Film Review – Stan Lee

Stan Lee

Stan Lee

I knew his name before I knew who he was. For many fans, Stan Lee is as synonymous with comic books as the very superheroes he helped create. I grew up in the late 1980s and throughout the ‘90s reading X-Men and Spider-Man comics. “Stan Lee” was a constant presence in every issue I read. He was usually one of the first people mentioned in the credits, with titles that read “Stan Lee Presents…The Uncanny X-Men!” or something of that nature. He is responsible for so many beloved characters in Marvel Comics that attempting to list them would be an act of futility. Make no mistake about it – the history of superheroes in the 20th century cannot be told without mentioning Stan Lee.

Director David Gelb’s documentary – appropriately named Stan Lee (2023) – traces its subject from his humble beginnings in New York City to becoming the most recognizable face in the comic book industry. Narrated by the man himself (through archival interviews), Lee is presented as a person who seemingly fell into the right place at the right time. Gelb structures his narrative with a whimsical nature. Early on, Lee describes being handpicked by his publisher to be a writer and editor at Marvel (known as Atlas Comics at the time) simply due to being only person in the office. Gelb jumps around in time, starting around WWII and leading all the way up to the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Much of what is presented is not new information. Several of Lee’s accomplishments as a writer, editor, and publisher are well documented in other films and TV specials, such as With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story (2010). Here, the editing (Jamie GarlandJames LongAndrew McAllister) skims through the major points of Lee’s career as a kind of highlight reel. The stories have become the stuff of legend. We learn of Lee bucking the Comic Authority’s guidelines to cover more mature, adult oriented themes, his insistence to write relatable, imperfect characters, and drawing direct correlation between the page and the current social climate. Lee was a champion of empathy, harping on the notion that understanding comic characters on a real world basis can help make a richer and more fulfilling read. 

Gelb traverses this material like standard operating procedure. Combining photographs, interviews, guest appearances, stock footage, and panels out of Marvel’s most famous storylines, we get a sense of how Lee grew and adapted with the changing times. The most interesting stylistic touch is the incorporation of miniature sets recreating some of the touchstone moments of Lee’s life. From his childhood home, bike rides through the city and trips to the movie theater, to his time running the show at Marvel, these staged scenes add a nice change of pace. The detail of the sets reminded me of similar ones seen in Marwencol (2010). They build upon the whimsy inherent throughout the documentary. Nostalgia is a major component here, and is mostly felt during these sequences.

Above all else, Stan Lee was the ultimate salesman. With his unassuming charm and friendly demeanor, it makes sense that he would end up being the face of the entire Marvel company. He has a knack for inviting people into his presence – I would assume even non-comic readers would find him easy to talk to. His ability to captivate through storytelling was his greatest strength. He can describe past events everyone already knows, yet be so enthusiastic that it feels like he is saying it for the first time. No one gets to his position without a level of ego. Lee gladly took credit for any success thrown in Marvel’s direction, even if his contributions have been called into question throughout the years. Controversies between Lee and artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko are brought up but never fully investigated. Given that the documentary is narrated by its subject, there is little chance that Lee would cut himself down to prop up his former collaborators.

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Let’s face it, for a movie made by Disney – who just happens to be the parent company of Marvel – seeing a well rounded view of Lee is unlikely. For the most part, the documentary is a celebration of the man, never going too far deep into unfavorable territory. There is one exception, however, and it is an archival radio interaction between Lee and Kirby. This short exchange, in which the two share words over creative ownership of their combined work, is one of the few instances that did not feel pre-packaged. It’s an interesting debate over who deserved the most praise over Marvel’s success: Was it Lee, who often came up with character ideas and concepts? Or should the accolades have gone to Kirby, Ditko, and the other artists who put pen to paper and brought the ideas to life? The radio interview is the most dramatically charged sequence of the entire documentary, because it hints at a side of Stan Lee that has been (for the most part) hidden away from the public eye.

The film is a breezy, easy going look into one of the titans of comic books. Whether or not Stan Lee was the sole creator of a certain character, there is no debate that he had a major influence in bringing comics and superheroes into the mainstream. Every time a reader picks up a new issue at their local store, watches the latest MCU release, or rides a Marvel-themed rollercoaster – it all goes back to what Lee and his cohorts achieved a long time ago. While the documentary doesn’t reveal any insights that hasn’t already been part of public knowledge, its sweet and earnest mood makes the whole experience go down smoothly.




Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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