Marvel 616 reduces superheroes to a human scale and details the process by which such a cultural behemoth came to be.
The streaming wars were already well underway before Covid-19 drastically reshaped the media landscape, and it’s endlessly fascinating to watch how the platforms that may very well come to entirely define the world of film and television in the next few years have made their first few tentative steps into no-man’s-land. Netflix is clearly leading the charge with the most frequent and diverse content. Apple TV+ has had some compelling original content, but not enough of it. Disney+, though, occupies a unique position.
They don’t have many originals, but what they do have, such as The Mandalorian, is legitimate subscription-selling appointment television. They pioneered the new trend of dropping tent pole blockbusters on home video with the premium release of Mulan’s live-action remake, a strategy we’ll see replicated when HBO Max releases Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas Day (the same day Disney+ will also release Soul). But the service primarily coasts on an extensive, exclusive archive of animated classics, Pixar hits, and both of pop-culture’s most beloved multimedia franchises in Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The new eight-part anthological docuseries Marvel 616 slots right in alongside a burgeoning library of unscripted insider shows that explore Disney’s creative process and make clear the cultural impact that the conglomerate currently enjoys.
With such guaranteed interest, it would have been easy for Marvel 616 to phone it in. I was pleasantly surprised to discover than it doesn’t, though, and despite an overwhelming, unavoidable tone of self-congratulatory back-slapping, it makes a point to tell genuinely interesting stories that are pitched to please both die-hard fans and those for whom the recent movies are their only exposure to Earth-616, Marvel’s mainstream comics continuity.
More to the point, those stories aren’t necessarily all about fawning over Marvel’s indescribable success. We see how the company infiltrated markets that weren’t interested in its characters and how women creators were given short shrift for much too long, and are reminded of how there are many more esoteric and eccentric creations that didn’t take off in the way, say, Spider-Man and Captain America did. The series isn’t trying to be complex or contrarian, but at the very least it isn’t trying to suggest that Marvel became a cultural behemoth without a great deal of effort, expense, and many bumps along the road.