In the new documentary by David Gelb, titled Stan Lee, the late Marvel Comics chief is portrayed in a rather lackluster manner. The film fails to capture the essence of Lee’s goal to create entertaining, inspirational, and educational comic books and instead focuses on his cameos in Disney’s Marvel films as the highlight of his career.
The documentary follows the life of Stanley Martin Lieber in a fairly straightforward chronology, from his birth in New York in 1922 to the present day. Gelb, known for his expertise in filming food, seems to struggle with how to visually represent the career of a legend in a visual medium. Instead, the film consists of static shots of unimpressive dioramas representing Lee’s childhood home and a strange model of a young Lee in a movie theater. These uninspiring sets are used repeatedly throughout the film, giving it a cheap feel. While some period-appropriate footage is utilized, it would have been more engaging to see comic-style art incorporated. The film truly shines when it adds animation to the pages of the comic books that Lee helped create, bringing them to life with lightning crackling and dialogue appearing in text bubbles.
While there are a few interesting revelations about Lee’s life, such as his work writing comic strips to train finance officers during World War II, the majority of the documentary fails to accurately represent the history of Marvel. Jack Kirby’s son Neal has criticized the film for downplaying his father’s role in creating iconic Marvel characters like Black Panther, Iron Man, and the Hulk. The documentary portrays Lee as a prodigy who rose to editor of Marvel using his own wit, but conveniently omits the fact that this promotion came after Kirby and Joe Simon left for more lucrative opportunities at DC Comics. The departures of Kirby and Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, who expressed dissatisfaction with Lee’s claiming of credit for their work and his dominance as editor-in-chief, are also glossed over. While there is a radio broadcast scene where Kirby and Lee debate their contributions, Lee’s claims are largely accepted without question.
Lee’s claims to have invented the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and Thor are largely taken at face value.
The documentary portrays Lee as a revolutionary hero who challenged the rigid Comics Code Authority, co-created the X-Men and Black Panther to combat racism, and introduced powerful female heroes like Black Widow and Susan Storm out of love for his wife. However, there are brief mentions of less heroic aspects of Lee’s career, such as his self-dealing as editor-in-chief and his attempt to imitate DC’s Justice League with the creation of the Fantastic Four.
Stan Lee falls short in its scope and factual accuracy. It briefly touches on Lee’s frustration with the sale of Marvel and the characters he co-created, without mentioning the lawsuits he filed to secure a share of the film rights to those characters. The emphasis placed on fan mail received by Marvel is merely an opportunity for Lee to boast, lacking the humanistic and humble approach seen in the 1997 Star Trek documentary Trekkies.
The soft approach taken in Stan Lee is expected, considering it is part of Disney’s Marvel offerings on Disney+. However, it is a disservice to the other creators who played a crucial role in revolutionizing the comics medium. From showcasing Lee at The Avengers premiere to highlighting his numerous cameos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the film presents Disney’s adaptations as the pinnacle of Marvel Comics. While this may align with Lee’s own feelings about being involved with comics, it disregards the contributions of countless other creators.