Few figures in comic book lore command the attention and devotion of Stan Lee. Now in his late eighties, with a grey-white caterpillar of a moustache perpetually perched atop his upper lip and oversized, dark-tinted glasses, he’s an easily identifiable character, as iconic as one of his pop culture creations (Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the X-Men, to name a few), and just as important. But many don’t know the story behind the man. “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story,” a zippy and somewhat superficial documentary, attempts to fill in some of that backstory, and the result is as compulsively entertaining and colorful as any Marvel comic book. Excelsior!
After some sound-bite-y clips from various celebrities (including Paris Hilton, who groaningly calls him “hot”), the film moves ahead briskly, following, more or less, the typical biographical documentary format – lots of talking heads interspersed with historical footage and (in this case) tons of photos and illustrations from various comic books. And, clocking in at just over an hour and fifteen minutes, it’s got to make haste to squeeze everything in.
Early on in the movie you get an understanding of the kind of financial straits Lee was in, growing up during the depression and taking jobs wherever he could – including, it just so happens, at Timely Comics, which would later become Marvel Comics. Lee first started out as an errand boy, fetching coffee and filling inkwells. However, at the tender age of 18, Lee was installed as a creative head at Timely Comics following a mass exodus of artists and writers, leaving briefly to fight in the army during World War II as part of an elite cluster of “playwrights” (among them William Saroyan, Frank Capra, and Theodore Geisel aka Dr. Seuss) who would do things like write and illustrate pamphlets on the dangers of venereal disease. When he returned he married his wife (they’re still together) and continued at Timely, forging an incredibly partnership with artists like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby.
We get brief snippets of Lee battling the crusade against comic books (chronicled more thoroughly in David Hajdu’s brilliant nonfiction book “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America”) and the subsequent Comics Code, which was responsible for whitewashing the entire comics landscape in the early fifties. What’s more engaging is when the documentary slows down, focusing on a pivotal moment in Lee’s life when, in 1960, he thought about quitting comics altogether. Lee was encouraged by his wife to create one last comic the way that he really wanted them to be done – for a slightly older audience, and with a little more storytelling sophistication. If they didn’t like it, the worst that could happen was that he would be fired, which was fine with him since he was going to quit anyway. Well, that comic turned out to be the Beatles-of-superheroes book “The Fantastic Four,” which would jump-start the so-called “Marvel age” of comics. It’s hard to think of comic books being that important but we watch a vintage clip from “20/20,” in which Stan Lee’s fantastical creations are lumped in with such 1961 milestones as John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, Alan Shepherd becoming the first American in space, and the birth of the bikini.
Lee was committed to visual vibrancy and an added level of humanist realism – setting most of the stories in New York City, with identifiable landmarks and brands – and people responded enthusiastically, with Marvel eventually passing DC Comics in sales. In between 1960 and 1970, Lee was responsible for creating or co-creating a squadron of beloved superheroes (among them: The Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer and X-Men) and injecting the politics and prejudices of the time – many of the characters created from Cold War anxieties and pre-apocalyptic dread (like the Hulk and X-Men). Conversely, the Silver Surfer was particularly popular due to his hippie peace-love-and-understanding sensibilities.
'With Great Power,' directed with considerable pizzazz by Terry Douglas, Nikki Frakes and Will Hess, also makes you understand that the most successful film adaptations of the Marvel comics are the ones that adhere closely to Lee’s original emphasis on the human inside the costume and not the costume itself (“Iron Man,” “Spider-Man 2,” this weekend’s “The Avengers”). And like all superheroes, Lee had his share of tragedy – there’s a particularly poignant moment in the documentary when Stan and his wife Joan talk about their second daughter Jan, who lived for seven days. It’s a tragic story and made even more devastating by the description that Joan gives afterwards about trying to adopt a baby (the baby’s death was such a traumatic experience that Joan had her tubes tied and slashed). She tried adopting from a number of nationalities, all of whom rejected Joan. It goes to show you that the feelings of Lee’s outcast characters, which have been read as being the victims of racial prejudice or anti-gay sentiment (which is how Bryan Singer chose to interpret it), stand for a more universal otherness that taps into our desire to be accepted and our heartbreak when that acceptance doesn’t come.
Some of the comic book stuff starts to drag, but picks up towards the end, with Lee being shipped out to Los Angeles and overseeing a series of successful animated television shows and some, um, less successful live action movies (which gave us things like the clunky Roger Corman “Fantastic Four” movie and a made-for-TV “Nick Fury: Agent Of Shield” feature starring David Hasselhoff, written by future “Batman Begins” scribe David S. Goyer). Even more interesting is Lee’s involvement in a stand-alone company called Stan Lee Media, at the time of the dot-com bubble. The company ended up falling apart and filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after several of its top executives indicted for illegal stock manipulation (he’s since rebounded, with a new company called POW!).
What makes Lee such a compelling character, though, is how affable he is – he always seems to be in a jovial mood, never over-analyzing or over-intellectualizing anything that he’s created. At one points he endearingly admits to have a somewhat prankish sense of humor, like when he created Iron Man as a heroic member of the military industrial complex during the height of anti-Vietnam sentiment, but that he never thinks about the larger implications of his work. Like the documentary, he wants to simply entertain. And like the documentary, he largely succeeds. [A-]
"With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story" is available at EPIXHD.COM or on demand at EPIX now.