By Jim Frye
There’s one simple guiding principle that sets Marvel apart: storytelling that reflects the world outside your window. That means that even though Marvel weaves fantastical tales that span far-off worlds, one thing rings true: Marvel characters are relatable—they’re real people, with real struggles… who just so happen to also have super powers. Captain America may be a super-soldier who can lift a jeep over his head, but in the end, he still gets nervous about asking Peggy out on a date.
The brand-new docuseries Marvel’s 616, premiering November 20 on Disney+, explores the rich legacy of pioneering characters, along with the real-life creators, artists, and passions behind them. Each documentary in the series is helmed by a unique filmmaker and showcases the storytelling, pop culture, and fandom within the Marvel Universe.
In his episode “Lost and Found,” actor and director Paul Scheer (Black Monday, The League) digs deep into Marvel’s dusty archives and discovers some of the most interesting characters you’ve probably never heard of. “When you hear the name Marvel, you probably have a couple images that pop into your head,” says Scheer. “It’s Spider-Man, it’s Iron Man, it’s Black Panther… but I got to thinking, there’s such a wealth of material in the Marvel 80-year history. I kind of think of it as the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark: In every box there is some sort of treasure, we just have to open the right boxes… and I found some great characters, some that we couldn’t even put in the documentary! Like a cow who was bitten by a vampire and became a Hellcow. Or a medieval, time-traveling knight who was also Billy Ray Cyrus. There was a villain who became Asbestos Lady. Or U.S. 1, who is a truck driver who gets into a terrible accident and gets a CB put into his head and he’s able to click his tongue and talk on a CB!”
Actress Gillian Jacobs (Community, Love) goes a different route in her episode “Higher, Further, Faster,” tracing the history and contributions of the women creators at Marvel. “Even going back before Marvel was even a company, there were women in comics,” says Jacobs. “That was incredibly exciting to me, to get to highlight these women who were in the comic book industry in the 1930s and 1940s. I’m so sad I never got to speak to Marie Severin [artist) and Flo Steinberg [editor/publisher, Stan Lee’s assistant], who were two incredibly influential women in the world of Marvel comics. But I did get to talk to Jo Duffy [editor] who worked there in the ’70s… Then to be able to talk to female creators who work there today, it was interesting to see how the female characters have evolved as well.”
Whereas Scheer and Jacobs dove into Marvel’s characters, history, and creators, Alison Brie (GLOW, Community) takes us behind the scenes at a high school-produced one-act play featuring Marvel characters who address real-world teen issues of today. “The Marvel Spotlight Program was completely new to me,” she says. “It’s a collection of one-act plays that are written for high school students to perform, about characters in the Marvel Universe who are also high school or college age. The nature about my episode is dealing with these one-act plays about specific characters, and me wanting to experience them through the eyes of these high school students and how they were relating to the characters. I certainly did research on these specific characters, such as Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan), Squirrel Girl (Doreen Green)—but it was more preliminary research, and once the train left the station it was more about being in the moment, being in tune with the students and their personal experiences. It’s much more about their emotional journey and less about learning every fact about these characters.”
Other episodes explore topics like Japanese Spider-Man, Marvel artists around the world, cosplay, collectibles, and more. And that name? Marvel’s 616 (pronounced Six-One-Six)? According to executive producer Sarah Amos, it’s a nice, deep cut for our Marvel fans. “The whole series is looking at how Marvel has affected pop culture, and how pop culture has affected Marvel,” says Amos. “Everyone is familiar with multi-verses now. Earth-616 is one of the Earths in the multi-verse. It is the classic Earth we know. Cap, Spider-Man, all the heroes that we grew up on—that core Earth, that is Earth-616.” So, in essence, Marvel’s 616 is the classic Marvel we all know—the core Marvel. The one right outside our window.
Catch all eight episodes of the series on Disney+ beginning November 20.