Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and all those Avengers. Cinephiles may bemoan the impact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had on moviegoing in the twenty-first century, but there’s no denying that millions of fans identify with these flawed superheroes created by Stan Lee in collaboration with artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and with his brother and cowriter, Larry Lieber. And for many, identification can swell into empowerment. Days before Black Panther premiered in February, Precious Mayowa Agbabiaka reported for the Guardian on how it had already become “a film of considerable cultural significance for black communities around the world.” Beyond that, most critics agreed that it was also a pretty good movie. At RogerEbert.com, Odie Henderson argued that Black Panther “transcends the superhero genre to emerge as an epic of operatic proportions.”
That’s the sort of praise that the teenage Stanley Lieber dreamed of earning for the Great American Novel he’d write some day. Unaware that that day would never come, he reserved his given name for future literary endeavors and created a pseudonym when, in 1939, he found himself working for Timely Comics, the company that would eventually evolve into Marvel. As he worked his way up through the expanding company, from writer to editor to publisher, and ultimately, chairman, he decided at some point to adopt the pseudonym as his legal name. On Monday, Stan Lee passed away at the age of ninety-five.
Lee developed what would become known as the “Marvel method” of writing comic books. He’d get an idea for a new superhero, sketch out a story, and, arms flailing and eyebrows leaping, would pitch the package to an artist—usually Kirby or Ditko—who would design costumes and essentially storyboard the entire book. Lee would then write dialogue that, as Jonathan Kandell and Andy Webster note in the New York Times, “encompassed Catskills shtick, like Spider-Man’s patter in battle; Elizabethan idioms, like Thor’s; and working-class Lower East Side swagger, like the Thing’s.” So in the end, who actually created these characters? Who wrote the books? These questions have been points of contention for decades, and Charles Hatfield, author of Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby, addresses them at length in his clearly heartfelt and respectful remembrance of Lee.
Writing for the New Republic, Jeet Heer, who’s a little harder on Lee than Hatfield, proposes that “Lee’s true genius was not as a writer or creator but as an editor, who brought the best talent to Marvel and pushed writers in the right direction, helping them flourish. Lee’s jokey hyperbolic carnival barker prose, alliterative and infectious, also helped give the Marvel line a comfortable cohesion that made them fan favorites.”
What endeared fans to Marvel even more, though, was the nature of its superheroes, their human virtues and frailties. Lee didn’t shy away from showing a hero’s tears or an argument among team members. The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin argues that “Lee’s genius lay in his understanding of the universal power of the underdog story: he realized the freaks and weirdos and outsiders weren’t the bad guys; they were us.” The Fantastic Four, for example, was not “a squadron of demigods,” but rather “just an average dysfunctional family: an over-stretched man, an invisible woman, a young hot-head, a self-loathing misfit hardened to the world.” As Kim Newman points out in Sight & Sound, that misfit, the Thing, “was written as Jewish, when Jewish creators like Lee and Kirby were taking anglo names and rigorously avoiding ethnic specificity. Amusingly, the most WASP-like name in the Marvel canon, Janet Van Dyne, belonged to the Wasp.”
Lee’s personal favorite, Spider-Man, was—and of course, still is—the alter ego of Peter Parker, “a bespectacled, scrawny teenager who often lost his battles, fretted about paying his bills, and routinely suffered indignities at the hands of school bullies and disinterested girls,” as Geoff Boucher puts it at Deadline. “Lee would say often that the character was the closest to his heart and to his own experience growing up in New York as a bookish kid with big dreams and a small life.”
Lee also introduced to the comics such innovations as “Marvel’s Bullpen Bulletin,” an update on what staffers were working on, and a monthly column, “Stan’s Soapbox,” in which he’d bond with fans and encourage them to embrace their passion for an art form many disparaged (“Face front, True Believers!”). “These behind-the-scenes glimpses afforded to readers made them feel as if they were truly a part of something special,” writes Peter Sobczynski at RogerEbert.com, “and they pretty much helped to lay the groundwork for the vast world of contemporary fandom—what is ComicCon, after all, but a ‘Bullpen Bulletin’ writ extra-large.” On that point, NPR’s Glen Weldon adds that Lee “helped accelerate a process that had already begun: the transformation of discrete readers into a linked network of devotees, of fans into fandom. Plus, he looked great doing it: The leisure suit, the chains, the mustache, the shades, the California tan. The guy basked in his celebrity, and made sure we knew it.”
That extended, of course, to the cameos, a staple of Marvel’s movies. “I wish there was a cameo category in the Academy Awards,” he once told EW’s Anthony Breznican, evidently quite sure that if there were one, he’d win it. At the Ringer, David Shoemaker argues that the cameos are indicative of an overall approach to movie-making that’s been a key element of Marvel’s success. “What the Marvel films have that other superhero movies don’t is self-awareness and, more importantly, self-deprecation,” he writes. “It’s one thing to have in-jokes and meta references; it’s another to have Stan Lee, right there in the scene, holding a hot dog.”
Add top-of-the-line action directors and state-of-the-art special effects, and then pay some of the world’s biggest stars to don a cape, and you have yourself a winning formula. Of the top twenty highest-grossing movies of all time, six are Marvel’s. This year’s Avengers: Infinity War alone has brought in more than two billion dollars. And as Deadline’s Boucher points out, “Marvel heroes are featured in ten live-action series (spread across ABC, Fox, Netflix, FX, Hulu, and Freeform) as well as five more animated franchises.” Fighting together (and occasionally bickering amongst themselves), they’re carrying the legacy of Stan Lee into an uncertain future.
Further Reading (and Viewing)
If you have time for only one blow-by-blow account of the life and work, I’d recommend Steve Holland’s obituary for the Guardian. Comic book writer and artist Brian Michael Bendis presents a personal remembrance in the form of a comic for the New York Times, and Peter David, who cowrote Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir with Lee, has another for Vulture. Novelist Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) has posted a brief but rousing tribute, while Spencer Ackerman goes long as he assesses Lee’s legacy at the Daily Beast.
Back in February, we posted a video by Daniel Raim in which Lee looks back on what may strike many as an unlikely partnership. Alain Resnais, one of the most intellectually formidable of the French New Wave filmmakers, was a fan who became not only a close friend but also a collaborator on a screenplay for an ambitious science-fiction film, The Monster Maker. In the video, Lee laughs as he recalls the moment the project fell through.
For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.