Marvel’s 616, the new Disney+ documentary anthology that takes you into the storied history of the House of Ideas, pulled off a super-heroic feat itself by reuniting Community cast members Alison Brie and Gillian Jacobs, who each directed remarkable installments of the first season. Jacobs’ episode, “Higher, Further, Faster,” looks at the history of women artists and creators at Marvel, a seemingly insurmountable task that Jacobs brings to life with humor, wit, and brevity. “Spotlight,” Brie’s episode, is tonally very different, focusing on a middle-class Florida high school that is putting on a Marvel play as part of their free-to-produce Spotlight program. It is incredibly endearing as Brie acts as a fly-on-the-wall during the ongoing production, while getting into the lives of the teenage stars.
We jumped on a Zoom with Brie and Jacobs, along with Marvel’s 616 executive producer Jason Sterman, to talk about how their episodes came to life, what their level of fandom was before (and after), and how much everybody loves Kamala Khan herself, Ms. Marvel.
What was your level of Marvel fandom before you made the documentaries, and what was it afterwards?
ALISON BRIE: I would say for me, minimal before, probably more in the cinematic universe of Marvel. And after, a much greater [appreciation], but deeper because my episode, as you may have seen, really deals very closely with two Marvel characters. So I was less learning every corner of the Marvel universe and I was more just having a deeper appreciation for the characters within Marvel, especially Kamala Khan and Doreen Green, Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel, and the impact that they have on people.
GILLIAN JACOBS: Like Sana, in my episode, I loved the X-Men animated series in the ‘90s. I remember watching and loving that and I had seen films, but I was not a knowledgeable comic person. I think I came away having read infinitely more comics than I had going into the process and really having a love for that and learning about page turns and layout and everything that goes into making a comic. And so I’d say I came away with a much greater appreciation and understanding.
Wow. That’s a heavy lift, doing an episode literally about the history of Marvel comics. What was that like?
JACOBS: I read a book about the history of Marvel as a company. I got on the phone with various women and did sort of pre-interviews and they would say, “Oh, you should speak to this person.” And just very basic Googling, learning the different eras of comic books as an industry. I didn’t know any of this going in and so I was grateful for the people I got to interview who could inform me, and then I also tried to do as much research as I could ahead of time, so I could ask them intelligent, coherent questions. But yes, it was a lot to take on, the entire history of an industry.
Well, you did a great job. Jason, why did you go out to these fabulous filmmakers and what was that process like for you?
JASON STERMAN: I mean, it was interesting. When we were putting together the dream list of who we were going to go to for filmmakers, knowing that each one of these was going to be very much a singular film and bespoke, we kind of split it up and looked at some of the traditional doc filmmakers, people who we’ve either admired or worked with in this space. But we also saw an opportunity, by the nature of it being both Marvel and both as subject matter, where people can find different connective points to it, to look for new voices, and I think people like Alison, who had directed an episode of Glow, and Gillian who has directed some documentaries in the past. It was a way of basically going, “Is this a playground that you’d like to play in?” And what we wanted to do really, is to provide that kind of support system that we built for the format, but let people really just be creative and run with it. So, it’s a great opportunity for bringing new people into the documentary format.
And did you hand them the premise of each episode or was that something that they discovered along the way?
STERMAN: It was entirely different and it was dependent on what we had done on the development side of things. One of the things that we knew from working with Dan Silver, who is now at Disney+, but was one of the people who helped conceive this idea for the show back when he was at Marvel, he had worked with Gillian back on her documentary that she’d made for ESPN. When he connected us and we started talking, it was really learning about what was important to Gillian, and one of the things that Gillian really loves to do is explore stories of women. There was a natural connective point there where we could then go, “Okay, we’re going to explore that further.” Alison and one of my partners, Brian McGinn, they were friends. And it was as simple as exploring the idea of if Alison wanted to tell a story in the space of high school theater. We had learned about the Spotlight program through Marvel and Marvel did a great job of connecting the dots for us and clearing us to be able to film it. And we identified Brandon High School and really Alison took it from there.
BRIE: Yeah, for me, the concept was already prepackaged. It was a bit like, “Here’s this program, here’s this high school that’s doing these plays. What do you think?” And it was more about getting past any initial fears or insecurities that might surround my lack of knowledge about Marvel or my lack of experience in the documentary space and really more taking it to a base level of, “Do I feel connected to what this story might be?” And I absolutely did. I mean, I was very involved in my high school theater program. I have such a soft spot for high school theater students, and I was so excited to see what Marvel would look like in that context. So it was just this great baseline and it really was like jumping into the unknown.
JACOBS: The first documentary that I did with Dan Silver was about a female computer scientist in the 1940s and ‘50s, and I’ve written articles and interviewed women from other industries, so I was curious to see what kind of story existed within the world of comics. And I found this rich history of women in comics in the early decades of the medium, that I didn’t know anything about. And so it felt to me, there was a continuity between what I’d worked on in the past and this, and then it was really fun to expand that into speaking with women who’ve worked there in the past couple of decades and in the present day.
It grew from there. I had to basically learn about the entire history of comics and then find the women who worked at Marvel specifically, that were willing to speak with us and getting together with them. Some of the most fun was reuniting women who had worked there together in the ’80s and ’90s, and maybe hadn’t all been in the same room in a while. Having Anne Nocenti, June Bregman and Louise Simonson, all hanging out in an apartment — I was just observing a reunion of the three of them, which was really special.
Both of your installments feature Ms. Marvel in a big way. Did that character speak to you? What was that process like, finding out about her and would you, with a Disney+ show on the way, come back to the world of Ms. Marvel in the future?
JACOBS: I discovered Kamala Khan through working on my episode, and that was one of those comics where it was work to read the comic, but I probably read more than I actually needed to because I was enjoying it so much. Juliet Eisner, who was my producer on this episode, and I both really fell in love with Kamala Khan in the comic. And it’s the sort of thing where I know if I was a teenager or younger, I would be reading Ms. Marvel and loving that character and be so excited about the fact that I could play her, not that I could play her, but that there’s a play for high school students and now a whole television series that she’s going to star in. I love that comic, so getting the chance to talk to [writer] G. Willow Wilson and [Marvel exec] Sana who were really the driving forces behind creating Kamala Khan, was so exciting and I can’t wait to see the series.
BRIE: I share the excitement. Kamala Khan is an incredible character. I learned about her while I was doing research about the Spotlight program and reading the Ms. Marvel play. And then I got to watch Gillian’s episode, because I think hers was the first one that was made. I got to learn more about her there. And then it was just a real treat, I guess, to see in real time, the impact that that character has on an actual high school student and the surrounding students that were also involved in that play.
Jason, are you always surprised by how many permutations this character can evolve into and how people respond to her in every single form that she takes?
STERMAN: It’s amazing. I think it was at New York Comic Con where I was, where they showed the first footage for the Avengers video game that came out and it was featuring Kamala Khan, there was this gravitation towards the character, and I think we’ve been really, really lucky enough to spend time with Sana Amanat, who created the character and G. Willow, the original people. And you can see where that DNA comes from, but it’s been really, really rewarding, I think, to watch how it’s played out, as a character in real-time.
All episodes of Marvel’s 616 are available on Disney+ on Friday.
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