Synopsis: An anthology documentary series exploring the cultural, societal, and historical impacts of the Marvel Universe and its intersection with the everyday world. Individually, each film in this series tells a compelling story that brings to life its filmmaker’s vision. Collectively, these creatively diverse films weave together a tapestry detailing how Marvel has continued to influence our lives.
Review: Documentary anthologies have been very popular in recent years. After ESPN’s 30 for 30 series became a ratings hit, other networks and services have flocked to the format to entice audiences with looks at all sorts of niche elements of pop culture history. Announced earlier in the year, the new Disney+ series Marvel’s 616 looks to take ESPN’s approach and deliver a collection of documentaries that all take a look at one hyper-focused aspect of the iconic comic book brand. Just as a disclaimer, Marvel’s 616 is not about the MCU but about every facet of what Marvel means as a brand. Over eight episodes, each made by a different filmmaker, Marvel’s 616 offers a unique twist on what we know about Stan Lee’s company as well as a lot we may have never heard of.
Over eight episodes, Marvel’s 616 looks at a wide range of topics. From the very first episode, it becomes apparent that this is not going to be a dive into the origins of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, or any of the other major characters in Marvel’s library. The first episode takes an in-depth look at the creation of Japanese Spider-man, a spin on the trademark Marvel hero that was an obscure cult favorite for decades. Directed by David Gelb (JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI), the hour-long episode looks at how Stan Lee’s character was sold to Japanese audiences and how the creators, cast, and crew developed their own spin on Spider-man. The episode also dives into the cultural differences between comic books in Japan versus the United States and makes a compelling case for why this take on the comic book is just as vital as the Peter Parker version.
There are definitely some episodes in this collection that are more interesting than others. Some are very specific, like the seventh episode “The Marvel Method” from director Brian Oakes (DESIGN FOR ALL) which focuses on the creation of new series Iron Man 2020 and the use of the titular method of comic book making. There is also “Unboxed” directed by actress Sarah Ramos about the development of action figures from toys to collectibles. “Suit Up!” from Andrew Rossi centers on the world of cosplay and is very interesting but feels like it has been explored before. Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries director Clay Jeter helms the interesting “Amazing Artisans” episode that looks at Marvel Comics artists from around the world with a focus on Natascha Bustos and Javier Garron who illustrate Moon Girl and Miles Morales. All of these episodes are intriguing stories but with running times that range from just over thirty minutes to an hour plus, they some times feel too short and not nearly long enough.
But of these eight episodes, three that truly stand out come from filmmakers we are more used to seeing in front of the camera rather than behind it. The second episode, “Higher, Further, Faster” is directed by Gillian Jacobs (Community, COME PLAY) who is admittedly not a comic book fan but explores the various women who have influenced the comic book industry. Featuring interviews with Marvel VP Sana Amanat, artist Nilah Magruder, and many more influential creators and historians, Jacobs provides a great deal of insight into how much women influenced the earliest days of the comic book industry as well as the current era of Marvel Comics. Never presented in a way that bashes the male-dominated industry, this is one of the more thought-provoking episodes in the anthology simply because it sheds light on not only the struggles of women in comic books but reminded me of many characters I had forgotten or never knew existed.
And while Jacobs’ entry shows the more traditional documentary approach that Marvel’s 616 primarily uses, other episodes are equally as out of the ordinary. Comedian Paul Scheer, who was developing a Marvel series that never made it to air, uses his chapter to tell a funny exploration of lesser-known and forgotten superheroes. Surprisingly deep, Scheer brings his sense of humor on-screen where most of these episodes keep the creative talent behind the lens only. Investigating characters that time has lost, Scheer manages to remind us that for every Avengers there are dozens of heroes and teams we never hear from again. His interviews with comic fans on the streets of San Diego Comic Con as well as fellow comedians like Jack McBrayer made this the most enjoyable episode for me in the entire series.
The final episode of the season, “Spotlight”, comes from GLOW star Allison Brie and centers on a high school in Florida who put on a stage production. Brandon High School, best known for their athletics, putting on a stage drama seems like the plot of every teen movie or an episode of Glee, but the twist here is that the school draws Marvel Spotlight. Spotlight is a collection of free stage plays published by Marvel and featuring their biggest characters. Brie then focuses on the teachers and students who discover a lot about themselves as they embrace acting. It could be seen as a commercial for Spotlight but it is a very endearing story that may be the most emotionally rewarding of the debut season of 616.
Overall, this is primarily a solid offering of stories that will pique a range of interests from Marvel aficionados and non-fans alike. While I hate to say any of these episodes are skippable, there are many here that may not interest viewers beyond the famous faces that directed them. But with every episode clocking in at just about an hour, you are likely to find yourself learning something new about Marvel that you didn’t know. I am especially glad that the series stays away from the feature film side of Marvel as that could easily be a series all it’s own. Marvel’s 616 is as aspirational as it is inspirational and I hope we continue to see more episodes exploring odd and unique aspects of one of the post popular companies in the world.
Marvel’s 616 premieres November 20th on Disney+.