SEATTLE—As the Marvel Cinematic Universe expands to every movie theater in the world, the MoPOP Museum of Pop Culture (formerly Experience Music Project) swoops in this week with an exhibit that reminds fans where the heck these costumed heroes came from: the comics pages.
Marvel Universe of Super Heroes, a massive, two-story exhibit, began its world-premiere run in Seattle on Saturday with a mix of incredible historical context and Marvel's strange, narrow focus within the MCU. The very good news, as seen in the first gallery, is that the Marvel (which began life in 1939 as Timely Publications) is represented by way of a ton of original production art.
MoPOP has filled its exhibit's halls with large, framed pieces of art, but the biggest stunners aren't full-color, perfectly polished posters. Instead, that honor goes to countless production pages, all revealing original pencil lines, ink traces, white-outs, and color-request markings.
"Without private collectors, we wouldn't have a show," curator Benjamin Saunders frankly admitted to Ars, as pretty much every piece has a collector's name attached. When pressed, Saunders pointed to longtime writer and producer David Mandel (Veep, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld) as the exhibit's largest contributor. The collection's main exception is the first-ever appearance of Spider-man on a comic page, on loan from the Library of Congress for only three months. ("I shudder to think of the insurance value," Saunders notes about that page.)
But this is not a true "how Marvel came to be" exhibit, and its pickier selection of movie and TV tie-ins make that abundantly clear. You have to walk downstairs to a "street-level" section of the exhibit to find any tributes to the X-Men, for starters, and none of that comic's films or animated series receive any acknowledgement. Same for any Sony Pictures films, particularly the Tobey Maguire trilogy of Spider-man films. (The utter lack of Deadpool comic or film material, on the heels of its sequel's impending launch, feels particularly weird.)
"I wanted to emphasize the story of comics to the screen and back again," Saunders said when pressed on the selection. "We had access to Marvel's entire print library—anything from that was fair game—and we could use that to pay the right tribute to the Fantastic Four and X-Men, which have more tangled rights histories."
But Marvel's tangled history as a comics publisher (under different names) from the '30s to '60s and its network of affiliated creators and artists don't get a museum-level historical dive or explanation, with the exception of a few touchscreen interfaces that let visitors get to know some of the company's biggest names a little better. Also, the exhibit's biggest historical beats are defined by which MCU properties the exhibit can highlight with props and film costumes. The result is ultimately two things at the same time: a shameless advertisement for Marvel Studios' film and TV output; and a must-see dive into some of the rarest, decades-old Marvel material imaginable.
The result isn't perfect, but comic-clueless novices and obsessive collectors will each get something out of what Marvel Entertainment has delivered. No closing date has been announced, though the exhibit's official descriptions hint that it should run well into Marvel's official 80th anniversary in 2019.