The Marvel Universe Gets the Fine Arts Treatment at Australia's GOMA

With over 500 artworks, costumes and props, as well as never-before-seen items from the upcoming 'Thor: Ragnarok,' the first-of-its-kind museum show accompanies the Australian Cinematheque's salute to Marvel, screening 16 movies.
Mark Brooks/Marvel Entertainment

After successfully laying claim to the world of popular cinema, it only seems natural the Marvel Universe would venture forth in pursuit of new realms, like the art world. Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe opens May 27 through Sept. 3, at Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), in Brisbane, Australia. A massive show featuring over 500 artworks — Iron Man’s armor, Captain America’s shield, and of course, Thor’s hammer, it also includes 60 costumes, 150 props, drawings, and sets spanning the vast web of Marvel movies, as well as a first look at items from the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, shot entirely on Australia’s Gold Coast.

Curator Amanda Slack-Smith has organized the show in three sections — “The Cinematic Assembled,” focusing on character and overarching narratives, “Decoding the Universe,” breaking down the network of personas woven through the 17 Marvel movies, and “Alternate Dimensions,” a glimpse at the twisted worlds of Ant Man, Dr. Strange and The Guardians of the Galaxy. The last gallery features the Asgardian throne room from the new Thor movie.

Missing are items from the highly anticipated Black Panther, starring Chadwick Boseman in the first Marvel movie based on an African hero. That film only recently wrapped production and no props or costumes could be spared in the event of reshoots. Currently in production is Avengers: Infinity War, which sucked up a whole other galaxy of prized items, but certainly the Brisbane show has more than enough to see. 

Predictions about the end of superhero movies have come and gone, and yet audience appetite for the comic book legends seems as strong as ever. It is a unique phenomenon in the history of modern cinema that Slack-Smith ties to 9/11. “There was a push for people to actually want heroic films. As an audience, you actually get some catharsis from that, cause somebody is stepping up and cutting to the chase and getting something done.”

Except usually that somebody is a straight, white man from a super race trampling over the right of due process. On the other hand, the latter-day Marvel universe is a just one, forcing crusaders to confront the consequences of their actions. “What Marvel did is interesting, in these often conflicted characters is a sense of responsibility for everything that happens,” says Slack-Smith. “I think we’re really starting to look at the causal effects now.”

The largest gallery of modern and contemporary art in Australia, GOMA has hosted blockbuster shows in the past centered on people like Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman and Pablo Picasso. In recent years, museum shows like the ones on filmmakers Tim Burton and Guillermo Del Toro proved to be crowd pleasers, but purists wonder whether they belong in art institutions, and if pop culture should be conflated with fine art.    

“So this is popular cinema, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting or any less worthy because more people see it. I don’t think rarity is a gauge for something’s value,” Slack-Smith says. The other argument is that the work of art in cases like these is the movie itself, something that doesn’t fit in a gallery. But GOMA houses the Australian Cinematheque, which is screening a regular cycle of Marvel movies. As the credits roll, audiences spill out into the exhibit space. “You can talk about film in a different way than if you were just an art house cinema. You talk about it as an art medium, as you would with painting or sculpture.”

A skeptic might say talking about it won’t make it so, or will it? With their signature annual Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (featuring 83 artists from 36 countries last year), GOMA has actively tried to shift the conversation away from long-held views and practices of Western European art centers. Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe represents another step in that direction.

“Europe is not the center of art culture, which is kind of what the twentieth century said it was,” she says while acknowledging the importance of the old guard but emphasizing new directions, which brings her back to superheroes. “It’s a different kind of audience. It’s about serving all audiences, and not being selective.”

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