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Stan Lee 1922-2018 - We Are Movie Geeks

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Stan Lee 1922-2018

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He never directed a feature film. He never had a screenplay produced. Yes, he dabbled in front of the camera, but he usually played himself or would appear for a few seconds in a “cameo” role. Frequently he would be given an executive producer credit, which we would see many times over the last couple of decades. And yet, Stan Lee was a major force behind four of the twenty biggest domestic box office hit motion pictures of all time. This warranted the following report from today’s Hollywood Reporter, which began:

Stan Lee, the legendary writer, editor, and publisher of Marvel Comics whose fantabulous but flawed creations made him a real-life superhero to comic book lovers everywhere has died. He was 95.

Lee, who began in the business in 1939 and created or co-created Black Panther, Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Mighty Thor, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Daredevil and Ant-Man, among countless other characters, died early Monday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, a family representative told The Hollywood Reporter.


So, why are we both mourning and celebrating the life and legacy of Stanley Martin Lieber (his birth name) on this site today? That’s because he’s added so much fun to the movie experience with his creations and cameos. His 95 plus years was an incredible adventure, almost as amazing as anything he imagined (and helped publish).

Born on December 22 in 1922, Stan was in the right place, and had the right relatives, at the beginning of the golden age of comic books. Thanks in part to his uncle and cousin, he landed an assistant position at Martin Goodman’s Timely (Marvel much later) Comics in 1939. Soon he fulfilled his ambition to be a writer, penning the one-page prose story, “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” in Captain America Comics #3 in 1941. Stan became an interim editor until he entered the Army in 1943, eventually earning the classification as “playwright” for his work on training films and instruction manuals. Postwar he returned to Timely as editor and oversaw the books’ transition to Westerns, funny animals, teen humor, combat, and, changing the company name to Atlas Comics, science fiction featuring all manner of giant monsters like “Gloom”.

Stan serves in WWII

Proving that “everything old is new again”, the superheroes returned in the late 50’s (though Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman never left) when rival National Periodicals scored a hit with the revamped Flash and the Justice League. Stan’s boss Goodman told him to come up with a “super team”. Lee had become frustrated with his job and thought about pursuing a new life as a “real” writer. Luckily his wife Joan suggested that he try writing a superhero book that he would find interesting. Thanks to her prodding, and the stunning art by co-creator Jack Kirby, the Fantastic Four was a 1961 smash. As Atlas became Marvel, the new heroes arrived at a furious pace: Dr. Strange, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, Iron Man, the Mighty Avengers, Daredevil, and the company’s solo superstar and mascot, the Amazing Spider-Man. Stan also decided to give the artists full credits on the opening splash page, even bestowing alliterative “nicknames” like “dashing” Don Heck and “sturdy” Steve Ditko. He soon had his own editorial column, “Stan’s Soapbox” in all the books, adding to the informal, friendly vibe of Marvel Comics. College students picked up on this and the irreverent attitudes of the book where all the heroes had real-life problems or hang-ups (Spidey had trouble paying his rent, Iron Man had a bad ticker, etc.). Stan himself was in demand as a speaker at campuses all around the country, turning him into a promoting “pied piper” for the comics industry.

Stan and wife Joan in the early days of their marriage

But Stan yearned for his heroes to make the jump to other media. There were network Saturday morning cartoons and the syndicated limited animated (being very generous here) package of “The Marvel Superheroes”. He eventually moved from Marvel’s NYC HQ to LA in order to get the properties into live-action TV shows and feature films. CBS had a hit show with “The Incredible Hulk” starring Bill Bixby, but Spidey, Dr. Strange, and Captain America tanked. However, Stan became more of a household name as the narrator of the Saturday morning cartoon, “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends”.  Finally, Marvel was in the movies with 1986’s HOWARD THE DUCK, but that was a legendary flop. The next decade was littered with false starts and unreleased movies. In 1998, BLADE struck box office gold, followed two years later by the X-MEN, and topped in 2002 by SPIDER-MAN. For many of those films, Stan would pop up on screen for a quick wink at the camera, as with THE FANTASTIC FOUR, HULK, and DAREDEVIL.

In 2016, finally together on screen in X-MEN: APOCALYPSE

Then something happened that Stan probably never dreamed of. Marvel started producing big-budget films based on their own heroes and properties. Not only was Stan promoting the movies on TV and via interviews, but he would also have a cameo in each film. Originally Stan said he’d just show up in films based on characters he created, but over the last ten years his cameos have become part of the Marvel Studios format and design, something that fans look forward to as much as the opening “comic pages flip” of the company logo and the post and mid-credits bonus scenes (with a long list of other writers and artists Stan has collaborated with).  Perhaps some of the filmmakers considered him a “good luck charm”. Here’s a montage of his “walk-ons” so far:

So far? But he’s gone to the Comicon in the sky, you say. Well, last year or so, James Gunn shot his scenes for the next few films that would be inserted later. Though IMDB won’t confirm, I’ll bet we’ll see his mischievous grin in CAPTAIN MARVEL, the Infinity Wars finale, and maybe SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME over the next year. Plus there are the two X-Men flicks. Well, I can tell you that sharp-eyed viewers will spot a silent cameo in RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET in just 9 days. Oh, and “the man” did get some major honors. In 2008 he received the National Medal of the Arts from President George W Bush, followed in 2011 by his very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Wow, how lucky can one planet be? We were treated to nearly a century of Stan Lee. And his gifts will continue in inspire and entertain forever. That is some kind of legacy. What more can I add, except…

Excelsior! Nuff’ said!!

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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