STAN LEE: 1922-2018
FATHER OF MODERN COMIC BOOK MEDIA. LEADING LIGHT OF THE MARVEL BRAND. CREATOR OF SO MANY BELOVED HEROES. THAT DISTINCTIVE VOICE /MOUSTACHE/GLASSES/LOVE OF LIFE! THE MOVIE CAMEO STAR!
‘ONE MAN REALLY CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE’..
Stan Lee has left us (died) at the grand old age of 95. Death comes to us all, eventually. But WHAT a LIFE! It’s the closest to a happily ever after one could imagine; living to see your work develop in its formats, platforms, legacy and love. Stan reinvented the comic book and in turn saw through a revolutionary development in film.
The news of the death came through and within seconds, the obituaries and lovely Twitter tributes followed. One suspects they MIGHT have been pre-prepared in some cases, given the man’s advancing years and recent bouts of ill health (pneumonia had caused him to reduce and eventually retire from public signings this year). But this was a vital man, more or less, to the very end.
How many other 90 somethings are still recording cameo appearances in movies and defending a business empire? V few, I dare say. So for that reason, it is indeed a shock that Stan is dead. One can do the whole ‘good innings’ line as much as they wish. The fact remains that we have lost a major player in the pop culture landscape and one whose own energies seemed to match the super-human levels of his comic book creations.
I think Lee’s main strength was in redefining heroic templates. Before Spider-Man, one could not have conceived of a teenager as action hero. Without X Men: there would have been fewer, if any, outlets, for those who used fantasy fiction imagery to vicariously address (and thereby, RE-dress?) a feeling of difference and isolation that frequently defines one’s adolescent evolution. Fantastic Four showed a family dynamic that just happens to take place in a universe with a bendy man, invisible woman, boy made of fire and a..well.. ‘Thing’. Dr Banner/Hulk managed to fuse the Jekyll and Hyde theme to the Frankenstein’s monster motif. And so on.
My personal favourite? Of course, the GREAT TONY STARK! AKA IRON MAN! Lee created him almost as a dare: to make an establishment style character somehow appeal, equally, to a peace loving generation of rebels. Stark begins as an industrial military complex King /Playboy. A period in captivity changes him and he becomes a force for good. You still get the trappings of the James Bond /Hugh Hefner young male’s fantasy kingdom; but tempered by the genuine message that we all have a duty to use our assets for the greater good. And there is a joy in the innovation and eccentricities of the man, akin to Howard Hughes.
Of course, the main reason we have ALL come to adore Stark /Iron Man? Does it even need saying? Course not. But saying it, anyway: THOSE movies!
When Robert Downey Junior arrived onscreen in 2008 as Tony Stark, a cinematic universe was born. As a movie fan, it was a delight to see a joyful, escapist yet accessible and character driven action/adventure movie, done right. Anyone who values the acting craft was surely relieved and inspired to see Downey’s second chance at stardom, via the role he was born to play. Those who love romantic comedy and beauty must adore the Tony /Pepper Potts dynamic. Well, I do, anyway. Gwyneth Paltrow is a perfect foil for Downey’s Stark and their relationship is a highlight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
It is also fascinating to see how both Tony and Pepper have been deployed in spin-offs, notably the Avengers films. It’s an unbeatable magic and try as one might to replicate that (hello, Dr Strange: Cumberbatch is great but best when simply playing it HIS way and not being the poor man’s Iron Man); it’s a one off. My life would be the poorer without Stark and Pepper and for that alone, I am eternally grateful to Stan Lee for their creation. For so many reasons in so many ways, I love the world of Tony Stark!
It’s easy to forget that the MCU almost never happened. It required YEARS of deals and disappointments along the way. Lee was instrumental in making those happen, having been saddened by certain misfires (aborted Spider-Man movies and a far too cheaply made Fantastic Four effort from the early 1990s). Whilst he was not in command of every single business decision, he certainly remained instrumental in their creative inspiration and influencing the shape of his characters’ onscreen incarnations. He served as consultant wherever possible and always provided a cameo appearance in the Marvel movies.
Bob Kane used to tease his old buddy Stan about the lack of Marvel progress onscreen, relative to the behemoth blockbusters of Bob’s Batman. Lee got his own back when in 2002, SPIDER-MAN smashed all box office records of the day and Batman was then in a relative wilderness period. The MCU was born from a brave move, with visionary producer, Kevin Feige and a dedicated team brokering a deal via Merrill Lynch. Until then, while there had been successful Marvel movies (BLADE, SPIDER-MAN/X-MEN), there was no coherent ‘studio’ to unite the various properties.
Whilst there was still a need for studio backing and control (initially Paramount/Universal; later Disney); creative command was for the first time, all under one roof. The gamble paid off! Stan must have been delighted to see all his characters FINALLY co-exist on film, culminating in the deal with SONY that allowed Tony Stark to share the screen with Peter Parker and finally, with Disney acquiring Fox (so bringing Fantastic 4 and X Men and to the MCU).
Needless to say, Lee was as tough as creative. This is a man who was WORKING, relentlessly, since the 1930s. There were some daring choices championed by his vision, notably the introduction of hard hitting anti-drug story-lines to mainstream comics. Ruthless editorial and commercial decisions often had to be made, on his watch. Make no mistake: the comics industry is competitive. Lee understood that, from day one.
Equally, he was by his own admission, powerless to prevent occasional business / other strategies being executed despite his objections. That said, there was clearly a core of decency there.
One felt a genuine sense of joy in his meeting fans. Lee modelled a kind of pastoral duty in his video messages, to those reading and viewing his work. There was also an admission of his own grander ambitions in literature. He provided audio recordings of works by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. Yet he voiced an ultimate recognition that the comic book genre is a worthwhile form of artistic, intellectual and indeed, moral endeavour and felt ultimately, justifiably proud to have been part of that. This was also a devoted family man: wed to wife Joan for 60 years until her death in 2017. And he recently protected the good name of his beloved daughter, flying to her rescue, just like a super-hero!
Stan Lee leaves a wealth of anecdotes and memories among those who lived and worked with him and his mythology. We will of course miss Stan Lee’s cameos in Marvel movies. But fear not. He recorded his final appearances in a batch last year, perhaps aware of the inevitable march of time. So within those gems, maybe, we may still see posthumous appearances cropping up in AVENGERS 4 / SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME? That would be truly AMAZING! FANTASTIC! A Marvel in itself and a fitting tribute, to a beloved and brilliant man.
RIP. Your work will never be forgotten, Stan. God Bless.