Stan Lee (2023)
Directed by David Gelb
Produced by David Gelb, Brian McGinn, Jason Sterman
Rated TV-14, 86m
Stan Lee, the David Gelb documentary about the eponymous Stan Lee, tells the rise and rise of the comic book auteur in a story fit for one of the Marvel comics he created. With some actual footage, the film itself is largely created using a fuzzy clay style to give the settings a nostalgic feel. By capturing moments without motion, comic-book vignettes portray situations and emotions wordlessly.
Narrated predominantly by Stan Lee himself from audio taken from the countless interviews he’d given during his lifetime, begins with his birth as Stanley Martin Lieber in New York City. From humble depression beginnings, he accidentally finds himself, at sixteen, working as an assistant in a publishing company that also prints comic books, Timely Comics. Assisting Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Stanley finds himself in a whirlwind where three hundred comics are published monthly. Although some of the characters would be recognizable today—Captain America, for example—these are not the modern comics with which we’ve all become familiar. The storylines and simple and they are written for children.
When Jack and Steve leave Timely, twenty-year-old Stanley becomes the temporary editor/writer. Initially ashamed to be a comic book writer, he doesn’t want to use his actual name on his work, so his “super-hero” alter-ego is created by breaking apart his first name, and Stan Lee is born.
As editor, Stan Lee makes extra money by approving all the comics he writes. Whenever he needs extra money—to buy a car or a house—he spends his evenings writing. Five years later, he meets and eventually marries Joan Boocock, a model he encounters on his way to meet a different department store model (set up by a friend). They have a family, and he discovers that comics aren’t a bad way to earn a living.
As though everything that came before was the origin story and training montage, it’s around this time that the Stan Lee we’ve come to know emerges. Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby have returned to Timely, now called Atlas. Stan Lee has long been frustrated that the comics he writes don’t have more dimension. He wants characters with human problems and adult content to make superheroes relatable. With that in mind, the Fantastic Four is born. To differentiate this line of comics, he brands them Marvel.
With the founding of Marvel, the glory years of comics begin, led by Stan Lee. He creates (or co-creates) many of the heroes we are familiar with today: Spider-Man, Thor, Black Panther, and the X-Men.
Up until this point, the documentary truly feels like any other Marvel episode. Stan Lee emerging and conquering an industry. But the documentary doesn’t shy away from the nasty battles between Lee and Jack Kirby about who created the characters. As the one with the initial idea, Lee is adamant that he did. But as the artist who designed the characters and created the storyboards from Stan’s writing, Kirby believed he did. For titans of their industry, their bickering is as childish as the comics they strove to get away from. It is downright embarrassing that these two geniuses couldn’t acknowledge that they worked collaboratively and instead bicker like schoolboys.
The documentary concludes with the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. An old man by this point, Lee has given control of Marvel over to other artists and storytellers, but lives long enough to see his stories taken very seriously and become blockbuster movies. For a man who was initially embarrassed to be associated with comic books, his name became synonymous with the comics he created.
This is a poignant film about a man who accidentally stumbled into something, and like a leaking barrel of toxic waste, it changed him, and in return, he changed the world around him. Whether you know all there is to know about Stan Lee or you only know him from his Marvel movie cameos—whether you grew up with comics or you’ve come to their stories through the movies—this documentary is worthwhile viewing.
I would have liked to learn more about his creative process. He comes across as a bottomless font of storytelling and creativity. Discussed is the “Marvel Way”, where Lee gave his artists a written plot, the artist returns a comic book, and Lee writes in the dialogue. This meant the finished product was equally influenced by both individuals. But this process of creation is glossed over. The documentary speaks primarily on the touchstones of his life, creating Black Panther in response to the Civil Rights movement, and the X-Men to capture the bigotry and hatred he saw tearing the country apart. He broke the Comics Code when asked to write about the dangers of drugs because rather than preaching, he made it a minor plot point of a Spider-Man series. His concern for humanity and love for people is contrasted by his egotistic bickering with Jack Kirby
There is something about his story, his accidental beginning, that feels like destiny. Almost as if the moment he steps into the office at Timely Comics, he begins to cast the tremendous shadow of who he will become and the franchise he will create. It seems like an inevitability, because the hard work that brought him to that was masked by his tremendous love for storytelling.
Stan Lee will air on Disney+ beginning June 16th.