Tribeca 2023 Review: Stan Lee

Stan Lee, the legendary Marvel Comics co-founder, passed away back in 2018. But the work he did during his time continues to be influential to many in the comic book industry. The company itself has evolved into this gargantuan studio that has branched out into more than just comic books. It’s almost as if everywhere you look, there’s a movie, television show, or some other piece of entertainment with the Marvel logo.

For the new documentary, simply titled Stan Lee, the late icon posthumously provides voiceover narration on his own life through a series of archival interviews. Director David Gelb molds it all together in chronological order from when Lee was young and just entering the comic book industry to when he was getting into his final years. Having Lee tell his own story for nearly 90 minutes makes you miss the charm of the man who brought us characters such as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, and the X-Men. There’s a sense of joy in Lee retelling his story, especially when he brings up his late wife Joan – who passed away in 2017. It’s difficult to not have a smile across your face the whole time Lee is telling us about his life.

One of the most creative ways the documentary approaches telling Lee’s stories is through a series of scenes involving action figures. The documentary begins with a 3D recreation of Manhattan in the 1920s and 1930s. Inside one of the windows are two adults and a baby. As Lee states, the date December 28, 1922, was a very important day for him. That’s because it was the day he was born.

Gelb and crew hold the action figures still and will occasionally alter their faces as the emotions pertain to the story being told. Sometimes the story moves out of the apartment or house in which his family resided and relocates to a movie theater, where Lee talks about how he loved seeing actors such as Erroll Flynn on the screen and the movies in which Flynn starred. It’s a clever way to bring Lee’s story to life as we are told about it.

Lee talks about how he started his career in the comic book industry at what was then known as Timely Comics and how his given name, Stanley Lieber, didn’t seem fitting as the name of an author. So, he took his first name and, as Lee put it, “split it in half” to the pseudonym by which he became known to everyone around the world. Of course, he didn’t start off writing stories; he was the one who would run errands for the artists and executives. It took some time before he rose through the ranks.

The documentary takes us through multiple decades in Stan Lee’s life and briefly discusses the societal issues the world was facing and how those issues impacted the comic book industry. When it was first known as Timely Comics, the publisher had introduced Captain America who aided the U.S. Army during World War II before the United States had been involved in the war in real life.  It wasn’t until the 1960s when Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby settled on the name Marvel Comics. And during that time, as there was rampant racism and segregation, Marvel launched many of its most popular characters such as the X-Men and Black Panther to show that superheroes come in all forms.

The first five decades discussed in Stan Lee seem adequately paced and cover a reasonable amount of ground in the life of the Marvel Comics co-founder. One extremely revealing aspect of the documentary comes when Lee talks about how he almost walked away from it all, as he saw many other people achieving and building things that he thought seemed more important for society than comic books. For a man who dedicated his whole life to comics, it’s shocking to hear but it also is respectable for him to share the vulnerable side of himself.

Many of the sentiments felt toward comic books back then are similar to how some people feel about them now. A lot of people think comic books are strictly for kids or young adults. And back then, they had to pass through an organization known as the Comics Code Authority before being published and made available to purchase. Lee talks about how he was able to go around the organization and its draconian rules on at least one occasion to promote non-drug use. And even when comics were mostly being targeted at kids, Lee brought about ways to reach out to adults as well and make characters more relatable to the everyday person as opposed to being from a planet called Krypton.

Gelb and crew briefly go into the feuds that Lee had with Kirby and Ditko, which ultimately led to them both leaving Marvel Comics. A tense radio interview from 1987 with Lee and Kirby is aired, and from the sounds of it, it appears that much of their disagreements never got resolved. It’s probably the only part of the 1980s decade that is brought up in the documentary.

Once the 1970s decade is covered, Stan Lee jumps straight into the 2010s, after Disney has acquired Marvel Studios and made it into this hugely profitable machine. It’s kind of disappointing that Gelb and team didn’t cover the 80s, 90s, or 2000s when Marvel was just starting to get off the ground as it ventured into having movies and television shows based on its most beloved characters. It would have been interesting to hear what was going through Lee’s mind as he first saw characters like Hulk, Spider-Man, and Captain America come to life in other mediums. I’m really curious what Lee thought when movies like Blade and The Punisher were released.

The documentary skips over the last few years of Lee’s life, which proved to be rather tumultuous. He was embroiled in legal issues, sexual harassment allegations, and elder abuse. None of that is covered in Gelb’s documentary, as it signs off with the comic book legend talking about how Marvel Studios has evolved into what it is currently known as now, and how he has had the fortune of standing alongside many excellent actors as they help bring his characters to life on the big screen and how he has the opportunity to provide cameos for each film.

While it doesn’t quite cover all corners of his life, Stan Lee serves as a lovely tribute to the man who inspired many to enter the comic book industry. Most of the material discussed here is already easily accessible if you were to scroll through Lee’s Wikipedia page. But hearing it come from the man himself brings another level of depth that is impossible to match. It’s a charming reminder that Lee’s work will forever live on, and there will continue to be many who will learn from him and help carry on the legacy he left behind.

Stan Lee premieres exclusively on Disney+ on June 16, 2023.

David Wangberg

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