This week, the universe lost a superhero. Stan Lee, one of the founding figures of Marvel Comics, died at the age of 95 on 12 November, 2018. The characters that Lee and Jack Kirby created have weaved their way into our world in such a way that there is rarely a superhero movie not in the cinema, and everyone and their aunt can probably name at least one of the Avengers members. His work marked a visionary change in how superhero stories were created and written, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a great example of how print-work can be adapted for screen.
Stan Lee was a visionary in the comic book world. Younger, or more casual, fans of Marvel probably mainly know him as that old man who’s in every Marvel movie, but his impact on Marvel is one of the main reasons that you even get to see those cameos. The first ‘superhero’ characters that Lee wrote – and Kirby designed – were the Fantastic Four in 1961, which ushered in a new era of realism in superhero comics. Lee believed in using comic books to provide social commentary; there have been stories relating to the then ongoing Vietnam War, the X-Men were created as an allegory for the civil rights movement, and Lee created Black Panther with Kirby in 1966, marking him as the first mainstream black comic book hero.
The first adaption of Stan Lee’s characters into live-action movie was the ill-fated, unreleased but still available on the internet, Fantastic Four (1994). This was followed by the critically-panned but well-loved X-Men trilogy in 2000, starring two of Hollywood’s finest actors, Srs. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, as well as Tobey Maguire’s iconically goofy turn as Spider-Man, the sequel to which is still the only Marvel movie to win an Oscar.
It was Iron Man (2008), however, that spawned the birth of the MCU, edifying and popularising the superhero genre, and allowing a fleet of Stan Lee’s characters to take centre stage. Iron Man marked the first phase of the MCU, which is now in its third phase and twenty films deep; the most recent being Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Ant-Man and the Wasp, which all find themselves on the top ten highest grossing films of 2018 list. Soon to be released includes Captain Marvel in March 2019, and the as-of-yet-untitled sequel to Infinity War. Marvel – now acquired by Disney – is a behemoth in the film industry, so much so that the Oscars committee considered introducing a ‘most popular movie’ category, perhaps to justify awarding Oscars to films traditionally considered too homogeneous and by- the-number to be award winning. With films mapped out to 2028, Stan Lee will live on through his characters on screen for generations to come.
At the time of his death, Stan Lee had already retired from Marvel, but still acted as a figurehead and public face for the iconic company. Lee cameoed in almost every Marvel movie, ranging from him playing a jury member in the tv-movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk in 1989, to being mistaken for Hugh Hefner in 2008’s Iron Man, or my personal favourite – playing a librarian listening to classical music, oblivious to the carnage as Andrew Garfield’s Spider- Man fights The Lizard behind him, in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012). Stan Lee was a man who helped transform an industry, who shaped people’s childhoods, careers, lives. I hope that he and Kirby are somewhere, knowing and understanding the impact on the world that they both had in their fantastic careers. Excelsior, Stan.
Image: Marvel Studios via Wikimedia Commons.