Given his status as the preeminent impresario of US comic books during the 20th century, it’s appropriate that Stan Lee has become an emblem of reality receding behind self-promotion. Over nearly 80 years in the business as a writer, editor, publisher, and informal representative at Timely/Marvel Comics, he co-created many of its most iconic characters, including Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and Iron Man. Lee is unquestionably a vital figure in the field, but in the popular consciousness, his status has mutated beyond mere importance into being the sole comics figure the average person can identify. Stan Lee, a new documentary produced for Disney+, adds nothing to the historical record or collective conversation on Lee, but does work to bolster the man’s mythology.
The film is directed by David Gelb, noteworthy for shaping the contemporary aesthetics of food photography with documentary work like 2011’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi and the television series Chef’s Table. Here he employs almost none of that visual sensibility. Besides the standard archival photographs and interviews, the film recreates past events with diorama-like miniatures. While a novel approach, it certainly doesn’t evoke any comic book feeling. The Marvel Comics of the 1960s and ’70s are crucial components of Pop art, characterized by their dynamism and vivid colors, but this is a film dominated by stillness and beige.
Stan Lee was always extremely engaged with the fan community, enthusiastically participating in conventions, television specials, and more during his time with Marvel and after he left in the ’90s. While all his non-comics business enterprises failed (along with many of his comics-related ones), he understood personal branding as a concept earlier than most artists, arguably even Andy Warhol, and he successfully made himself the face of Marvel for many. This paid off beyond his wildest dreams as the superhero genre evolved in the 21st century from a fixation for children or “nerds” into a dominant element of popular culture. Starting with X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002), it became obligatory for any Marvel movie to give him a cameo. He was at every red carpet premiere, at innumerable convention panels, and always game for an interview. Now Lee is considered almost a deity for Marvel, whereas his various collaborators over the decades — Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Joe Simon, and many more — have faded in the minds of all but the more dedicated comics aficionados.
For every character Lee was involved with, there is an official backstory, each repeated enough over the years that most comics fans know it by heart. (Alongside “Excelsior,” “True believers,” and “’Nuff said,” one of Lee’s lesser-known catchphrases was “I’ve told this story so often that it might even be true.”) Stan Lee mainly consists of reiterating these familiar tales. While Lee passed away in 2018, the voluminous number of interviews he gave over the years provide more than enough archival material for him to seamlessly narrate nearly the entire documentary.
The problem is that every story Lee repeats has a counter-narrative from co-workers — the distinction almost always being that Lee drastically inflates his own role in creation while downplaying those of his artists. The longstanding “Marvel Method,” which relied heavily on pooling and remixing ideas from many authors while leaving official credits ambiguous, means that tangible proof of any individual’s story is often nonexistent. It’s a 40-year case of “X said/Y said.” But while artists like Kirby fought long, bitter battles for any official recognition and especially for any recompense from Marvel and other comic book companies, Lee remained on the inside. While he may not have received his own deserved royalties for his role in creating these characters, he could more than live off his earnings as an editor and publisher, not to mention the cultural cachet he accrued as Marvel’s real-life mascot. It doesn’t seem accidental, then, that his version of events is the one that takes precedence and receives mainstream validation. This isn’t even the first documentary in which he gets center stage to tell his side; nearly all the same anecdotes are in 2010’s With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story.
One difference between Stan Lee and that earlier film is that Gelb gives some space to the controversy, acknowledging that Kirby disputed Lee’s portrayal of their partnership. But with 90% of the running time devoted to Lee with no pushback, its nod to Kirby’s argument, with no investigation of either tale, feels nominal at best. Kirby’s family was not impressed; when the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, they released a statement so lacerating that it stings just to read, calling it “Stan Lee’s greatest tribute to himself.”
While definitive proof of their stories’ veracity may be lacking, one could, for example, scrutinize how Lee and Kirby’s tales changed (or didn’t) over the years, who was more consistent, and who had better track records of relating facts. This is precisely what Abraham Josephine Riesman does in True Believer, her 2022 biography of Lee. One of the few major works to critically and rigorously scrutinize Stan Lee the man rather than the myth, the book lays bare his pattern of self-aggrandizement. In sharp contrast to his avuncular public image, Riesman provides evidence that Lee could be shockingly cold to friends and family alike. This is not to say that he was “actually” a bad guy — only in the most cliché-bound superhero comics is anyone simply a hero or villain. But Lee was far more complicated than the image of the cuddly cameo-maker suggests.
Another thing Riesman does that few other biographies accomplish is to look in depth at Lee’s post-Marvel years, marked by an unending string of go-nowhere projects, poorly received new superhero ideas, and failed business ventures. Stan Lee ends in the early 1970s. It has no interest in Lee beyond when he helped devise his most lucrative properties. That’s a disappointingly mercenary, very corporate approach to the life of a human being.
Stan Lee is now available to stream on Disney+.