Given the monumental success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, introductions to Stan Lee shouldn’t really be necessary. Real name Stanley Leiber, Stan would be fundamental in the establishment of Marvel Comics and the creation of many iconic Marvel heroes that we know today. From the Fantastic Four to Spider-Man, from the X-Men to Black Panther, when you think of Marvel, you think of Stan Lee. He’s probably the most well-known and popular comic book creator of all time. He’s that influential.
So when the Tribeca Film Festival revealed its slate of films and a documentary simply titled Stan Lee was going to premiere there, I knew it was going to be a part of my coverage list. That shouldn’t be all that surprising given my love of comics and all things nerdy, but I was curious to see if this documentary would focus on Stan the man, or Stan the creator. Are we going to see him as an actual human being, or simply as this living legend who is defined solely by Marvel? The answer is the latter option, but with the amount of showmanship on display here, it makes the grade.
Director: David Gelb
Release Date: June 10, 2023 (Tribeca Film Festival), June 16, 2023 (Disney+)
Told primarily through interviews and archival audio, Stan Lee himself narrates his life from his childhood in New York City up and through the creation of Marvel Comics and his partnership with famous comic artists like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. Throughout, we see his thoughts on how he and his artists create their stories, also known as the “Marvel Method,” and the motivation behind the origins of certain superheroes. Once the documentary enters the phase that looks at his impact on the comic book industry, most of the personal details on his life stop, but at least it’s replaced by fascinating insights on some of the most popular fictional characters of the past century.
Something that will be readily apparent right from the beginning of Stan Lee is the presentation the documentary takes. Most of the accounts made by Stan about his life are done with a multitude of action figures in a variety of poses, giving dynamic depictions of Stan’s stories. That isn’t to say there’s no live-action footage of Stan, but most of those moments come from later in his life when he was circling around doing interviews. There’s very little footage of him in his younger years, so these cute little action figures add a lot of style and heart to the documentary. While I complained that Rather was a bit too stoic and drab in its presentation, Stan Lee feels alive and energetic.
I love, for the most part, how the documentary goes about keeping the focus on Stan. A lot of attention is given to his companions Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, both of whom were also worthy of documentaries due to their fascinating lives and viewpoints, but their action figures are always shown from behind. We never get to see their faces, but they have a presence in these moments in Stan’s life. Stan talks about them favorably and describes how their art was able to enhance each story he wrote in different ways and gives them some characterization, like Ditko’s reclusiveness. But they’re not the focus: Stan is. This does also lead to the documentary briefly criticizing Stan since it shows an interview with Jack Kirby and Stan Lee that showed the two arguing over Kirby’s departure from Marvel and Stan’s role at the company. For just one minute, Stan is shown as being human and not some kind of deity.
Stan Lee does deify the man, showing that there was nothing wrong with his life and painting a picture of a man with very few flaws that was the brains behind the operation. You could argue the documentary is only a surface-level examination of his life because of this. We’re looking at him through the lens of Marvel and his creations, which is fair, but it barely challenges any of his assertations or claims. The documentary stops midway through the 1970s before jumping 40 years into the 2010s and seeing his role in the MCU and how everyone worships the ground he walks on. It doesn’t even come close to mentioning some of the more serious issues that happened in his life, like the elder abuse that he was victim to in the later years. Then there are the moments where Stan discusses his role as the creator of several iconic characters, which becomes a little problematic given the issues that other comic creators like Jack Kirby had with Stan as more of a publicist than an actual creator.
But Stan Lee is a documentary that is being presented by Disney and is streaming now on Disney+. It’s not meant to paint an in-depth picture of him or criticize his ego or actions. It wants to perpetuate the myth of Stan and why he truly is an icon. And I get that. I really do. But I think the documentary pulls double duty by simultaneously examining Stan Lee as well as Marvel Comics and becomes less interesting in the process. If you want to focus on Marvel Comics, focus on Marvel Comics, but don’t just remove 40 years of Stan’s life because he wasn’t actively writing for them and he wasn’t making new characters. If they wanted to be truly comprehensive, show his time with DC when he made Batman into a professional wrestler! As it is, this is just borderline propaganda about the excellence of Stan Lee.
Despite those grievances, Stan Lee is still a solid and entertaining documentary. Its unique flair and eccentric narration really help to elevate the documentary from its contemporaries, even if the information feels incredibly selective. It meets the standard I set for all documentaries in informing its audience about the subject and reaches the even higher bar of actively encouraging its audience to learn more about them. Stan Lee was a legend and while I wish the documentary went a little bit further depicting him outside of Marvel, as a tribute to the man, this is a somewhat excelsior time.