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Marvel Universe exhibit at Franklin Institute opens this weekend, and legions are expected to attend

Movie props from Avengers, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Black Panther, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and more are part of a major exhibit that broke attendance records in Seattle. Philadelphia is its only East Coast engagement.

'Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes' opens at the Franklin Institute April 13 and runs through Sep. 2, 2019.
'Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes' opens at the Franklin Institute April 13 and runs through Sep. 2, 2019.Read moreChristine Mitchell

When tickets for the new Marvel Studios film Avengers: Endgame went on sale last Tuesday, demand “crashed movie sales systems across the country,” said Larry Dubinski, president and CEO of the Franklin Institute.

This weekend, the science museum on the Parkway becomes the only East Coast venue to host the exhibition Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes. And the preshow buzz about the new exhibit is approaching Endgame levels.

“That type of excitement is what we’re seeing,” Dubinski said. The Franklin Institute has presold more than 40,000 tickets — its highest preopening ticket sales since the King Tut more than a decade ago.

Highlights of the expansive 15,000-square-foot Marvel exhibit, opening Saturday for a 4½-month engagement, include:

  1. Chadwick Boseman’s intricate Black Panther costume bearing etchings of the Wakandan alphabet.

  2. A trippy, prismatic, disorienting Dr. Strange room that feels as if the space is folding in on itself.

  3. A photo op with a blue-underpants-clad The Thing, who appears to be dozing off on his New York apartment couch.

The exhibit begins at a mock comic book stand before passing chronologically through 80 years of Marvel Comics. Best-known character sculptures are posed throughout the dimly lit, mazelike, Hans Zimmer-scored display.

The Hulk, Groot, Spider-Man, and more are there to touch and take photos with, in what Dubinski referred to as “Instagram moments.”

Nearby are glassed-in costumes and accessories worn and used by the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Tobey Maguire, Chris Evans, Lupita Nyong’o, Robert Downey Jr. and — a new addition — Brie Larson, along with original Marvel comics. No touching those.

Curator Benjamin Saunders is partial to a small, easy-to-overlook “media screen moments” area that challenges users to draw comics, and to piece together a scrambled comic-book narrative.

Biggest. Opening weekend. Ever.

Marvel debuted last year at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP). The nearly yearlong show brought in 367,000 people there, according Seth Leary, the project manager for the U.S. branch of Germany-based SC Exhibitions, the company that literally puts the show together. (In Seattle, Leary’s team had six weeks to assemble it. In Philly, it had three.)

“It was,” said curator Saunders, the museum’s “biggest opening weekend ever.”

Saunders is a University of Oregon English literature professor who did his dissertation on 17th-century English poet John Donne and once considered Shakespeare his “bread-and-butter course.”

He created and oversees one of the country’s first undergraduate minors in comics studies. In 2016, before organizing the MoPOP exhibit, Saunders had created an attendance-record-setting exhibition of vintage comics for the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.

Working with the multifarious franchise that is Marvel required some negotiation. “They wanted to make sure I’m not going to say or do anything that would damage Marvel Comics,” he said, adding, “as if there were anything I could say or do that would damage Captain America.”

Original comic book art

“A lot of people who walk through the doors of this show will be really excited to see Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange outfit or Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel uniform," he said. "But for me, the stuff that matters most is not the film props, as much as I love them. I’m much more enamored of the original art.” The exhibition includes approximately 70 privately owned ink-and-paint works by early Marvel artists.

“When people think of comic art, 99 percent of the time, people’s experiences are with the reproductions you hold in your hand. They’ve never seen the originals from which they were produced,” said Saunders.

“I find the originals revelatory. The printing technology and the techniques from the 1930s to at least the 1980s were very, very cheap. So, a huge amount of visual detail just didn’t make it from the hand-drawn art boards into the books,” he said, “The first time I saw a Steve Ditko Spider-Man page, I teared up.”

» WATCH THIS: Walk through the Marvel exhibit with Saunders and hear some surprising comic history

The exhibition’s rarest piece of original art comes from Marvel Comics #1 — the book’s last page — of Namor the Sub-Mariner by Bill Everett, made when the artist was 18 years old. The 1939 work hangs alongside the original comic in which it appeared. Original-art interior pages can go for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. Original-art covers can fetch upwards of one million.

Signage made for the Philadelphia exhibition will explain that these works aren’t prints, they’re precious, one-of-a-kind works of art.

“We forget there was a moment where there was one person looking at a table on a piece of Bristol board with a pen and brush. For me, that’s the holy grail," Saunders said.

"The copy of Marvel Comics #1? That’s cool, but the only surviving page from that comic? That’s the thing that The Collector from Guardians of the Galaxy would want to have.”


Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes

April 13 through Sept. 2 at the Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th St., daytime admission (includes general admission): $35 adult, $31 ages 3-11; evening admission (the museum is open until 8 p.m. April 13-28): $20 adult, $15 ages 3-11, 215-448-1200,