Stan Lee

Stan Lee

directed by David Gelb


Blissfully timed for the comics industry's current problems over intractable historic fault lines, here's a new documentary about Stan Lee made by people who are in every sense invested in The Man's image rights. What can another examination of this most analyzed of men tell us that is not already known? What new perspective about the industry can be revealed through the lens of Lee, given the number of scholars already lowered into the archives on ropes? Who is this film talking to, and for what purpose?

There's no question about who is talking in it: save for the occasional supportive interjection, it's all Stan. The selling point of David Gelb's documentary, co-produced by Marvel Studios, is—per the Tribeca Festival's description—its access to "a trove of personal footage and recorded recollections of [Lee's] career that were never seen by the public," which might be true if the public has just emerged from a three-decade coma. The present writer, whose historic Marvel mania was authentic but who never went pro, stopped fact-checking against Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story when it became clear that there was no need. This is The Told Story from top to bottom, almost without nuance or complexity, and no retrospective analysis.

If the recordings of Lee's interviews and speeches used for most of the soundtrack are indeed new, they repeat anecdotes he was well rehearsed at delivering and in the same cadence he always did. Anyone genuinely unaware will learn about Lee's teenage employment at Timely Comics (but not the family connection with publisher Martin Goodman), the ocarina, the genesis of The Fantastic Four, the growing college age readership, the fan letter moaning about the staples, the pushing back against the Comics Code Authority, et al. Stock footage clips and home videos provide the pictures, although gaps in the visual record for once aren't filled in with the traditional animated panel art or graphics saying POW, but instead with static puppets: coy little posed figurines of Lee and others in a model office. A novel choice, although once you've started to imagine it as something from a Charlie Kaufman film with Lee tipped into a purgatory of frozen hopes and unbridgeable disconnection, it's tough to climb back out.

What of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, other artists, attribution of character creation, acrimony and the rest? Forget it, more or less. The documentary does little to contextualize and even less to rebut things Lee says about Marvel—he would, after all, have to rebut himself—so everything is left to stand as his individual actions. Puppet Lee burns the midnight oil at the typewriter dreaming up the character of Spider-Man, but the next morning he's showing Puppet Martin Goodman some character sheets with Ditko drawings on them; this is the point at which concision becomes obfuscation at best. As for Kirby, a subject matter so great as to fill Kirby & Lee: Stuf' Said!, in which John Morrow put the Lee/Kirby collaboration under the electron microscope from every angle, is parsed in a couple of scenes from one side of the equation only. But the film does include a flash-forward to the 1987 WBAI radio show where Kirby was being interviewed and Lee phoned in. Lee, perhaps baited inadvertently by the radio host, does not come across well; it's the only time in the film where some shadows loom.

In 1972 Lee is made Marvel's publisher, and a viewer checking their watch realizes that the documentary is about to call it quits. Apart from footage of Lee's 2017 speech at a UCLA graduation ceremony, the film essentially absents itself from any consideration of the second half of Lee's long life, which would appear to indicate the purpose pondered about above: no drama. No missing Kirby art; no hero living long enough to become the villain; no Stan Lee Media; no Pamela Anderson voicing Erotica Jones; no final years mired in messy legal issues or other arguments over creativity. No hint that a relentless focus on doing your own thing and following your own bliss might align imprecisely with notions of collective action, even when alongside a gospel of tolerance. The only mention of creators' rights is Lee saying how he "always resented" he didn't own the stories. The only mention of Marvel's later cataclysmic business contortions concerns the two-year contract Lee was offered by Ike Perlmutter in 1998 ("Which made me very unhappy") and the matter's resolution ("I was very happy").

Instead, the documentary goes straight to Lee's Marvel Cinematic Universe cameos for a coda, which is to say it taps the sign reading Kings of the World on its way out. There's probably no point in getting too bad-tempered now about these scenes, whose sweetness always coexisted with their origin point deep in some dire marketing summit, a feeling that they cheapened Lee's considerable genuine achievements by shoving him bodily into his own limiting mythology. The documentary omits Lee's final live-action cameo from Avengers: Endgame, as close to an exit as The Man ever made: a posthumous and alarmingly de-aged Lee driving down a non-existent highway in a non-existent car under non-existent hair, off towards some digital Valhalla of non-existent authenticity.

So what is authentic in this neck of the woods? By stopping at 1972, the film's glimpses of the Marvel Bullpen are old classic images, all camaraderie and drawing boards and sketches pinned to walls and paper strewn everywhere. David Gelb was also behind the 2020 documentary series Marvel 616, which, in contrast, showed Marvel's modern comics HQ to be the gleaming white open plan aspirational production space of your average hot-desking new media incubator lab. Among the things emerging from such a site might be a cultural construct identified as Stan Lee, distant from any real sense of the previously extant corporeal item; and this film might be a cultural construct identified as a Stan Lee documentary. A film that, true to its subject's epistolary habit, signs off with a brisk uplifting exhortation: "All titles streaming on Disney+."