‘Marvel’s 616’ shines the spotlight on the unsung real-life heroes behind the studios’ biggest (and the most obscure) superheroes. The Disney Plus documentary series, in eight vastly different episodes, takes us behind the scenes to explore what makes Marvel so great. It’s also a neat excuse to self-mythologize.
Marvel with an expansion that dates back decades and a catalogue of immortal characters, now under Disney, is one of the biggest superhero franchises out there. The mega-success of Marvel superheroes on the big screens is the outcome of an ever-evolving comic-book culture and now it’s time to bring some of it to the forefront in Marvel’s 616, Disney Plus’ new documentary series. On the get-go, the show sounds like a tall order. How does one take on the history of comics, merchandise, movies, cultural movements in general and pack them all in less than ten episodes? The short answer is, with a focus on unsung heroes who deserve as much praise as the characters they design and a side of self-mythologizing.
In eight parts, the series places the spotlight on artists, writers, producers, cosplayers to explore just why Marvel has such a massive fandom. The range of topics is diverse are so are the storytellers, directors and interview subjects in the docu-series. Marvel’s 616 has episodes directed by Alison Brie, David Gleb, Gillian Jacobs, Paul Scheer, Andrew Rossi, Clay Jeter, Brian Oakes and Sarah Ramos. Each director takes on a topic so vastly different from the other, it’s like watching a whole new show. To give you an overview, there’s an episode on Japanese Spider-Man and another on Paul Scheer trying to pitch Disney his big idea. I was floored by just how much in-depth information the show made me consume, even on topics that didn’t initially interest me. This show is a sum of it’s disjointed parts, nothing less and nothing more. Some of them are great while the others, not so much.
Starting with ‘Japanese Spider-Man’, an oddball moment in Marvel’s foray into the Japanese market, the episode opens the floodgates on some great stories. The low-budget series from 1978 was a live-action, localised version of Stan Lee’s iconic web-slinger. It revolved around Takuya, a Peter Parker equivalent who dons the suit and imparts important messages to children while fighting crime. He also has a spaceship that transforms in typical Japanese mecha fashion because of course, he did! The episode directed by Gleb does a good job tracking the cross-cultural influence of Spider-Man villains on franchises like Transformers and Power Rangers. It also sees the cast and makers of the show describing their filming process with such joy, it will make your heart happy. Actor Shinji Todo’s portrayal is endearing and in spite of the overall wackiness, I found myself getting emotional just watching him talk in his interviews.
Apart from giving you the warm fuzzies (read: get ready for some Stan Lee and Jack Kirby footage), the show really wants to tell you stories of inclusion and diversity. Gillian Jacobs’ episode ‘Higher, Further, Faster’ decodes gender politics that transpired at Marvel’s studios and the new generation of female storytellers. The episode brings onboard veteran artists, present-day studio executives and historians to chronicle the shifting gender role in and out of the studio. It had some incredibly detailed commentaries on how market moves resulted in stereotypes about women as comic creators, readers and the radical idea of adding pants to Captain Marvel’s costume. Jacobs handles the subject well, bringing out the highs and lows faced by women in the studio’s bullpen. The highlight is comic-book editor Sana Amanat who along with G. Willow Wilson is credited for their work on ‘Ms. Marvel’ the groundbreaking Muslim-American superhero. Their story is equal parts personal and empowering. This is, of course, one of the finer episodes of the series. There are others, as I realised while lapping up the parts in quick succession, that cannot help but self-mythologize. It is a Disney speciality and a problem you might not notice till you’re well into episode 4.
I love Marvel and Disney as much as the other guy but for someone who has read a little into ‘Disneyfication’, it will be hard to miss how much the studio loves gushing over itself while selling toys and dreams. This aspect, that can be pretty exhausting becomes clear in Paul Scheer’s episode ‘Lost & Found’. Scheer directs and features in the episode as a creator who wants a piece of the Disney Plus pie. This takes him on a quest to unearth long-forgotten characters from Marvel’s archives in hopes to bring them back. He lands on an ensemble of really obscure characters and some clever finding. At this point, the episode plays like a documentary inside a documentary and it’s full of staged interviews and humour that doesn’t stick. We get it, Paul, you love Disney and you love being a Disney fanboy in a Disney documentary.
Another episode that had me feeling all the mixed feelings is ‘Suit Up’, an Andrew Rossi-directed part about the art of cosplay featuring diverse artists including Jasmin (CutiePieSensei) and follows their New York Comic Con journey. I deeply appreciated the focus on talented cosplayers of colour, non-binary and a cosplayer with mental disability. I also thoroughly enjoyed how the episode takes us into the creative process along with the psychology and experience of feeling famous for a weekend. But of course, the trip to the crowded convention saw exclusively Marvel/Disney cosplays – not the droves of anime cosplayers, not all the Jokers and Harleyquinns or the 100th Overwatch character, just Disney. It almost felt like the docu-series was capitalizing on fandom feeling that’s much larger and giving all the credit to one brand. One cannot complain since this is a Disney Plus show but c’mon, can we at least be a little subtle if not self-critical?
These are just a few of the episodes and they already inspire radically different reactions. That has something to do with the fact that Marvel’s 616 refuses to tie in a unifying element, an overall structure. By the time you reach Alison Brie’s amazing ‘Marvel Spotlight’ episode, you will have gone down the Disney rabbit hole and abandoned all recollection of what show you’re watching. This should technically be a good thing as I mentioned earlier, packing in information from Marvel’s archives that are somehow definitive of the studio’s evolution and legacy is a mammoth task. Does the show manage it? Not every time. But does it give you stories you otherwise would have overlooked? Absolutely!
Marvel’s 616 is saving passionate fans the effort of researching what goes on behind the scenes. It will leave you with an understanding that goes beyond the landmarks and milestones you’ve already celebrated. And most of all, it will put a smile on your Marvel/Disney-loving face.
Marvel’s 616 is available to stream on Disney+ Hotstar Premium.
Cover image: Bhavya Poonia/Mashable India
Photo credits: Disney Plus