March 3, 2024

Film Review: Stan Lee

5 Stars
By Joseph Beyer | June 24, 2023

Not many people get to experience the God-like feeling of creating your own universe (or multiverse, as it became), but that’s exactly what happened to young Stanley Martin Lieber when he unexpectedly found himself running a comic book empire at the age of 17.

The whole true saga and more is revealed within Stan Lee, a documentary of the creator’s incredible life made with his cooperation and the Marvel archives. The 1 hour 26 minute adventure streaming on Disney+ is almost entirely narrated by Lee himself, using a wonderful combination of raw and unsentimental historical interviews alongside decades of recordings and found media.

Lee, a voracious teen reader and aspiring writer eager for work in New York City, reluctantly becomes editor of the Timely Comics publishing house. It’s here where Lee meets artists and illustrators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and completes a creative trilogy unlike any other. The three would later change the course of the comics industry forever when they co-created Marvel and launched dozens of the most iconic characters in art, fiction, and now films: Spider-Man, Hulk, The X-Men, and Black Panther, among many more.

Stan Lee follows Lee’s life chronologically, from his first stint in comics to his service in World War II, where he improved training manuals with comic strip learning, to falling in love with his lifelong wife Joan at first sight, to being pushed out of Marvel in 2015 after it was sold. The most interesting segments involve Lee’s intellectual awakenings about comics themselves and his journey from despising them so much that he used the pseudonym Stan Lee to protect his identity to becoming the chief evangelist for the form.

Alter-ego aside, much of the fun and delight in the documentary comes from the unique style of “re-crees” or recreations made irresistibly whacky through the use of a fantasy set of miniature action figures who act out some of the most dramatic moments in the story like tiny dolls. Kudos to art director T. Hunter McCann and miniatures artist Lacie Barker for the innovative imagineering in a story about imagination.

Director David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) helms a moving portrait of a uniquely American artist. By placing Lee’s work in the context of social and political calls to action, the director makes a case for how truly innovative Lee was in creating challenging characters who blur the lines of good and evil and address the unease of wars, bigotry, gender inequality, and xenophobia of all kinds. (Think the mutants of X-Men, tortured by society for being different.)

Marvel’s famous mantra, “with great power comes great responsibility,” sums some of the film up but can’t quite explain the enduring power fans feel for Lee’s work…or how he reinvented pop culture with heroes that were relatable and somehow normal. (Lee describes that unexplainable character magic as “fairy tales for older people.”)

You don’t have to be a Marvel nerd to fall in love with Stan Lee, but it will enhance your experience. Like all great documentaries, the story is accessible, and you will learn a lot. I suspect you’ll be drawn in by the man himself and his rebellious vision for a world of make-believe that teaches us about ourselves.

Now available exclusively on Disney+ and made with the corporate cooperation of Marvel, this version of Lee’s life story is not without controversy. It leaves a long-standing conflict between Lee and artists Kirby and Ditko with a tidier ending than in real life. (Kirby’s son Neal has posted a rebuttal of the documentary on Twitter.)

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