Review: Stan Lee

The man, the myth, the hagiography

Filed under: Reviews

A hagiography is defined as two things: the writing of the lives of saints, and a biography that idealizes its subjects. The new Disney+ biography Stan Lee does both of those things and fits the descriptor perfectly.

Stan Lee is a controversial character. Many of the predatory contracts that robbed Marvel comic book artists and writers of credit for the intellectual properties they helped forge (or in some cases, created in their entirety and were denied credit for), Lee had them sign. This is not unique to the "House of Ideas" at Marvel. Detective Comics aka DC, the only real peer of similar scale, has fraught relationships with creators (see the controversy around Bob Kane and Bill Finger), as well as notorious contracts (Allan Moore will be sure to let you know all about that). The sins of Lee were not unique and he was, for a time, a friend and collaborator with many of these creators, but his self mythologizing elevated his status to an unnatural height.

Released on Disney+ and directed by David Geib, the film is a love letter to the myth of a man that is all that many comic fans know. Appearing in cameos in nearly every Marvel film until his passing, he was a sainted old man not afraid of a little joke at his expense just to be a part of the experience. The story is told entirely in his words via use of old interviews spliced together to tell a cohesive story, from his start as an office boy at a trouser company to his time doing guest spots in Marvel movies created by the Walt Disney Company.

To its credit, there is a brief acknowledgement of some of the strife with Ditko, if only in passing, but none of his troubles with Kirby. This is a partial picture, but if you are interested in a retelling of the myth of Marvel as seen by one of its masterminds, this is a beautiful take.

Featuring a series of dioramas, it's truly stunning to watch. They are detailed and magnificent. It's one of the few times I genuinely wanted to see a film in 3D, as the effect of these pieces was astounding. But go in knowing this is the man's self mythologizing, which does have its merits to know and understand. There are a host of counter takes, from Sean Howe's book Marvel Comics the Untold Story to Jack Kirby's son (Neal Kirby) recounting his father's time working for Marvel, not in some amazing office but from his basement with no outside input, as shared by Neal's daughter via Twitter. We also don't get to see the fact that Stan eventually was pushed out of the company after it went bankrupt and fell into the hands of a right wing Mar-a-Largo member toymaker who hampered the company's growth by pushing his own bigotry when overriding editorial decisions.

Like with Lucas' Star Wars, Marvel's purchase by Disney was probably the best thing for the IPs. They created platforms for them to flourish, attached capital to projects to let them reach completion when previously they withered on the vine, and importantly brought home beloved characters previously sold off to pay the bills (Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Incredible Hulk). Disney has always been a company based on corporate figureheads, Walt being the first, and then Jim Henson (though I would argue rightfully) deified when he sold the Muppets to the Mouse. Stan joins this in-house august assemblage of company saints. He gets his own documentary with his version of history front and center.

It'd be nice to see a series of films focusing on each of Marvel's magnificent creators, but for us Merry Marvel Marching Society Members, the best we're going to have is secondhand accounts – certainly nothing elevating Ayers, Ditko, or Kirby to their well-deserved sainthood earned toiling in their basements day and night to flesh Stan's "seeds" into cohesive stories starring the characters we know and love. Face forward True Believers, because the truth is out there.

Tags: Marvel, Stan Lee, Dick Ayers, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, Neal Kirby, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man, documentary

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