To commemorate what would have been the 100th birthday of Stan Lee, the visionary comic book writer, publisher, producer, playwright (see his Army years) and co-creator of such indelible superhero characters as Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Black Widow, director David Gelb (Jiro Dreams Of Sushi), delves into the icon’s back story in the fun and joyous documentary.
Making its World Premiere at the Tribeca Fest, Stan Lee features interviews with some of those who knew him best, such as his wife of 70 years, Joan Boocock Lee, and illustrator Jack Kirby, who became acquainted with the office’s new errand boy in the 1930s. But it’s Lee’s interviews and many appearances at industry and fan events and on talk shows over the decades that provide much of the narration of his life. The film also features very winning reenactment sequences with miniatures that beautifully capture certain moments in his 95 years, even down to the documentary’s artists drawing period-specific mini comic books on the shelves in the bullpen scenes at Marvel.
At a brisk 88 minutes, Gelb doesn’t linger too much on the beginnings of Stanley Martin Lieber (born December 1922 in New York City), though in voiceover and interviews, Lee notes that he was always an eager reader, paging through The Hardy Boys and Sherlock Holmes. His mother, he adds, remarked that he was such an avid reader as a boy that he would read the labels on ketchup bottles if there was nothing else. His parents, both Romanian Jewish immigrants, greatly influenced his ambitiousness and drive to always have the security of a steady job, especially his father. A dress cutter by trade, his father never found regular work and Lee understood how much that must have pained him to not be able to provide for the family. By 17, Lee, an aspiring writer, was working for a trouser manufacturer and if not for being fired, his life might have gone a whole other way. His uncle changed that trajectory when he got him a job at Timely Comics, where the teenager met Kirby and illustrator Joe Simon. Lee would, according to Simon, make Kirby “crazy playing his piccolo all day”.
What’s fascinating is that for years, Lee struggled with the “silly” comic books (hence the pen name), going out of his way to not admit his day job when cornered at parties. Nearing 40, he was ready to quit the profession and do more serious writing when the company’s publisher – which was about to change its name to Marvel – told him to come up with characters to compete against DC’s Justice League. It was his wife who encouraged him to write about people he “would be interested in”. Lee landed on The Fantastic Four (and later Spider-Man), characters “grounded in realism” who would be imperfect – unlike Superman- and have real problems like not being able to pay the rent (an actual subject of one edition). There’s footage of Lee on a kids’ show nailing what made for a successful comic book characters as he told his captive audience that you needed to be able to empathize with the heroes and even sometimes villains.
The process between Lee and Kirby (and then Steve Ditko) – which is the true focus of Stan Lee – was quite extraordinary. Lee would get a germ of an idea, hand it off, Kirby would draw the panels and only then did Lee add his words. This unique collaboration became the Marvel Method. The movie also touches on how these brilliant relationships also led to some of the biggest conflicts for Lee, an affable Type A. Both Kirby and Ditko abruptly left Marvel.
In explaining his approach at the Q&A following the screening, Gelb said “we wanted to portray him beyond the bombastic personality on TV. We wanted to find the vulnerability in Stan’s life that he brought to his characters.” Along with that big public persona, Lee ultimately became the Chairman Emeritus of Marvel, and it’s a title befitting a legend. A delightful, thoroughly captivating film.
Premieres June 16th on Disney+