Leaning so hard on the man himself makes Stan Lee a fitting tribute, for better and for worse.
Thanks to decades of cameos in movies and promotional stunts intertwining him with the very word “Marvel,” audiences across the planet have a deep connection to comic book legend Stan Lee. Though he passed away in the final weeks of 2018, Lee’s legacy lives on. Marvel Studios even utilized existing audio of his voice in a special 2021 video. It helped them announce the return of its features to movie theaters. Artistic individuals like this tend to endure, no matter what happens to their physical bodies.
Of course, Stan Lee was not a perfect Funko Pop! of a man. Disputes over how much he wrote and otherwise contributed to Marvel mythos in the 60s complicate his legacy. Debates over whether or not Lee was the most creatively crucial figure of Marvel Comics’ golden age or merely most prominent in promotional materials will rage on in comic shops for eons to come. The new doc Stan Lee doesn’t provide a firm perspective on such loftier matters. Instead, it delivers an easygoing ode to a pivotal 20th-century artist.
Directed by David Gelb, Stan Lee eschews the talking-head documentary approach by guiding much of the movie with various archival recordings of Lee himself. Having done so many interviews in his years in the pop culture limelight, Lee has delivered enough anecdotes about his past to cover nearly all of his life leading up to the 1970s. Thus, audiences get to hear Lee recalling everything from his cash-strapped childhood to an ill-fated foray into the world of trousers manufacturing. Even his work in the U.S. military during World War II score a mention.
The portion of the documentary most viewers will be eagerly awaiting, though, are the yarns concerning Lee’s creative exploits in the 1960s. This was when Lee created the Fantastic Four, ushering in a new era for comic book superheroes. A bevy of unforgettable crime fighters emerged in the time that followed, including Black Panther, Spider-Man, and the X-Men. Accompanying the words of the movie’s titular lead is a wide assortment of archival footage. Smatterings of original material realized with dolls step in when the narration needs otherwise non-existing visual accompaniment.
If you’re somebody with any knowledge of Lee’s work and life already, chances are you’ll be familiar with the anecdotes. The tales of his insistence that superheroes navigate ordinary problems (like failing to pay rent, getting girls, etc.) have become legendary with repetition. There’s a lot of familiar territory covered here. Moreover, limiting the perspective to Stan’s doesn’t allow for many new interpretations of why early Marvel was so special.
On the plus side, the exuberance Lee brought to the “Stan’s Soapbox” section of his comics is alive and well in the doc’s voiceover. That quality doesn’t lend immediate substance to the doc. However, combined with a pleasantly brief runtime, it renders the production an agreeable exercise. Plus, it’s always a joy to see vintage, crisply remastered Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko artwork. The movie taps them for a good chunk of the visuals in the second act.
Stan Lee eschews the talking-head documentary approach by guiding much of the movie with various archival recordings of Lee himself.
The various real-life interactions recreated through dolls (always depicted standing still, like figures in a comic panel, rather than moving through stop-motion) are also a welcome and pleasant visual flourish. These details provide a pronounced quality fitting for the central subject of this documentary. Lee was such a gregarious soul, for better or worse. Any feature looking to chronicle his life should lean on heightened and vibrantly colorful ways of reflecting his artistic exploits.
Restraint underlines brief sections in the final third that speak to Lee’s complicated legacy. Famously, Kirby and Ditko—and many of their supporters—felt Lee too quickly grabbed the credit they deserved for creative achievements. The score for the movie largely drops out in these moments, including for a long piece of archival recording capturing Kirby and Lee arguing on the radio in the late 1980s. Gelb heads in a sparser, more raw direction here, recognizing the nuanced legacy “Smilin’ Stan” left behind.
Taken as a whole, it’s hard to imagine Stan Lee as a must-see project for comic book geeks. Many are likely already familiar with its anecdotes and archival footage. But for geeks who know their Squirrel Girl from Brute Force, the pleasantly assembled documentary can make for an amiable stroll down memory lane. It may not reckon with the full complexities of the man. Still, Stan Lee reminds us that, if nothing else, this “king of the cameo” could certainly tell a compelling story.
Stan Lee enthusiastically arrives on Disney+ on June 16.