When Stanley Martin Lieber took a job as an assistant at Timely Comics in 1939, little did he know that 78 years later, he’d arguably become the biggest name in comic-book history. Yet that is exactly what happened, with a little help from some equally legendary artists, of course. The documentary With Great Power…The Stan Lee Story takes a detailed view at Lee’s life, attempting (and generally succeeding) to tell his story in 80 minutes.
Originally released in 2010, and winner of numerous awards such as “Best Directors Docufest” at Atlanta 2011 and the “Special Jury Prize” at the 2011 Nevada Film Festival, With Great Power is available once again on DVD and digital. The movie shows how Lee went from filling inkwells and erasing pencil lines at Timely Comics to eventually becoming the head of Marvel Comics. The documentary is largely narrated by Lee, and includes interviews with key Marvel players such the late Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, as well as John Romita Sr. and Roy Thomas. Also included are interview clips with stars such as Kevin Smith, Sir Patrick Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, and Tobey Maguire, all of who, save for Smith, have portrayed characters co-created by Lee in the movies. In addition, file footage of Lee, as well as the legendary Marvel Bullpen, is shown throughout the film.
We learn from the film that Lee’s name was the result of him splitting his first name in half. No one took comic books seriously then, possibly not even Lee, and he was saving his full name for this great novel that he never wrote. Lee got his start writing a backup story for Captain America Comics in the early 1940s. By the time Kirby and Simon left Timely, publisher Martin Goodman placed the teenaged Lee in charge. This was delayed a bit when Lee enlisted in the army, where he was classified as a playwright, writing training manuals, including one on how not to catch venereal disease. Other notable army playwrights included Frank Capra and Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss.
After the war, Lee returned to Timely, and wrote everything from war comics to westerns to romance. Stymied by the Comics Code, which placed numerous restrictions on writers and artists alike, Lee became disillusioned and wanted to quit comics altogether. His wife Joan, who he met during World War II, suggested he do one book his way before he go out, stating he had nothing to lose if he got fired since he wanted to quit anyhow. This, as Lee said, set off the light bulb above his head. Now he was free to write a comic with more mature themes and focus on the person behind the mask instead of the mask itself. The result of this inspiration was Fantastic Four #1 and nothing less than the birth of the Marvel Age of comics. From there, the floodgates were opened and, soon after, characters such as Spider-Man, The Hulk, The X-Men, and Iron Man followed. It was a great period of creativity and helped Marvel overtake DC in the comic-book wars.
While Lee is quick to give credit in the documentary to the many great artists he worked with, including Kirby, Romita Sr. and Steve Ditko, both Kirby and Ditko eventually left Marvel (Though both later returned) partially over perceived slights or the impression that Lee was taking all the credit for the creation of these characters. Whether this is completely true is a matter of opinion of course and the documentary only touches on these subjects a small bit. The film very much builds up Lee as a giant of the industry, while focusing very little on the negative aspects of his life. Lee to his credit praises these artists up and down and mentions a then-recent lunch he had with Ditko where they discussed possibly doing another Spider-Man story, so there is that.
With Great Power includes numerous bonus features, including extended interviews with everyone involved in the film, a gallery of over 500 characters co-created by Lee, and filmmaker commentary. Running a little more than 90 minutes, the featurettes are longer than the documentary itself.
Stan Lee’s place in comic book history is undeniable. While more insight as to why Lee had disputes with Kirby and Ditko would have made for a more balanced documentary, With Great Power is primarily Lee’s story. Packed with facts, With Great Power…The Stan Lee Story is a great introduction to this legendary creator’s life.