Seattle, Superheroes, and Social Justice – Marvel: Universe of Superheroes at MoPOP

Marvel: Universe of Superheroes opened 21 April 2018 and runs through 6 January 2019 at the Museum of Popular Culture (MoPOP) in Seattle, Washington. This special exhibit takes visitors through the 80 year history of Marvel and their Superheroes, with materials assembled from collections and commissioned specifically for the exhibit. The journey into the Marvel Universe starts before entering the space. Music from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) can be heard as you walk up to the classic newsstand, filled with display comics, where a docent will take your ticket.

A hallway lined with photos of kids avidly reading comics leads to a short video introducing Marvel as a company. From there, the exhibit continues with comic book history, discussing the creation and expansion of comics as a medium for storytelling. It chronicles how they evolved from individual political-style cartoons to the floppy books we now recognize as the default comic. The visitor is then introduced to the original characters and creators behind Marvel. Each section of the exhibit focuses on different individual superheroes, such as Black Panther, and well-known groups, such as the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Groot bust
Marvel Studios’ Guardians
of the Galaxy (2014) Photo Credit:
Jonathan Pulley / Museum of Pop Culture

Each section may include a few costumes, a full-sized statue, a large art piece, or other objects related to whoever is the focus, drawing from both their comics and their movies. If the character is a mantle, such as Thor, the different people who have held the mantle are mentioned, though the focus remains on the originator of that mantle.

A great design touch is that, rather than typical museum cases, the objects are housed in rooms designed to reflect the characters. With streets, apartments, and worlds built to house the statues and art on display, there are even stops for selfies with your favorite heroes. These provide a fantastic interactive element to the exhibit, encompassing the physicality of these heroes usually only experienced through cosplay, making onscreen and paper heroes into the real people that we imagine them to be.

Black Panther’s costume
Worn by Chadwick Boseman in
Marvel Studios’ Black Panther (2018)
Photo Credit:
Jonathan Pulley / Museum of Pop Culture

Unfortunately, the exhibit’s exploration of “real world issues,” which other histories of Marvel have discussed explicitly, were underdeveloped. The exploration of the complicated role that comics, superheroes, and Marvel play in relation to gender, race, and mental illness—cited as a serious part of this exhibit—were glossed over. The displays mention propaganda, gender politics, and problematic jive talk, but they don’t expand on what those actually mean in the context of the characters or why they are good or bad. While all of these issues are important for understanding the history of Marvel and its superheroes, the exhibit’s minimal discussion of race feels like the biggest hole in the narrative.

In a city like Seattle, which has a terrible track record regarding race, it is extremely valuable that the white curatorial team decided to highlight characters like Black Panther (voted #1 Marvel Superhero in the exhibit) and Luke Cage. However, the exhibit barely mentioned the civil rights movement as a backdrop for Marvel’s decision during the 1960s and 70s to create black characters. Specifically, the exhibit uses phrases like “so-called Blaxploitation”—awkwardly suggesting that Blaxploitation wasn’t a thing—on their placards and mentions jive talk without explaining the underlying racism or the histories related to either concept. This made those portions of the exhibit seem detached from the society we still live in and that those issues arose from.

Overall, the exhibit is an unquestionably fun mix of original comics, art, test pages, movie artifacts, life sized statues, and clever design pieces. It introduces the history of Marvel as a company alongside the history of the various characters that have helped and maintained Marvel’s success since its origins as Atlas comics. However, the curatorial team’s choice to be neutrally family-friendly feels like a missed opportunity for education about the relationship between Marvel’s Superheroes and the social justice they have endeavored to uphold.

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina (aka @punuckish) is a Filipino-Polish archaeologist and anthropology graduate student who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and loves comics and pop culture. Her academic work focuses on how buildings and landscapes aid or impede the learning of culture by children. In general, she is an over-educated fan of things; primarily comics, comics-related properties, cartoons, science-fiction, and fantasy. This means she takes what she knows and uses it to critique what she loves. Recently, she has brought such discussions to the public by organizing and moderating panels at comic cons centered on anthropology/culture related topics.

One thought on “Seattle, Superheroes, and Social Justice – Marvel: Universe of Superheroes at MoPOP

  1. I actually worked at MoPOP, for a month, prior to and during the exhibit’s opening. My first weekend shift was covering coat check during the opening night. Looking back on the exhibit, having not actually manned it personally, I don’t recall thinking about this as an issue, but I see what you mean. I didn’t see much, if anything, that was explicitly about social justice, and it’s superficial if it is there.

    Don’t really miss working at MoPOP; aside from the solid ambient soundtrack, there’s little appeal in having to perform customer service for tourists all day.

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