Art & Museums

Review: Blockbuster Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes at MSI is the Whole Package

Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes at MSI Chicago. Photo: Marielle Bokor

Back in my middle and high school days, the world was pretty different. Everyone says that, and for the most part, is right, but what I’m talking about is the rise of the nerds. DnD, Star Trek, comic books–those were things you weren’t wearing on your sleeve out and about in your daily life–at least, not without being ridiculed. Now, it’s more likely your 4-year-old nephew will ridicule you for not knowing ENOUGH about comic books, and Marvel dominates the cinematic universe at large in a way that no one but the nerds could have called. Your favorite “fringe” superheroes are the ones with their own series these days, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe series was the highest grossing film franchise in the world as of 2020, raking in $41 billion in the worldwide box office. 

So what if I told you that one of the coolest places we young nerds indulged ourselves, the Museum of Science and Industry, was providing us with one of the greatest crossovers of all time? Well, they are and they did, because Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes just rang in the reopening of MSI after the most recent round of pandemic shutdowns and it’s really something to see.

Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes at MSI Chicago. Photo: Marielle Bokor

This blockbuster exhibit, which sold out its first weekend well before MSI could even reopen (and is already sold out through April even with the addition of evening hours), was born out of a collaboration between Seattle’s MoPOP, a fantastic museum we featured in our On The Road series, and SC Exhibitions, the folks behind the travelling King Tut exhibit and the folks working on an upcoming Disney Centennial exhibit we hope will hit Chicago for a Marvel extravaganza. Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes is a two exhibit hall beast of a show, with plenty of original art, memorabilia, and artifacts from its storied comic book history and its incredibly successful cinematic arm.

And where else to start but the beginning? Guests to MSI and Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes will get a chance to walk through Marvel’s long history, beginning with Marvel Comics issue 1, a treasure behind glass and under the lights featuring The Human Torch, The Angel, Submariner and the Masked Raider. But it’s not just collector’s dreams that fill the exhibit–you’ll also get a glimpse at comic books and their role in society, from Captain America’s role in spurring on war efforts to the inevitable demonization of comic books, which happened at the height of its popularity after WWII  when comic books went on trial before a Senate Subcommittee and which brought about the 1954 Comics Code, which not only damaged comics’ reputation, but also put smaller publishers and artists out of work and in fact almost took down the whole industry, which even took on bad grammar in comics, insisting that “although slang and colloquialisms are acceptable, excessive use should be discouraged, and, whenever possible, good grammar shall be employed.” 

Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes at MSI Chicago. Photo: Marielle Bokor

Luckily, the industry survived, in no small part due to giants like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and one of my favorite parts of Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes was its look behind the scenes (and curtains). There are deep dives into Stan Lee’s career, Jack Kirby’s art and the Marvel Method, and beyond prized and rare complete comic books, there is an amazing amount of original pen and ink artwork throughout both exhibit halls. You can see sketches of the Punisher before he had his name, mockups of famous issues of X-Men and even some more recent and amazing artwork in sketches from Into the Spiderverse

Universe of Super Heroes does a lot with its expansive space at MSI, at once taking you through the history and role of comics in society and presenting as an art gallery and more traditional museum exhibit, full of interesting artifacts including comic and movie memorabilia, original art pieces and collectibles related to the entire universe of Marvel comics, from the most recognized to some of the more sci-fi and fantasy forays in the 70s. Even if you’re not someone who grew up with their noses in comic books or who got hooked on Marvel with the cinematic universe, but you appreciate art and history, you’ll get something out of Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes.

Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes at MSI Chicago. Photo: Marielle Bokor

I have few criticisms of the exhibit–it’s put together extremely well and it’s truly a celebration of everything Marvel. If there was something it was more to do with what we’ve come to expect at MSI as far as exhibits and the interaction factor. MSI’s exhibits have always been really hands on, and Covid times notwithstanding, Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes feels just a little light in that respect, making me wonder if younger kids will appreciate it as much as perhaps something like the Pixar exhibit. There are a few great photo opp setups with favorites like The Thing, Spiderman and The Black Panther, and there’s a truly awesome AR experience where you can don Iron Man’s suit, but overall I wish there was just a little more for people around my nephews’ age. Other than that and because of Covid, I felt like there was a real physical bottleneck in the exhibit right around the Iron Man AR game, and that especially with the need to social distance, it created a problem even if you didn’t want to wait in line to try it out, where it was hard to proceed to see the rest of the exhibit and some of the truly fantastic art around it. 

Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes at MSI Chicago. Photo: Marielle Bokor

Technical problems related to the pandemic aside, as I said, the Marvel exhibit is fantastic. It’s got a ton of great history of comic books in general and the entire Marvel universe we’ve come to love, including backstories of its creators and a ton of amazing art you’re not likely to be able to see anywhere else, there are amazing movie props and fun photo opps and, while I don’t often comment on the exhibit themed gift shops, the Marvel one is sure to have any parent or fan willing to part with a good chunk of what’s in their wallet. It’s something to see, and worth waiting for.

Speaking of, we initially held this article because although we attended the media preview, the opening weekend was already sold out. Since that time, we’ve found that with city Covid restrictions and the Marvel fan factor, selling out is the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes superpower. At press time, Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes has sold out all of its weekday time slots through late April and all weekends are now sold out until June. MSI has added some special “exhibition only” evening hours recently, but those too are booked through mid-April. What we’re saying? If you want to see it (and honestly, we think it’d be a shame to miss) then you need to act fast–like, Quicksilver fast. Get tickets to see Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes here.

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