Stan Lee (2023) Movie Review – A love letter to a Marvel legend

A love letter to a Marvel legend

Even those who have never picked up a comic book will have heard of the name Stan Lee. Thanks to the countless number of cameos he has made in the blockbuster movies inspired by his creations, the Marvel Comics legend is now a pop culture phenomenon. He’s almost as famous as Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the vast number of other heroes he gave birth to, and even though he is no longer with us, his accomplishments will never be forgotten thanks to the legacy he left behind.

Currently streaming on Disney+ is this new documentary from David Gelb that chronicles the life of the man we know as Stan Lee but who was actually given the birth name of Stanley Martin Lieber when he was born to immigrant parents in New York on December 28, 1922.

As the documentary begins, we learn more about Lee’s humble beginnings and his first job working as an office boy at a trouser manufacturing company. In an alternate universe, Lee may have worked his way up the career ladder to become the biggest manufacturer of legwear in the world. But in our universe, he was let go from that firm, and mercifully so! If he hadn’t been, he would never have started work for a publishing company doing odd odd jobs for such comic book greats as Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and he would never have become the legendary creator of the heroes that people across the world have become inspired by.

Lee posthumously supplies the voiceover narration for the documentary that also includes old video footage, archival interviews, and animated segments which bring his story to life.

Some of what is told in the doc will be familiar to any long-time fan of Stan and the comics he created. The origin of Spider-Man, for example, is a story that many will know – Lee wanted to create a character that teenagers could relate to – but the origins of the other characters that are given a mention here, including Thor, Black Panther, and Iron May may be less familiar to all but the most dedicated Marvel fan.

The documentary sheds light on Lee’s dissatisfaction working within the comic book industry during the early parts of his career and his embarrassment when talking about his work. This was because he, like many people during the 40s and 50s, didn’t think comic books were a serious art form. He wanted to move away from this world to do something that mattered to others as he didn’t think his job writing superhero stories made much of an impact.

But eventually, Stan realised his work did matter and that he could make a difference in the world through the stories he created. That famous line from the Spider-Man comic books – “With great power comes great responsibility”-  became the motto that Lee lived by and he found ways to make an impression on society through the tales he told.

He championed inclusivity, for example, at a time in the 60s when racism was rampant, with the creation of the world’s first Black superhero (Black Panther). And he even found a way to introduce an anti-drugs storyline into his Spider-Man comic books, even though it meant breaking ties (temporarily) with the Comics Code Authority which was against the mention of drugs in comic literature, even when talked about negatively.

The impact of Lee’s work is touched upon in the doc through archival interviews with those who were inspired by his stories. There is one moment at a Marvel convention, for example, when one Black youngster is asked for his favourite superhero. The boy mentions Falcon, that other superhero of colour that appeared in comic books a few years after the Wakandan prince. The interview isn’t a long one but it can be supposed that he, like many other Black teens at the time, was thrilled to see someone of their ethnic origin gain recognition for being a superhero.

Also mentioned in the documentary is the conflict between Stan and comic book artist Steve Ditko, which stemmed from their disagreement over who created Spider-Man. Lee came up with the idea for the character but as Ditko brought Spidey to life through his drawings, he wanted to be known as the creator of that particular hero. Ditko eventually left Marvel Comics, presumably because of the tensions between himself and Lee, though the artist’s resignation isn’t fully explored in this film.

Jack Kirby, who had his own disagreements with Lee, also resigned from Marvel Comics, and in a 1987 radio broadcast that is featured in the doc, we hear the two of them unearth their buried resentments against one another. The radio host cites “ego problems” as the reason behind their conflict and we suspect he was right in his assessment!

Despite the conflicts Lee had with his collaborators, he still had a deep respect for them and this is evident from the way he speaks about their work. Also evident is the respect that Lee’s colleagues and fans had for him.

The documentary is a bit of a love letter to Lee in this regard as he is talked about in mostly reverential terms by those that are interviewed. Any imperfections Lee had aren’t covered here so if you’re looking for a deep dive into the darker side of the Marvel icon (if there actually is one), you may be left disappointed.

Still, this isn’t only a documentary for “true believers” of the comic book creator. It’s for anybody with an interest in the comic strip art form and a love of the Marvel universe, and for those simply wanting to be inspired by somebody who rose from humble origins to become a pioneer in their field. It’s also for those who don’t know anything at all about Stan Lee but who wondered who that bearded guy was who kept popping up in the Marvel movies they saw at home or the cinema!

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  • Verdict - 8/10

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