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Universal appeal - 13th - 14th May 2017

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A frame from Marvel’s The Avengers (2012). Picture: Adi Granov

The Marvel retrospective at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art explores the artistry behind the film and comic franchise.



Look at the filigree, says Amanda Slack-Smith, pointing to a set of rings. No one really sees this, but it’s beautifully worked. It’s the same with a book she points to, an ancient leatherbound volume. These are movie props — the rings worn by the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, the Book of Yggdrasil from Thor: The Dark World — not created to be seen in close-up, if at all, and not necessarily built to endure. Yet they are made with painstaking attention to detail, and members of the conservation team at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art are handling them with scrupulous care, as if they were museum items.

They are part of a forthcoming display at GOMA, Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe, an exhibition about small detail and ­soaring ambition, focusing on a cultural phenomenon with a history that stretches back decades. It’s an enterprise that began with comic books and has become a storytelling juggernaut in every conceivable format.

Slack-Smith, the show’s curator, focuses on the films, drawing on a range of elements to illuminate and investigate the work of Marvel Studios. This is the largest art museum-based exhibition Marvel has supported, and the first of its kind in Australia.

There are 500 objects in the show, items large and small, familiar and unexpected. Thor’s imposing throne is so big the gallery front window had to be removed to get it inside; on a much smaller scale, there’s the original art for the first page of Spider-Man’s comic book debut, a prized exhibit coaxed from the Library of Congress in Washington.

These items — which include props, costumes, storyboards and examples of original concept art — are selected, arranged and contextualised, often with moving-image elements. One of the aims of the show, says Slack-Smith, is to give an active, engaging sense of process from pre to post-production, focusing not only on visuals but also on sound and music.

“It’s nice when there’s something that’s such a tight, polished mythology to be able to break it apart a little and look at the people behind the scenes, and the processes.” One of her favourites is a playful, interactive Ant-Man chase sequence that takes place on a toy train set — it allows the visitor to click between three stages of the scene’s creation.

Original content devised for the exhibition ranges from the handmade to the hi-tech. Local artist Wayne Nichols has produced a Spider-Man mural painted on the walls of the gallery, and GOMA has worked with Queensland University of Technology to produce 11 bespoke interactive features that allow visitors to dive deep into Marvel’s filmmaking process. A range of talks and activities will complement the show and, directly opposite the gallery, the GOMA cinematheque will screen Marvel Studios movies throughout the exhibition season.

Slack-Smith has devised a three-part conceptual and design framework that highlights key elements of the Marvel mythology and explores what underpins their creation. She and Michael O’Sullivan, head of exhibition design and installation, came up with inventive ways to present the narrative.

The entry point to the show — presided over by Nichols’s Spider-Man mural — presents the first comic book manifestations of key characters, alongside contemporary comics that have influenced the narratives of the films. This is where the original Spider-Man page will be on display: the August 1962 story by writer-editor Stan Lee and writer-artist Steve Ditko that saw high-school bookworm Peter Parker transformed by the bite of a radioactive arachnid. “It’s a cultural treasure, a really important artefact. We’re really excited to be able to bring that, and it’s beautiful,” says Slack-Smith.

Conservator Elizabeth Thompson with costumes from Thor and Doctor Strange. Picture: Mark Cranitch

The next stage is an introduction to The Avengers, the 2012 movie that assembled a group of superheroes from various backgrounds. They include a Norse god (Thor), a World War II veteran with enhanced powers (Captain America), a scientist with anger-management issues and shapeshifting problems (the Hulk) and a billionaire playboy inventor (Iron Man). All in the same story, on the same side — but with prickly, bickering interactions in the midst of moments of crisis.

Queensland Art Gallery/GOMA director Chris Saines is well aware that some will look askance at the presence of a blockbuster behemoth in a gallery of modern art. Yet as far as he is concerned, such a show is well-suited to this space.

The idea for it was floated, Saines says, by Screen Queensland chief executive Tracey Vieira, and it was something she contemplated in the initial discussions around the film Thor: Rag­narok before the Marvel project came to Queensland to shoot at Village Roadshow Studio on the Gold Coast. “She spoke with me in late November 2015 and asked, is this something we would be interested in.”

The answer was yes. A Marvel show, according to Saines, “is a unique kind of project for a curator and for an institution of this kind. This is an exhibition that sits within the GOMA, an institution purpose-designed to deliver filmic experience and visual art experience.”

Of course, he says, they need to ensure such a show can be presented in an appropriate gallery context. “When all of a sudden you’re working with a global corporation that’s got multi-billion investment in the brand and the suite of characters and so on, that are continuously evolving around that brand, you want to be sure that you’re not just there as their brand ambassador.

“So this is a work of curation, it’s not a work of window-dressing or acting as a showcase for a particular film franchise … What we’re trying to do here is take as serious an approach to the curation of this exhibition as they take to the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We’re both serious, and we both want to protect our integrity, but we also don’t want the other to control those messages.”

Marvel has an intriguing history. The company began as a producer of comic books in 1939 under the name of Timely Publications and has grown into an entertainment business that includes film, TV, digital comics, comic books and web content. Along the way, it has become a much-mythologised entity, with a cast of heroic creative and business figures.

GOMA’s show focuses on the films produced by Marvel Studios from 2008 onwards, when the company brought its world and characters to the screen on its own terms. The show is not a retrospective of a completed cycle, Slack-Smith says, but an exhibition about a tightly controlled, carefully conceived work-in-progress. Marvel Studios has a three-part release schedule extending to the end of the decade. Its most recent film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, released last month, is to be followed by Spider-Man: Homecoming, Marvel Studios’ first feature about its legendary figure. Thor: Ragnarok (which is represented in the exhibition) will be released in October.

A shared world of wildly disparate super­heroes — which has become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU — is one of the company’s most distinctive features. For Slack-Smith, creating a sense of this expansive, interconnected world is an important part of the way the show is set up.

The authors of The Marvel Studios Phenomenon: Inside a Transmedia Universe, Martin Flanagan, Andrew Livingstone and Mike McKenny, argue this is a significant achievement: they suggest “the transference of this ‘fully realised universe’ concept, from the pages of comics to the big screen in the form of the MCU, must be regarded as a key moment of recent film history”.

Marvel has had its share of breakthroughs and breakdowns over the years. It made its presence felt in the comic-book scene in the 1960s by focusing on protagonists who appealed to an adolescent and adult audience rather than to children. Its characters tended to be flawed, angst-ridden figures, written in such a way that their weaknesses and strengths were intertwined. Their torment was often a result of personal trauma. Their powers or gifts could have an ambiguous charge — burdens to be endured or tested, rather than celebrated.

Its characters existed in recognisable, realistic worlds, rather than being set against generic or imagined backdrops. Marvel found ways to bring troubled individuals together into teams making the most of all the possibilities and difficulties that this might involve: the notion of the shared universe.

When it came to feature films, Marvel initially licensed other companies to make them: the X-Men series from Fox and the first Spider-Man from Sony were among the most successful examples. But there were failures too, which led Marvel to take control of the franchise.

A new strategy was devised, led by Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. Rather than following a linear progression of sequels and prequels, the plan was to explore and exploit the shared universe. This began with Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau, featuring what was then one of the lesser-known characters: Tony Stark aka Iron Man, entrepreneur, engineer and billionaire playboy, played with knowing, sardonic aplomb by Robert Downey Jr.

Iron Man was a huge hit, and it set the pattern for much of what was to follow for Marvel Studios. Part of this involved smart casting, and finding directors with flair and affinity with the material who didn’t necessarily have a blockbuster track record.

Since then the company has pursued a shrewdly enacted plan, a combination of innovation and consolidation, in which films stand alone yet build connections with others, in which new characters are introduced, often in post-credit sequences, setting up the next film in the franchise.

There has been variety, but there’s also been consistency, some of it restrictive. On screen so far, female characters have not been major players, and there hasn’t been evidence of the diversity the comics have begun to embrace.

Slack-Smith is well aware the GOMA exhibition is dominated by male figures, though she has tried to bring female characters forward as much as possible, without distorting the realities of Marvel’s cinematic history to date.

She made a point of including in the exhibition catalogue — available in three formats, including a boxed limited-edition version — an essay on writing for Marvel comics by African-American feminist, author and activist Roxane Gay, who was the lead writer for Black Panther: World of Wakanda series.

The catalogue also has an introduction from New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, director of Thor: Ragnarok, a film that seems to have a few points of difference, including the presence of Tessa Thompson (Dear White People, Creed) as the warrior Valkyrie, making her way into the MCU. And Cate Blanchett appears as Hela, a female supervillain. There are high hopes for Hela, given that Marvel’s villains are generally regarded as disappointing thus far.

From next year, greater changes are in store. Marvel is releasing Black Panther, co-written and directed by African-American filmmaker Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), starring Chadwick Boseman as the superhero title character. On the slate for 2019 is a female central character, Captain Marvel, in a film of the same name: she is being played by Brie Larson (Room), and the film is to be directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, best known for Half Nelson (2006).

Working on the exhibition and researching the MCU, Slack-Smith says one of the things she has been struck by is the extent of the forward planning and subtle foreshadowing.

“I think it comes from the fact these films are made by fans, people who have genuine, pulsating love of the medium and love of the stories.
“I have come to realise that yes, they are a corporation and there is a top tier of business that needs to happen, but underneath that I don’t think they’ve lost that pleasure in what they do.”

Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe is at the Gallery of Modern Art from May 27 to September 3.
Philippa Hawker went to Queensland as a guest of QAGOMA.

(The Australian)