In the documentary, Stan Lee, one of the best and most prolific storytellers in comic book history, tells the story of his own life in his own words.
If you grew up reading Marvel Comics or followed the first three phases of MCU films, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with the history behind at least one of the superheroes Stan Lee created; maybe you’ve even seen other documentaries or read biographies chronicling the rise of the biggest publishing house in comic book history. However, the latest attempt to immortalize Marvel’s legend offers a unique perspective—one presented almost entirely by the man who drove that success.
Stan Lee is a new documentary recounting the life of the eponymous legend and the company he put on the map, using old archival footage to piece together a cohesive tale. Through its nearly 90-minute runtime, audiences will hear Stan the Man at various points over the years, from early TV interviews to one of his final public appearances, giving the graduation keynote for UCLA’s class of 2017.
Having grown up reading Spider-Man comics in the mid-90s, I was aware of Stan’s legacy from a young age. I saw the homages to him in the comics, his cameo on The Simpsons, and the subsequent cameos in everything else Marvel put on screens for almost twenty years. I’ve even heard the story of how he changed the paradigm for the medium in other documentaries, like AMC’s Secret History of Comics.
But what I appreciated about Stan Lee the documentary, and what sets it apart, is hearing the man himself recount the creation of Peter Parker, the Fantastic Four, and more. For my money, this is the best kind of biographical documentary that lets the subject recount their tale, even when they aren’t with us anymore to tell it anew. Like HBO’s stellar look at Robin Williams’ life, Come Inside My Mind, it’s comforting to hear the icon’s own take on their legacy.
Unlike the Williams documentary, however, there simply isn’t an abundance of file footage to pull from to create a stimulating visual experience. To this end, director David Gelb supplements home videos and TV footage with claymation-esque dioramas. These little scenes convey the spirit behind the scenes portrayed by Lee’s narration and fill in the gaps of historical footage.
The combined result is not a visually demanding documentary, with some moments of home videos recycled a little too liberally. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it gives the man’s words themselves the brunt of the attention, but it’s also the sort of thing that could’ve made an equally fine podcast or other audio-only product instead.
While the lion’s share of the narrative is conveyed by the man of the hour himself, Gelb also peppered Stan Lee with other perspectives where appropriate, like that of Lee’s wife of nearly 70 years, Joan; Marvel Comics secretary, Flo Steinberg; and his long-running collaborator, Jack Kirby. Gelb deftly interweaves their perspectives as needed for potent effect.
Many Marvel fans will have heard most of Stan Lee’s stories before in one form or another, and no deathbed bombshells are dropped. However, the same fans should also get a kick of some of the niche footage interspersed. (I personally enjoyed the “Merry Marvel Marching Society” and one particularly TV segment where a young fan defended Marvel’s storytelling approach to a DC Comics executive while Stan quietly chortled on the other side of the stage.)
Where the “in their own words” approach fails Stan Lee is some of the thornier parts of the icon’s legacy. While there’s plenty of talk about how he elevated Atlas Comics’ “comic magazines” from a product aimed at adolescents only to a mainstream institution, there’s less mention of the various disputes with collaborators that shared his accomplishments.
The most prevalent of these disputes—with Kirby, and original Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko—get their time, of course. Yet the documentary’s narrative is not interested in approaching such conflicts with too much scrutiny, preferring to remain focused on positives instead. In this regard Stan Lee plays it safe and perhaps misses an opportunity to make a definitive statement on a long-running debate, satisfied with giving that chapter only the obligated coverage instead.
If I sound negative, I don’t intend to; even though I’ve heard most of these stories, I still wore a goofy grin through most of Stan Lee. Stan The Man had a way with written and spoken words, and this documentary pieces together a nigh-definitive version of the most important origin story he ever made, his own.
The tale is one worth heeding, either just for the trivia or for the story of a pioneer who made an indelible impact on our pop culture. Gelb handles it with the grace and respect it requires without veering into pandering territory, which is an accomplishment in itself.