Fans were shocked and saddened by news that Stan Lee, Marvel Comics writer, editor, and publisher from the 1960s to 1980, had died due to still undisclosed causes. He was 95 years old and was suffering from various illnesses.
Lee’s place and legacy as American–and later on, global–cultural icon is well-deserved. Not only did he change comics in the 1960s, he also became a leading figure in making comic book heroes mainstream.
In 1981, he retired from comics to focus on creating TV shows and movies based on his Marvel characters–most of which were created with his main collaborators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.
There were hits and misses–mostly misses–in Lee’s early efforts. Films like Dr. Strange (a movie made for TV in 1978), Captain America (1990), Daredevil (2003), and Elektra (2005) were all critical and box-office flops.
The Incredible Hulk films (2003 and 2008) also proved unsatisfying to fans and critics.
The X-Men films produced from year 2000 to 2018 attained better critical and box-office success. These films, however, as well as the earlier ones, were made in collaboration with established studios like Paramount, Sony, and 20th Century Fox.
The Spiderman trilogy directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire also came out in the early to mid-2000s.
Lee began building his status as pop culture icons with cameo appearances in these films.
As Marvel films gained a global audience, fans would clap and cheer whenever Lee would appear on screen. He’s appeared in all 19 MCU films so far–and will continue to do so beyond his death. Reportedly, Lee had already filmed his scenes in several upcoming Marvel movies.
Marvel eventually formed its own multimedia company, Marvel Entertainment, that now includes Marvel Comics, Marvel Animation, Marvel Television, and Marvel Studios for films.
Marvel Studios produced the first Iron Man (2008) movie that launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a billion-dollar, global franchise. Lee served as Executive Producer in all of the MCU films.
Since then, the MCU has become the most successful movie franchise of all time, beating even Star Wars, Harry Potter, and James Bond. So far, the MCU has grossed about $15.5 billion dollars in earnings.
Not a bad legacy for Stanley Leiber, the son of Romanian-Jewish parents who grew up in New York in the 1920s. Leiber, who eventually legally changed his name to Stan Lee, had wanted to become a writer ever since he was a boy and once dreamed of becoming a novelist.
Archetypes and inspiration
Lee did not become the novelist he dreamed of but he did change both comics and movies in such a deep and far-reaching way.
For example he is credited for revolutionizing the way comic book characters–superheroes in particular–are created and written.
In the 1950s and earlier, comic book superheroes were cartoon figures–caricatures that represented the highest ideals of humanity. However, an effect of that is they were unrealistically “good”. They didn’t have personalities that ordinary humans could relate to because they were all goodness, niceness, and light. Even the villains they faced were also evil in a cartoonish way.
That all changed in the 1960s when the cultural shift, including the sexual revolution, towards more liberated thought and norms–not the mention the civil rights movement in the US–made it possible for Lee and other comic book authors to explore new characters, themes, and plots.
It’s noticeable how practically none of Lee’s superhero characters, beginning with The Fantastic Four in 1961 are god-like, morally pure personalities. All of them are flawed, some even deeply flawed.
In the case of the Fantastic Four, they have great difficulty functioning as a team because their personalities clash. Reed Richards is egotistical and plagued by guilt (blaming himself for the transformation of Benjamin Grimm into The Thing, a giant rock monster).
Johnny Storm is immature and dislikes rules and authority. Ben Grimm has a ruinous temper. Susan Storm, Reed’s wife, often gets into spats with him.
Even more flawed heroes were to come with the X-Men in 1963. These superheroes with mutant powers were rejects and outcasts of society, forced to hide their powers for fear of being misunderstood, shamed, or even captured and experimented on.
Some critics have pointed out that the X-Men’s characters and stories reflected the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and that they were Lee’s (along with Jack Kirby, who also collaborated on Fantastic Four) statement against racism.
Since then, these comic book superheroes and the ones who came later, have become part of the bedrock of archetypes that teach and inspire us. They are heirs to the gods, heroes, other mythical beings that nourish the human spirit and imagination.
Still, there’s one lasting message from Lee that we need to remember long after his death: even ordinary, flawed people can become heroes.
Bruce Banner is a genius, but is practically a menace to society. Far from being viewed as a hero, he’s more often considered a dangerous, deadly, psychotic rage monster when he becomes the Hulk.
Peter Parker was like every other shy and introverted, self-conscious and insecure teen. He was smart but his awkwardness and being tagged a “loser” kept him in the bottom of the high school social ladder.
And even when Parker gets bitten by that radioactive spider and he gets his spider powers, his immaturity cancels out the benefits: he chooses wrongly, resulting in the death of his Uncle Ben.
So for those of us weighed down by life circumstances, physical or mental weaknesses or even sickness, we can look on Lee’s flawed superheroes: all god-like but all very human, and learn that we all have our own set of “powers”.
The key is to accept these powers along with our weaknesses. The next step is to master and strengthen these powers and direct them towards some meaningful purpose that benefits humanity.
After all, with great power comes great responsibility–and if we learn that, we truly become heroes to others and ourselves.
Thank you very much, Mr. Stan Lee. And as you would say, “Excelsior!”
Photo from Marvel.com