KA-POW! 'Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes' thunders into The Henry Ford

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

It's kid heaven for the rest of the year at The Henry Ford, no matter your age, with the Midwest premiere of "Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes," a kaleidoscopic history of 80 years of Marvel comics and their multi-million-dollar movie spinoffs.

The traveling exhibition comprises 300 artifacts, including props, early sketches and the first-ever Marvel comic book. The show was created by Seattle's Museum of Pop Culture, Marvel Entertainment and the German production company SC Exhibitions. It  opens today with a run though Jan. 31, 2021.

One of the newest Marvel characters is Amulet, an Arab-American superhero from Dearborn, who gets his moment in "Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes" at The Henry Ford

Like most museums around the metro area, when you purchase your ticket online you'll have to pick a specific time -- a way for the museum to limit crowds and foster social distancing.

Organized chronologically, the first half of "Marvel" dwells on the comic books. The second dazzles with all sorts of Hollywood flim-flam -- spectacular costumes, a Doctor Strange hall of mirrors, and "life-sized" replicas of several superheroes, including a suitably fit-to-be-tied Incredible Hulk and, casually reclining on a sofa, The Thing, reading a book.

Take a selfie with the bigger-than-life Incredible Hulk, who glowers at visitors in "Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes" at The Henry Ford.

Marvel calls itself a universe, and indeed, the numbers bear that out. In its eight decades, it's generated some 8,000 characters big and small, and iconic names that have lodged in the the American imagination -- Spider-Man, Captain Marvel, Iron Man, Black Panther and Captain America.

Interestingly, the latter, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941 a few months before Pearl Harbor, was harnessed to the war effort, appearing in government ads shouting, "Wake up Americans! Drive the Axis to decay by buying war stamps every day!"

 The explanatory panel notes that interest in superheroes, with their astonishing powers and casual approach to justified violence, soared during the war. Sales spiked. But after 1945, the genre took a nose dive, as Americans turned to comics featuring Western themes, crime, teen problems or romance. Superheroes wouldn't dominate again until the 1960s.

The very first Marvel comic book from 1939, on display in "Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes."

The cynic might wonder why a form of pulp entertainment like comic books and their cinematic successors merits a show at one of the country's most-distinguished history museums. But The Henry Ford's Exhibits Manager Kate Morland makes a persuasive argument for comic books as a particularly sensitive form of cultural barometer.

"If you look at themes throughout the 'Marvel' exhibition," she said, "they really reflect the culture at that moment – like Captain America as a patriotic superhero in World War II. Other social themes in popular culture come out in Black Panther, Captain Marvel and Miss Marvel."

In this fashion, she suggests, comics can be a window into the zeitgeist of a particular age.

"If we’re looking at history from any given time period," Morland said, "examining culture – whether art, music, literature, or popular culture – tells us what conversations people were having, and what was important to them."

The exhibition will be enhanced by "an immersive soundscape" by composer Lorne Balfe. And apart from gawking at jazzy movie costumes or the earliest artists' sketches that led to characters we now love and admire, you can also take selfies next to facsimiles of Black Panther, Spider-Man and other towering heroes.

Coolest of all, perhaps, you can step into the interactive laboratory of Tony Stark -- aka Iron Man -- and watch as a video screen takes your image, and begins slapping body armor on it. Feel like flying and engaging in futuristic target practice? You got it.

Sometimes it's hard to choose: Three versions of Iron Man's fashionable armor add dash and style to fighting the bad guys.

Part of Marvel's appeal, of course, whether in movies or comics, has always been that the characters -- never mind their staggering powers -- are more complex than their DC counterparts like Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman.

The teenage Spider Man, for example, struggles with rejection, self-doubt and loneliness - in between bouts of zipping through urban canyons doing good.

Brian Cosby, head of Marvel Themed Entertainment, has put it this way: "Marvel transformed the idea of the Super Hero in the 1960s - and beyond - by ratcheting up the visual spectacle, emotional dynamism and philosophical sophistication of the action-adventure comics genre."


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'Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes'

July 16-Jan. 31

Tickets: $10 - members; $35 - non-member adults (12-61), $32.50 - seniors (62+) and $28.75 - kids (5-11). Children under 5 enter free. ($3 service fee on credit card orders)

Parking: $6

9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays