A small, excited crowd gathered six feet apart in the entry hall of the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) last Thursday, March 4. There were several small Marvel superheroes in attendance, including Iron Man, Captain America, Black Panther, Spider-Girl, and Spider-Man, as well as a rogue Batman from DC Comics.
The superheroes were there — chaperoned by their parents — for the long-awaited opening of the “Universe of Super Heroes” exhibit, a survey of Marvel history over the last 81 years that includes rare original artwork, costumes and interactive activities.
Small kiosks in the entrance hall and elsewhere in the museum offer an opportunity for a personal photo with a digital superhero background. The rotunda is lined with four huge banners featuring superheroes from the exhibit, along with a life-size Thor suspended from the ceiling and a larger-than-life-size Hulk statue for photo opportunities. The Marvel exhibit spans two galleries and includes trivia, photographs and clips from the films and television shows.
The story of the exhibit begins with Marvel Comics #1 in 1939. The showcase includes World War II–era propaganda and an iconic March 1941 cover showing Captain America punching Hitler in the face. Quotes from Stan Lee line the walls, and a bank of monitors play scenes of his cameos from Marvel films. There is a panel dedicated to Flo Steinberg, Stan Lee’s assistant and “a legend in her own right.” Enlarged historical photographs on the walls of the first gallery feature several children reading comic books.
The exhibit highlighted Marvel’s inclusivity and diversity, citing the 1964 creation of the legally blind Daredevil as “Marvel’s first leading character with a disability.” The Black Panther’s stories from the seventies are called “some of Marvel’s boldest anti-racist storylines.” Other, perhaps less-well-known, characters on display include Dani Moonstar, Miles Morales (Spider-Man), Misty Knight, Squirrel Girl, America Chavez, and Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel).
The Ant-Man exhibit box is particularly fun, with tiny characters racing around on a desktop and digital pop-ups explaining the history of Marvel. There were other interactive digital displays that looked interesting, but I skipped a few because I did not want to crowd anyone during a global pandemic. There is a very popular interactive Iron Man flight suit test, which involves leaning forward to “fly” onscreen and shooting blasters at targets by moving your hands. There are several photo opportunities in the exhibit, including an area with a statue of The Thing on a couch, a crouching Black Panther, and an upside-down Spider-Man.
Not to start a Fredric Wertham–style War on Comics, but visitors should know that there are potentially disturbing comic book storylines in the show, including Iron Man’s struggle with alcoholism, domestic abuse by Hank Pym, and the scene of Gwen Stacy’s death in Spider-Man. Although the exhibit is billed as “for all ages,” some viewers, particularly those with young children, might avoid an alcove to the left just inside the second exhibit gallery devoted to the bloody murder of Elektra in “Daredevil.”
The full exhibit took approximately 45 minutes to traverse, so grab your best vaccinated friends and buy your timed-entry tickets online. (They’re selling out quickly, since MSI currently operates at 25% of its usual capacity.) Styluses are provided to avoid personal contact with interactive touch-screen exhibits. Face masks are required; costumes are encouraged.
The Marvel exhibit is open to the general public through Oct. 24. The museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Check the MSI website for special spring break and holiday hours (msichicago.org). Due to its popularity, MSI is offering special Marvel exhibition-only hours in the evenings on Thursdays through Sundays.
Timed-entry tickets for the museum cost $21.95 for adults and $12.95 for children (ages 3-11). Separate timed-entry tickets for the Marvel exhibit are $18 for adults and $14 for children (ages 3-11). Evening tickets are $35 for adults and $20 for children. Membership prices vary.