3 out of 5
Directed by: Various
covers season 1
It is glossy as all get-out and sanitized to the most clean-smelling state possible, but that doesn’t prevent Disney’s “Marvel 616” documentary – covering, across 8 episodes in its first season, various aspects of Marvel comics and its fandom – from being both entertaining as well as informative, especially if you’re willing to take its shiny-happy info with some salt grains, and read between the lines.
“Earth 616,” in the Marvel multiverse lingo, is “reality:” the real world. Marvel 616 is focused on that real world: the international impact its had with Japanese Spider-Man; its more recent attempts at representation in the content and diversity amongst creators; cosplay; toys; and some more generalized discussions on the writing and artistic process. The opening episode – the Japanese Spider-Man one – is probably the best: it has a singular topic, and it’s something that’s far enough removed from the modern day mainstream to assess it with a more critical eye. It feels like we’re getting fairly real takes from the various people who were involved, and the tone balances the ingrained kitsch of the Japanese Spider-Man with appreciation for the efforts it took to create, and its legacy. The closing episode is equally engaging, but for a different reason: following a high school which has taken to putting on Marvel plays, it comes across as very personal, and is a good way to close things out; even if it doesn’t offer up and “new” Marvel trivia, it’s an interesting and emotional way to see how the brand can actually extend itself and its effects in unique directions. Episodes that require a bit more of a sober touch – talking about gender, diversity – are definitely informative, if limited to the viewpoints of a few selected creators, and also mostly skipping through the darker decades during which a more varied workplace and content weren’t the norm. The episodes on costume and toy culture are when the blinders become more apparent due to these limited viewpoints: both episodes, again, have a lot of cool info and tales, but latching us to 2 or 3 main points of view inherently prevents the scope from going wider. I absolutely get using some set narrators to guide things, but I think opening these up to be more general in their documenting would have offered more interesting opportunities. Towards the bottom of this scale of ‘good and glossy’ to just kinda glossy, we have the writers’ episode, during which we’re going to completely skedaddle around the ownership controversy that is inextricably tied to the “Marvel Method” of writing, and tell things from the point of view of Dan Slott, which is fine, except that it comes across as something of a comedy sketch of the process. Then there’s Paul Scheer’s actual comedy sketch in which he pitches for a new Marvel show featuring some unearthed characters, and it’s as forced and unfunny as a comedy sketch that’s been run through the Disney / Marvel cleaning process is going to be. That said, even in both of these cases there’s stuff to glean: seeing how Dan and his co-writer and artist interact sheds insight on how those interactions can differ from creator to creator, and Scheer’s episode does, I think, show a minor selection of the hoops something has to go through to get from pitch to screen, even if it’s all presented here with a smirk.
Given that this is a documentary on a company appearing on a streaming channel that owns that company – and a channel that’s very much intended to be a kid-friendly one – I can’t say Marvel 616 wasn’t pretty much exactly what I expected: easy-going, none-too-deep viewing. It’s not meant to challenge our probably fandom of Marvel. However, I was pleased to find that despite it being pretty surface level in presentation – and it is slickly directed and shot, for sure – there is an appreciable amount of info offered throughout.