The legacy and history of Marvel, from its early days as a publishing juggernaut to its current status as a major motion picture behemoth, is as long and complicated as any of its comic book narratives, full of colorful characters, tragic defeat, and some very wild twists. It’s fitting, then, that Marvel’s new documentary anthology show, Marvel’s 616 (named after Earth-616 or Earth Prime, where most of the Marvel continuity takes place) goes deep into the company’s multilayered and complicated history and is as varied in tone and style as the various comic books the company publishes. Much like ESPN’s 30 for 30 (another part of the vast Disney portfolio), these documentaries are lengthy, highly detailed, and totally dissimilar from one installment to the next. It’s an exhilarating watch, with each installment offering the thrill of the unexpected and the promise of even more surprises to come.
For Marvel’s 616 (debuting on Disney+ on Friday), the producers have assembled a wide variety of storytellers, including Gillian Jacobs, Alison Brie, and Paul Scheer (who actually provide some of the more exciting installments) along with more traditional filmmakers like David Gelb, Clay Jeter, and Andrew Rossi. The mixture of talent behind the camera adds to the series’ unpredictability and versatility.
And, to be sure, the topics these episodes cover run the gamut – the first issue painstakingly details the Japanese Spider-Man series from the late 1970s. If you’ve never seen or heard of it, this is the one where Spider-Man was the product of ancient alien intervention, had a giant transforming robot whose main feature was a sphinx (for some reason), and who greeted his enemies by introducing himself as “an emissary from hell.” It’s goofy as hell but has an unexpected emotional button when it’s finally revealed who from Marvel wound up as one of the series’ biggest supporters (hint: he has a mustache). Other installments offer a broader appreciation of, say, the dynamics of cosplay or, in a particularly touching entry, the history of female creators and characters in the Marvel Comics line.
Some of the episodes occasionally feel like an attempt at revisionist history or an effort at brand rehabilitation. There’s a nifty episode called “Amazing Artisans” devoted to the artists behind the comic books, focusing on a pair of Spanish illustrators who are currently leaving their mark on Spider-Man and Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur comic books, and while the episode is wonderful and insightful, it also feels like a mea culpa for Marvel’s notorious and long-documented marginalization of artists, dating back to the days of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. Another episode details how the “Marvel Method” (a singular and historically controversial way of creating comics pioneered by Marvel forefathers) can still work today on a new Iron Man series. In comic book terms, the strained emphasis on relitigating the past (with a much rosier outlook this time around) in Marvel’s 616 feels like something of a retcon.
Elsewhere, Paul Scheer goes on a quest to discover the most esoteric Marvel characters and reinvent them for a new generation. He stumbles upon Brute Force, a kind of eco-warrior team full of cybernetically enhanced animals that were basically meant to sell toys. (Years later Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely would essentially reinvent the idea for the brilliant, decidedly un-kid-friendly Vertigo comic We3.) His episode is structured as half treasure hunt, half Christopher Guest mockumentary, and is a total blast. There’s a bit where he actually tries to cast a Brute Force TV series that is too good to give away (also, we’re not allowed to).
One of the more moving installments is Alison Brie’s “Spotlight,” which focuses on a high school in Brandon, Florida that is putting on a series of Marvel’s “Spotlight” plays — plays featuring Marvel characters that the company makes available to schools for free. The kids are amazing – full of the kind of headstrong confidence and severe angst (sometimes in the same person!) that only high school can provide. And watching them work through the plays and discover their own inner power is something that is both meaningful and very fun to watch. At one point they show a kid who is working on the scenery for one of the plays who is just laying down on the stage taking a nap. He describes himself as the “guy who makes the tree,” and his energy embodies 2020 beautifully. “Spotlight” also proves that the more specific the topic is, the more rewarding the episode turns out to be.
Ultimately the wide spectrum of stories, and the way that they can oscillate between something as silly as the Japanese Spider-Man show and something as profound as the history of women in comics, is a testament to the singular power of the series and why each installment is just as essential as the last. These documentaries shine a spotlight on weird nooks and crannies of the Marvel machine and make you appreciate the humble beginnings and odd permutations of your favorite big-screen characters. (And this is an almost exclusively Marvel Cinematic Universe-free zone.) Even if you’ve never picked up a comic book, you’ll probably love the series.
The worst thing about the show is that it’s being dumped on Disney+ all at once. Like 30 for 30, these need to be savored and anticipated, like waiting for your favorite comic book to drop a new issue on Wednesday. The episodes are dense and thoughtful and long; they are best savored from week-to-week, and it’s a shame they’re being offloaded all at once, like some unsold batch of Brute Force comics. But that’s a minor quibble. Marvel’s 616 is an accomplishment that is nothing short of heroic.
Marvel’s 616 is now streaming on Disney+.
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