’s for sure – saving the world is tiring work. But we mustered up the energy to celebrate our victory over dinner at The View, New York’s only revolving restaurant on the 48th floor of the Marriot Marquis hotel. It serves contemporary American cuisine with the floor turning a full 360 degrees every hour.
As I enjoyed roast lamb with spring pea purée, new potatoes and minted salsa verde, followed by New York cheesecake, I couldn’t help but look out of the window half hoping to see Spider-Man swing past.
After dinner we strolled back through the theatre district and turned a corner into neon-drenched Times Square to soak up the electric atmosphere of the city. We got back to our hotel and boy did I sleep well that night – safe in the knowledge the world was safe for another day.