Movie Review – Stan Lee (Mini Review)

Principal Cast : Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko.
Synopsis:  A documentary around Marvel Comics’ editor in chief Stan Lee, and his rise within the comic book publishing industry and his influence on popular culture.


Gregarious former Marvel Comics chief Stan Lee narrates his own documentary, directed by independent filmmaker David Gelb, in only the most loquacious manner possible. Although Stan passed in 2018, this film makes it feel like he never left us, the man’s warm tones and self-deprecating nostalgic storytelling, often through archival footage cleverly woven together as an overarching description of Marvel Comics’ ancestry and eventual powerhouse global domination and it once more flutters my heart that we no longer have him among us. A product of pre-and-postwar America, Lee seemingly stumbled into Depression-era comic publishing and became Editor-in-Chief of then Timely Comics, which would eventually become Marvel Comics, and one of the Big Two publishers alongside DC for the attention of generations of young (and young at heart) readers. Gelb uses Stan’s own words to explain his story, with both fanciful and semi-honest plot twists threaded through the narrative as Lee becomes the emblematic American storyteller for millions of readers, as well as the defacto face of the company he helped bring to the forefront.

Although retrospective historical accuracy has allowed people to recognise Stan Lee’s contribution to creating Marvel’s most popular titles and characters alongside artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (both of whom are represented in audio grabs from various interviews, one of which has the former sparring with Lee on radio about creative credit to the popular creations – something I wouldn’t have expected to make an appearance had Stan been alive to rebuke it), there’s a stroke of self-interest about this documentary that mirror’s the man’s public image – always the Marvel salesman. Stan Lee’s career is the focus, but I think he gives an honest appraisal as is possible about how much Ditko and Kirby were formative in Marvel’s publishing history, so doubters and haters might find gleefully picking over his bones isn’t to their satisfaction this time around.

The film covers his family life, through to early relationship with his wife Joan and their daughters, to his rise through Marvel’s embryonic formation and eventual mainstream success, all backgrounded by Gelb’s very clever knitting of archival and more contemporary interviews and recordings Lee made, with some quite remarkable footage of early conventions and television interviews adding to the substantial canvas the man’s life covered. Of notable interest is an all-too-brief mention of the Comics Code Authority and its effect on publishing during the 40’s and beyond, as well as an equally far-too-quick 70’s on-camera bickering roundtable with then DC Editor Julius Schwartz about the impact of comics on kids. It’s the public falling out between Lee and Jack Kirby after the latter left the company, around creative credit, that I think still has a stench associated with it even with Lee’s most ardent supporters (comic fans are far more knowledgeable and forgiving of such oversight today), and this remains one of the more intriguing parts of this overall production.

Stan Lee the documentary is pretty much a puff-piece about Lee that’s less retrospective and more cleverly subversive moving autobiography. The use of Lee’s own voice to narrate gives the film a sense of authenticity but aside from a couple of moments you never really see what others’ opinions of Stan may have been. A great biopic offers more than one side of any story, and this doesn’t do that. Stan crafted a later career as a spokesman for Marvel and publicly gave himself up as the sole creative force behind the publisher’s greatest hits, when historically it’s well known that maybe he oversold himself, and there’s an argument to be made that Lee’s usurpation of creation runs rampant again here. Still, for a trip down four-coloured memory lane, Stan Lee is an amenably pleasant time dipping a toe back into comic books again. Hardly authoritative, but at least open to truth, the film doesn’t punch above its weight and seems content to merely worship the man rather than examine his life. Your mileage may vary.

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