‘Marvel’s 616’: Alison Brie, Gillian Jacobs talk about their new docu-series, comics and superheroes

The filmmakers behind the eight-episode anthology explain Marvel’s legacy of creating characters and storytelling to reflect the world as we know it

After trailblazing the box office with the immense success of their superhero movies like the Iron Man and The Avengers series, Marvel now adds an unique anthology series to its staple: Marvel’s 616, an eight-episode documentary that explores the company’s legacy of creating characters and storytelling to reflect the world as we know it.

Each episode, helmed by different filmmakers, showcases the intersections of storytelling, pop culture, and fandom within the Marvel universe. From showcasing the women behind the comics, to discovering how visual storytellers draw inspiration from their environment, and an intimate look at the cosplay community, 616 promises to be a treat for superhero fans across the globe.

Some of the talent directing the episodes are Hollywood actors Alison Brie (GLOW, Bojack Horseman) , Gillian Jacobs (Community, LOVE) and Paul Scheer (Black Monday, The League).

Alison’s episode, Marvel Spotlight, sees her mentor a group of students at Florida’s Brandon High School as they delve into a whirlwind of auditions and rehearsals to participate in a series of one-act plays designed by Marvel to challenge teenagers to explore the humans behind their favourite superheroes. Meanwhile, Paul is on a hunt to discover forgotten characters of the comics in Lost and Found, while Higher, Further, Faster, helmed by Gillian, spans generations and gives audiences a rare peek inside Marvel’s storied history, and to recognise the women who helped pioneer representative, inclusive storytelling.

Ahead of the show’s premiere, the three stars, along with executive producers Sarah Amos and Jason Sterman, talk to us on a Zoom call, about their experience working on Marvel’s 616, what the concept of superheroes means to them, and more..

Edited excerpts:

Do you have a favorite female Marvel character and what’s your connection with it?

Gillian Jacobs: I would have to say Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan is my favorite! I was not familiar with her before I started working on this documentary. It was really my experience of falling in love with a comic character through preparing for this show, that I think most people have when they’re much younger and start reading comics as kids.

Gillian Jacobs 

I think Disney Plus is next doing a whole scripted show with her, and many more people are going to get to meet Ms. Marvel very soon.

How did you prepare for a project of this magnitude that’s aimed at a global audience?

Gillian Jacobs: Well, Marvel Comics gave us some suggestions of people to interview. But then I read a book about the history of Marvel as a company, and learned so many things about women who worked in comics, decades before I was aware that they were working in this medium. It was really exciting to even just be able to have their faces and names in this doc, and hopefully it will inspire people to go research more about them.

Alison Brie: My process was sort of the opposite, because unlike Gillian who had to do a ton of detective work, I had more of a set agenda to go and watch these students experience these plays.

Alison Brie | Photo Credit: Instagram

So, first it was about familiarising myself with the Spotlight program which is a Marvel initiative where they commissioned playwrights to write these one acts based on characters in the Marvel universe for high school students. So it’s like Thor and Loki in high school, we have Squirrel Girl going to college, and Ms. Marvel and her sort-of high school tale, and so on.

Alison, does working with teenagers in high school increase the responsibility you have as a filmmaker?

Alison Brie: Sure, yeah, absolutely. It’s my first time in a documentary, and I think right away, there’s a protective instinct, right? You don’t want to overexpose anyone. You just only want to do what everybody feels comfortable with.

We certainly went into it with great sensitivity, even towards any students in the classes that didn’t want to be on camera, whose parents weren’t comfortable with it, etc. I honestly was blown away by how open they were and how comfortable they felt talking about their experiences, their anxieties and things like that.

What I will also say is that these Marvel plays are dealing with such great topics for teens… and we’re not talking about anything that’s too risqué or that’s going to put our students in a bad position.

What do you think we should expect for superheroes in the coming years?

Paul Scheer: I think that superheroes really reflect the world outside of our window. It’s something that Stan Lee always said. It’s not about the powers, it’s about the people and how they react to the world around them. I imagine that we’re gonna continually see the Marvel universe grow in its diversity and inclusivity.

Jesse Falcon and Paul Scheer in Episode 4 ‘Lost and Found’ 

Maybe we’ll even see the bringing back of classic characters like Microbe. He is an X-Man who can communicate with diseases and actually make them go away, almost like the Aquaman of viruses. We are in a world that might need Microbe!

When Marvel greenlights a project, do you keep in mind that the themes have to appeal to people from different parts of the world, cultures and ethnicities?

Sarah Amos: Totally. I think we knew that we weren’t necessarily going to be able to do a specific episode right that appealed to every, region or audience that we had, but that was definitely a part of it — you see it in both the Japanese Spider-Man episode and also the Artisan episode in the decision and choice we made to do them entirely with subtitles.

Those episodes are about a certain culture, a certain aspect of Marvel, about certain people, and we didn’t want to feel like we were Americanising the way we were telling those stories. As we looked across the series, we tried to bring in as many different diverse voices as we could.

From Epsiode 3 ‘Amazing Artisans’ 

There are obviously some production limitations, but it’s something we’re constantly looking at. So, like, we have a how-to-draw series that is bringing in over 50 percent of our artists from international markets.

We hope that by focusing some stories specifically in other regions, but also keeping them all in a very universal kind of tone — and sticking with the tenants of what everyone connects with Marvel — that the series should appeal to every market.

Do you see yourself collaborating more with Marvel in the future?

Alison Brie: Marvel is something that I’ve learned more about later in life though I did have a brief period of collecting comic book cards in elementary school.

But, in making this doc and watching the way that these high school kids were interacting with these characters, embracing and learning from them, I sort of realised what a unifying force Marvel could be, what a great connective tissue it is between all different types of people.

I mean, obviously globally it has a huge impact, but really on a deeper level. Because it gives young people these characters that they can sympathise with, empathise with, identify with. They can see themselves in them. And then they can see those characters work through difficult things, and come out on the other side and be superheroes!

I certainly would love to continue to work with Marvel always.

Marvel’s 616 will stream on Disney+ Hotstar from November 20 onwards


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