The Mar­vel ret­ro­spec­tive at the Queens­land Gallery of Mod­ern Art ex­plores the artistry be­hind the film and comic fran­chise, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

Look at the fil­i­gree, says Amanda Slack­Smith, 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 Spi­der­Man 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.

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.”

Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy; Cap­tain Amer­ica’s shield, in­set

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