With Spider-Man: No Way Home having done phenomenal box office business, making its way into the Top 10 highest grossing movies of all times despite being released during a pandemic, it appears Marvel’s position as an entertainment industry behemoth is unassailable, thanks to its being a part of the House of Mouse.
However, the ‘Mighty Marvel’ was not always so, and nearly 30 years ago it faced bankruptcy. It spent decades vying for supremacy against its longtime industry rival, DC Comics, in a story which is far wilder and more dramatic than anything committed to print in either publishers’ pages. The saga was laid out in Reed Tucker’s 2017 book Slugfest: Inside The Epic 50-Year Battle Between Marvel And DC, which delved into the clash between these two comics titans in their battle for ultimate victory at the newsstands.
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Tucker’s book has provided the inspiration for Slugfest, the 10-part documentary series which is executive produced by the Russo Brothers, who have both played their own part in the substantial success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Slugfest was originally commissioned by short-lived online platform Quibi back in November 2019, and had been due to premiere on there, but following the streamer’s collapse, all of its library of content was sold to Roku, with Slugfest now turning up on the The Roku Channel.
As Quibi specialised in short-form programming, Slugfest’s episodes (or ‘Issues’, as they brand them) are all bite-sized morsels, running to between five and ten minutes apiece, as opposed to one long feature. It means that whilst Slugfest‘s structure and overall duration does not allow it to cover the full DC and Marvel story from start to finish, it can take a far more focused and targeted approach, honing in on specific events which contributed not only to the continuing tussles which were going on between the companies, but their own individual histories.
As if to establish its bona fides right from the off, the series is narrated by Kevin Smith, filmmaker and notable comic book aficionado. Although some of the key players in the saga are no longer with us – such as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – there is certainly plenty of representation through judicious use of rare archive footage, as well as relatives and colleagues. One nice twist to proceedings is bringing some of the people and events to life by putting together stylised recreations or re-enactments of key moments, in order to better illustrate the subject matter being discussed.
An impressive slate of names has been assembled to take on these roles, with some being familiar to fans of both DC and Marvel – as well as other publishers – television and movie adaptations from across the years, in such a way as to act as a nice tip of the hat, honouring all their contributions to comic book lore. From Helen Slater to Lou Ferrigno, the Easter eggs add to the viewing experience for those in the know. Rather cheekily, Brandon Routh – known for playing Superman, as well as his appearance in DC’s TV Arrowverse – is cast as Joe Simon, co-creator of Marvel’s Captain America.
While many of the broad strokes of the main narrative which involves the two rival companies will already be known, the capsule format of Slugfest lets the makers delve deeper into some parts of the story, as well as covering more unusual and offbeat tales. Whilst mostly lighthearted in tone, Slugfest is not afraid to bring up some of the more serious issues, such as the rise of Nazism in America, along with the difficulties of women becoming established in that ‘Boys’ Club’ culture which was prevalent in comic books for so long.
As well as showing the tumultuous nature of the comic book industry, with both DC and Marvel having almost gone under at different points, Slugfest also covers those rare instances when a form of detente broke out, leading to the occasional team-up or collaboration. At times, the conflict was not just limited to being between the two businesses, but it was also sometimes internalised; the fractious relationship between Stan Lee and longtime collaborator Jack Kirby gets an airing. Ray Wise really makes for a stunning Kirby in the dramatised moments, and must be a shoo-in for any biopic.
If there is any quibble to be raised with Slugfest, it would be that the season feels too short – you can power through it all less than an hour-and-a-quarter, which is such a shame, as it feels like there is much more to cover. However, it really is testament to directors Sheena M. Joyce and Don Argott that they manage to cram so much in to such short episodes, and also make the storytelling accessible to everybody, not only for die-hard comic book junkies.
Slugfest is available to stream for free now on The Roku Channel.