Marvel’s 616 is one of the most anticipated new shows on Disney+ as it’s a direct link to the comics industry. The new documentary series features 8 episodes running 45 to 70 minutes long focusing on different subjects and eras of Marvel Comics history. Set to debut on Disney+ on November 20th, the series is smartly crafted with good production values and even better research. This is the first full-length documentary series from Marvel Studios following the short-form Storyboards documentary series originally intended for Disney+ and it’s an incredible achievement.
The first episode is centered on the Japanese Spider-Man television show and is directed by David Gelb. Originally released in Japan in 1978, the show never made its official debut in America until 2009 and in many ways has been infamous for its wildly different take on Spider-Man. The episode does a great job capturing how the production worked starting with interviews with American producer Gene Pelc, who was tasked with managing the production in Japan. Interviews with the director, the actor who played Peter Parker, and the main stuntman who played Spider-Man all add interesting anecdotes and interesting behind-the-scenes perspective on the production. It also thoroughly uses old photographs and video footage from the 70s including clips with Stan Lee.
Possibly the most fascinating thing in the episode is learning how the show inspired Sentai and, in Pelc’s opinion, the eventual birth of Power Rangers. You can see it in the many fight scenes that take place in rock quarries, but most importantly we learn in the documentary the idea of a giant robot was introduced in the series. Toy designer and mechanical engineer Katsushi Murakami discusses how he designed the ship–appropriately dubbed Marveller–and used an Egyptian style simply because it looked cool. Crafting toys for the show was important after all. Somewhat surprisingly, the design was approved without question in part because the Japanese studio was given leeway to do what they wanted with the series. At the time, Stan Lee and Marvel never thought the show would appear in America anyway so they had free reign a concept that is truly impossible to imagine in a global capitalist world.
The second episode, titled “Higher Further Faster” and directed by Gillian Jacobs, focuses on prominent women who have written and drawn comics throughout the years. This episode digs into important characters and moments in Marvel history and the women who were the backbone in creating these stories. It’s a great look at how representation on and off the page is hugely important not only in impacting readers but helping craft stories that represent the real world.
Women have been at Marvel for the longest time and this episode goes a long way in showing that. Most recently trailblazers like Kelly Sue DeConnick and G. Willow Wilson have helped develop characters like Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel. The main focus of the episode is Marvel editor Sana Amanat who has had her hand in crafting iconic female characters as well as faced an uphill battle because of her gender and her cultural background.
Next up is “Amazing Artists” directed by Clay Jeter. This episode delves into the incredibly talented artist that work at Marvel. Featuring current Marvel Editor in Chief C.B. Cebulski, he opens the episode remarking on how there are over 3,500 artists working at Marvel across the globe. This episode features artist Javier Garrón and Natasha Bustos quite a bit as well as cultural experts like professor John Jennings of media and cultural studies at UC Riverside. The episode follows how Marvel moved from in-house only artists–mostly white men–to a global stable of work-from-home artists of all cultures, men and women.
For the most part, this episode is more of a biography of Bustos and Garrón as it delves into their lives and their personal journies that lead them to Marvel Comics. Comics fans should note writer Mahmud Asrar also pops in a few times to remark on the amazing artists. Overall this episode is shot beautifully and has a high-end feel.
The fourth episode is directed by Paul Scheer titled “Lost and Found” and it’s certainly one of the strangest episodes of the bunch. It’s a journey, to say the least, as Scheer brings in animators, comic creators, and even Disney executives into the narrative. Sheer serves as a guide and narrator in the episode to uncover “forgotten” characters and attempts to pitch Disney+ on a show devoted to these lost gems. In a way, this episode is like a skit, breaking the fourth wall at times, and Scheer acting like an excited fan who wants to get his foot in the door at Marvel. This episode brings a different documentary feel to the show cementing the fact that the series is willing to try different things.
Comics creators Gerry Duggan, Donny Cates, and Reggie Hudlin all make appearances in the episode so hardcore fans will want to check it out for their appearances. The main conceit of the episode is how often weird characters or ones that don’t originally resonate with fans but can be reformed into truly great creations if given the chance. “Wolverine when he first showed up looked like a goof troop. He looks like a goober,” Cates says at one point while the show points out even X-Men failed as Hudlin points out it didn’t even reach 100 issues. It’s a colorful start to the episode to see these iconic creators talk about silly creations. This leads to Scheer attempting to turn around one of these wacky creations for a Disney+ television show. Much of the episode is devoted to Scheer delving into this one property and eventually pulling off a “successful” television show for it.
Next up is “Suit Up!” directed by Andrew Rossi focusing on four cosplayers and their journey to New York Comic Con. It’s an interesting journey as they detail their craft and dedication to the art form. It gets into the mindset of a cosplayer from the creation process to what it’s like to be on a convention floor taking pictures with fans. This episode is similar in some ways to the final episode, “Marvel Spotlight” since it focuses on real people and doesn’t touch upon the comics industry directly. “Marvel Spotlight” is directed by Alison Brie and focuses on a high school theater program that puts on a stage play from Marvel’s Spotlight collection. It gets at the struggles high school kids have and how theater–and in this case Marvel’s program–can help kids open up and share in the arts.
“Unboxed” directed by Sarah Ramos, is a great look at the toy industry from Toy Biz to Hasbro and the development of toys over the decades. Interviews with creators at Hasbro, professional action figure photographers, and artists who helped design the toys over the years chime in with their thoughts on the industry. There’s a good bit of detail on how toys are made at Hasbro today as well as interesting anecdotal information from Toy Biz designer Ann Jasperson.
Comics fans will want to check out “The Marvel Method” since it digs into the traditional writing style at Marvel. Not only does it detail what this style of writing means but how it was developed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The episode features writer Dan Slott quite a bit, who walks viewers through the process, but also details how he uses it. In fact, he points out most writers don’t use the Marvel Method anymore, but he still does. Other creators like Larry Hama and Tom Brevoort help give context and anecdotal info around the writing style at Marvel, too. Fans of Iron Man 2020 should get a kick out of key scenes that show how Slott and Pete Woods worked on the project as well as see Wood’s work penciling, coloring, and inking. You also have to get a kick out of Slott who is infectiously excited about the entire process.
Marvel’s 616 is revolutionary documentary filmmaking for the comic book industry and its fans. It not only sheds light on often forgotten aspects of the industry but helps show the world the comics medium is to be respected and held up as an important pillar in our society. From silly to serious, Marvel’s 616 is one of the best documentary experiences you can have in 2020 and beyond. Considering the quality of this show it very likely could continue on for decades to come.
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