Earth's Mightiest Exhibition: Why Wellington is about to become Mecca for Marvel fans

Ben Saunders and Patrick Reed have the greatest job in the world.
Ben Saunders and Patrick Reed have the greatest job in the world. Photo credit: Supplied

If you have ever spent time trying to go back through a few years of your own personal history and despaired, spare a thought for Marvel curators Ben Saunders and Patrick Reed.

They have 85 years of history - and a potentially unlimited future - to go through to pull together a brand new exhibition which will have its world premiere here in Aotearoa.

Marvel: Earth's Mightiest Exhibition will debut in Wellington in December 2023 and is expected to attract more than 175,000 visitors during its four month run at Tākina the Wellington Convention and Exhibition Centre.

When Newshub caught up with Saunders and Reed via Zoom, both had chosen impressively mighty backdrops for their virtual meeting. Saunders, a Professor of Comic Studies at Oregon, beamed in from a room covered head to toe in geek memorabilia; while Reed had framed black and white cartoon artwork behind him and laid out comics scattered on a table.

Reed was keen to point out the comic books have always been his first Marvel medium of choice.

"This is how many people in New Zealand discovered Marvel Comics in, you know, in these black and white booklets in the '70s and '80s," he said. 

But Saunders was at pains to point out the upcoming exhibition is not just for the long-term fans, but is aimed at everyone.

"Think in terms of swimmers and divers," he told Newshub.

"There are people who are swimmers and divers - there are people who are going to come to the show and they will have less than 30 minutes squeezing it in between other things. So they'll be being pulled through by family members. We want to make sure that they can have an experience which they can enjoy. 

"But we also want to create pieces of the show that work for the kind of hardcore fan [the divers] who wants to spend four or five hours there, who wants to come back more than once, wants to read every single label and wants to send us an email telling us if we've got anything wrong. Those are also a very important component of the audience that we need to think about. So far, we seem to have been able to do it."

Earth's Mightiest Exhibition will premiere in 2023.
Earth's Mightiest Exhibition will premiere in 2023. Photo credit: Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes

The pair have curated previous Marvel exhibitions, including a recent one that concentrated mainly on Spider-Man. But the latest, which will condense eight decades of the one company, presented unique challenges.

"There is, of course, a problem in trying to boil down 85 years of a company that is a comic book company, an animation company, a film studio, and also a company that has an entire universe of constantly evolving and changing stories," Reed explained. 

"Trying to boil that down into a narrative - we often say that the difficult part is not figuring out what to include, the difficult part is figuring what to leave out because there is so much richness and depth to this. 

"We are very lucky to be working with our partners at Marvel Entertainment as co-producers of the show. Our colleagues there, Neil and Brian, are invaluable in helping us sort of hone the narrative and figure out how to tell this story. And they've also been incredibly generous in allowing us to come up with ways to tell the story that have not been done before, where it is not a strictly chronological narrative."

While Saunders baulks at the idea Marvel lets them in on all their secrets and spoilers for future films and comics ("They don't tell us anything," he pleads, sadly), both acknowledge the need to be flexible with their curation plans.

Original comic art from the Marvel world.
Original comic art from the Marvel world. Photo credit: Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes

"The Marvel Universe is constantly changing and shifting and evolving. Marvel releases dozens of comic issues every month, there are Disney Plus TV shows, there's new animated projects, there's animated projects like Spidey and His Amazing Friends that target a preschool audience and reach a whole different demographic. There's films coming out, there's video games. It ends up creating something that is a living, evolving entity, offers its own set of challenges, but it's also a really rewarding experience."

But they have some calculated luck at guessing what will be big. Saunders said in a prior exhibition he had deliberately marked out a space for Black Panther before the Chadwick Boseman-led film was released to critical and commercial success.

As well as props, there are interactive parts of the exhibition, original comic book panels and rare artefacts to peruse - both Reed and Saunders are keen to explain Marvel: Earth's Mightiest Exhibition is as  multimedia as today's audiences would expect, but finds new ways to keep them engaged.

"We build character bits throughout and each gallery is based around a character or a set of characters or a fictional space in the Marvel Universe. We use all of these amazing materials that we have on loan to us and all of these amazing techniques that we have working in a museum exhibition to find ways to fit them together and create a really unique audience experience.

The Doctor Strange room at a previous exhibition.
The Doctor Strange room at a previous exhibition. Photo credit: Sandro Vanni

"Without getting too far into the weeds on this and giving too much away of what we'll be revealing over the next six months in the lead up to the show, we can say that it begins with an immersive multimedia driven installation that gives you all of the grounding you will need to appreciate what comes after. And then we break into the character focused areas, beginning with the Fantastic Four, the group that effectively formed the beginning of the Marvel Universe, produced in 1961," Reed explained.

"We never want to lose the fact that this is a museum show and we don't want it to turn into a theme park."

Saunders agreed, but explained to Newshub that usually when the exhibitions are announced, they are occasionally contacted by private collectors, who generously want to contribute.

"The best way to convey the point that we're trying to make, perhaps about the historic development or scope of the character or just about the extraordinary talent of the artists who worked on these characters [in the exhibition and within the Marvel world] is with a piece of original art. Often that's my favourite material, actually, the hand-drawn original pages from key moments in Marvel history. 

"These are much more difficult to source, as it turns out, than the props and costumes. Those are all in one place, and Marvel can just tell us what they have or what they don't have. Sometimes we'll ask for something and it turns out it doesn't exist. There are no big schools or museums with archives of Marvel original art. It's all in private hands."

If it sounds like a dream job for this pair, it is probably because it is. While Marvel: Earth's Mightiest Exhibition has been at a concept level for around a year, the pair have been working solidly on it for the past six months.

"No matter how much lead time you have, you always somehow seem to find yourself sweeping the floor and heading out of the back just as people are coming in front," Saunders ruefully confessed.

Both are steeped in the Marvel world and have been fans since young days. Saunders professes his favourite character is Spider-Man ("my point of connection, everything that came out of the pen of Jack Kirby") whereas Reed is a little more loose with choosing just one ("At this exact moment, I will say Ben Grimm, the Thing from the Fantastic Four. But if you ask me in five minutes, I'd say Kamala Khan, Ms Marvel. And if you ask me in another five minutes, I'll say Nick Fury.") But both say the joy of curating this particular exhibition has been tangible.

Taika Waititi's Hela costume caused a few surprises - and problems.
Taika Waititi's Hela costume caused a few surprises - and problems. Photo credit: Disney

Neither have been to New Zealand shores before, but Saunders is particularly excited to do so, given his favourite Marvel movie and Marvel prop have an Aotearoa connection - and offered him the biggest surprise of his career so far.

"One of my favourites of the movies is [the Taika Waititi-directed] Thor: Ragnarok, and we wanted the Hela costume. Initially I had assumed that the headpiece that she wears was CGI because it moves but then it turned out, no, there was a headpiece and it's massive with these extended antler things that Taika [Waititi] was manipulating in post-production. 

"So the two pieces of information there, which kind of blew my mind - one of them was Cate Blanchett wore that thing on her head while playing that role to the hilt.  

"But it was also because I wasn't sure when it arrived if that was even going to fit in the case? You know, it's just so out there. Those sorts of things are a pleasant surprise!"

Tickets for Earth's Mightiest Exhibition go on sale from Ticketmaster on Thursday, September 14.