Anyone who’s read Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story or Blake Bell and Michael Vassallo’s The Secret History Of Marvel Comics knows there’s a rich background and involving narrative surrounding the creation of some of our most iconic and enduring superheroes. But a new exhibit makes a simpler argument: movie-star heroes come first.
That’s the main takeaway from “Marvel: Universe Of Super Heroes,” an appealing and engaging new exhibit that opened this past weekend at Seattle’s Museum Of Pop Culture. Prior to 2008, any number of Marvel heroes could have been in the running for most iconic, but that’s not really true any more: The Marvel films haven’t just delivered heroic box-office returns, they’ve fundamentally shifted the nature of Marvel’s identity, retroactively adjusting its history in the process. Or at least the public face of that history. Where once The Fantastic Four or Spider-Man might have held pride of place in any exhibition of the company’s most enduring characters, now it’s all about the Avengers—or rather, anyone who’s headlined their own Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. There are still other heroes featured in this new look at the history of these characters largely examining the Silver Age and beyond (starting in roughly the 1960s, with a few outliers), but it’s clear that big-screen and small-screen successes alike have shifted priorities.
I traveled to Seattle out of curiosity, wondering what Marvel Studios’ outsized success would mean for Marvel Comics’ vision of itself. A lifelong Marvel nerd, it’s been fascinating to witness the medium’s transition from fringe interest for outcast kids to the dominant cultural juggernaut of our time, complete with Juggernaut memes. More than once as a kid, my possession of West Coast Avengers or Uncanny X-Men or New Warriors at school was sufficient cause for getting pantsed, or maybe just shoved to the ground by a group of sneering jocks. “This is the gayest shit I’ve ever seen,” I distinctly recall being informed by one of my sixth-grade bullies who had just ripped an issue of X-Force from my hands. Recently, that guy posted an image of himself with his son on Facebook, cosplaying as Iron Man and Hulk. People change, but I never would’ve guessed back then how much culture could, too. Knowing there would one day be lines around the block just to get a closer look at Thor’s hammer might’ve been a balm to young me.
As a result, from almost the moment I entered the exhibit, I was as interested in watching the reactions of the kids swarming the place as the installations themselves. In part, that’s simply because it’s a very “Marvel 101"-style exhibit: This is the history of Marvel told in bold, glossy strokes, the historical equivalent of a comics’ splash page, meant to condense a complex backstory into its simplest and grabbiest details. So for diehards like myself, it’s less a chance to learn than it is to gawk up close at things like a glass-encased copy of Marvel Comics #1. But in a heartening display of focus on social context, a lot of the exhibit looks at how these characters and creations were used as a way of touching on real-world issues like race, gender, disability, and more—a reminder that many writers and artists were always interested in pushing socially progressive ideas into the world. (There were also a ton that weren’t, but I doubt Marvel would collaborate on a gallery showcasing the most regressive social norms ever published in comics.) The exhibit also delighted the young Marvel fans—they were freaking out, to put it mildly.
The smartest thing the curators did was to have interactive busts of characters in nearly every room, giving kids the opportunity to chill on the couch with The Thing or snag a selfie with Black Panther. I watched one determined girl spend a good five minutes figuring out how to best position herself alongside an upside-down Spider-Man for maximum badass-ness. The emotional accessibility of Marvel’s heroes has always been one of their strongest features, and here that has been smartly transposed into physical accessibility—if you’re not in their heads, you can at least be by their sides.
There’s a pleasing old-school vibe of nostalgia and unabashed self-promotion to the whole thing, as though one of Stan Lee’s signature back-of-the-book editorial pages has come to life. Sure, attention is paid to the New York of the ’60s and the ramshackle environment in which Marvel rose to prominence as the underdog competitor to DC, and framed examples of early Spider-Man artwork and the 1963 return of then-discontinued hero Captain America in Strange Tales provide history. But these segue into a clever installation that superimposes tiny video of Ant-Man and his insect helpers tossing sugar cubes into a full-size cup of tea, and a Kinect-like video game that allows players to step into Iron Man’s armor and fire pulsar blasts at moving targets. In short, it’s as much interactive promotional stunt as it is museum piece, which feels right for a Marvel superheroes exhibit.
But it is fascinating to see how completely the success of the movies has reoriented the company’s priorities, and this Marvel exhibit dedicates the overwhelming majority of its attention to its heroes of the screen. Even Ms. Marvel, one of the current biggest titles in Marvel’s arsenal (and whose writer, G. Willow Wilson, was in attendance for the opening), receives just one image on a wall, and I suspect it’s largely because the company has designs for the character akin to the forthcoming Captain Marvel movie—a hero not coincidentally placed alongside Ms. Marvel in the exhibit. Iconic characters from movies not a part of the MCU—the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and others—get much less treatment than even the Netflix-centric heroes of Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and The Punisher. (Okay, Iron Fist gets a pretty small mention.)
Judging by the respective square footage allotted, Iron Man still strides the Marvel Universe as a colossus, certainly more so than the actual Colossus. Along with the interactive game, multiple Iron Man suits line the walls, and only Captain America and Black Panther come close in terms of the amount of attention devoted to the character and its history. The Hulk and Thor also get a lot of love, with attendees even given the opportunity to don headphones and listen to the iconic theme from the former’s TV show. Poor Black Widow and Hawkeye are once again downplayed, relegated to a corner of the exhibit easy to accidentally bypass. (At least David Aja’s superb artwork from his and Matt Fraction’s extraordinary Hawkeye run gets highlighted.) A mirror-filled funhouse-style room shows off Doctor Strange, and Bucky Barnes makes more than a few appearances, including the full Winter Soldier suit from the film.
By the time I’m staring at a full-size bust of Groot’s head, it’s clear that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has forever changed how Marvel views itself, if this gallery is any indication. This exhibit is loads of fun—I’d recommend it to anyone who considers themselves a fan—but the story of Marvel Comics now reads, at least in the light of the Museum Of Pop Culture’s “Marvel: Universe Of Super Heroes” exhibit, like a prelude to Marvel Studios, as though this scrappy little comic-book company struggled for decades so it could eventually make blockbuster movies and TV shows and rake in billions. It’s understandable: The movies are what everyone knows, and even with the resurgence of interest generated by the cinematic universe, the actual comics remain a more niche interest and have a smaller fan base. But I’d like to think a massive multimedia exhibit about Marvel would keep the focus on the little paper-bound stories from which all this arose.
During the ribbon-cutting ceremony, cosplayers of Black Widow and Spider-Man took to the stage to hold up the ceremonial ribbon for those doing the cutting. The guy dressed as Spider-Man bounded onto the stage with a dramatic dive-roll, then popped up as though ready to pounce. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to notice the little stream of paper at the front of the stage, waiting to be picked up, so he just sort of stood there awkwardly for a minute or so, until his subject was pointed out to him, and he finally lifted it up for all to see. It felt like a good metaphor for the entire exhibit: The reason we’re all here is because of the comics themselves, and the movies, TV, and endless merchandising tie-ins wouldn’t exist without them. Let’s not lose sight of that subject amid all the spectacle.