Opening of MoPOP exhibit ‘Marvel: Universe of Superheroes’ marks a new era for Marvel comics

Throughout the last decade, Marvel Studios has produced 18 feature-length films, six Netflix television series and three ABC television series. With characters such as Spider-Man, The Hulk and Black Panther as its guides, Marvel has revolutionized the media industry, according to University of Oregon professor of English and Comic Studies, Ben Saunders.

Now, Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) is featuring Marvel Comics’ nearly 80-year history in its largest exhibition ever staged. The exhibit, called “Marvel: Universe of Superheroes,” will open on April 21.

The exhibit marks a turning point for Marvel. Superheroes are no longer just for people who read comic books or participate in cosplaying subcultures. The company is now an influential part of mainstream popular culture, according to Saunders who curated the exhibit.

Saunders and his collaborators included pieces in the exhibit that show the comic book industry’s humble beginnings and it’s current influence. Over 300 Marvel artifacts including original books and artwork, life-sized sculptures of superheroes, movie costumes and props will be on display. Interactive pieces that transport viewers into the Marvel universe accompany the artifacts. One interactive piece will be a first-person immersive display of Tony Stark’s lab from “Iron Man.”

Movies like Black Panther have advanced media norms by making the first superhero movie with a Black leading role and an entirely Black central cast. But Saunders says he thinks Marvel’s original artists and writers, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, deserve more of the credit for producing socially-progressive content than Marvel Studios does. Each of Marvel Studios movies is based on Lee and Kirby’s original characters.

“The comics have always been quite a bit further ahead of other media forms in terms of their commitments to diversity and inclusivity,” Saunders said. “To be honest, I think there’s still a long long way to go in that respect for Marvel Studios.”

Saunders says Marvel Studios’ “true bravery” comes from their ambitious business model. No other media company with a similar reach — Black Panther is now one of the high-grossing films of all time — has been able to produce movies and television series at the rate that Marvel Studios has.

“They have changed the model of franchise filmmaking,” Saunders said. “When ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ opens in a couple of weeks, that will be the 19th Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. It’s beyond incredible.”

The social and political issues regarding race and power that Lee and Kirby addressed by creating characters like Black Panther are still relevant today. Marvel Studios’ courage comes from noticing the presence of those issues today and ambitiously breathing new life into Lee and Kirby’s characters for a massive audience, according to Saunders.

It wasn’t easy for Saunders to curate an exhibit that encapsulated the vast, complex 80-year history of Marvel. He says it was hard for him and his collaborators like Randy Duncan, a comic book scholar and professor at Henderson State University in Arkansas, to step back from their academic knowledge. They needed to have avid fans as well as people who have never seen a Marvel movie enjoy the exhibit. “The difficulty sometimes is that you know too much,” Saunders said.

He says he wanted to create multiple tiers of depth into Marvel’s history at the exhibit. On the surface, exhibit pieces are accessible to everyone, but fans who have been following Marvel for decades will have the opportunity to delve deeper into the history. People can stand and read about the history for hours with pieces like digital interactive essays aiding them.

Saunders says he’s still amazed by the creative labor of Marvel’s original artists and the effect that labor has had on people, especially on him. “Jack Kirby had a superpower,” Saunders said. “It’s the ability to create these stories.”

People interested in attending MoPOP events during the exhibit’s opening weekend can find schedule details and ticket prices here. Marvel Studios’ next movie, “Avengers: Infinity War,” will be in theaters everywhere on April 23.

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