A topic that I am genuinely qualified to write about, I can think of no better use for my fancy Film Degree than to pay tribute to the great Stan Lee, who died last week at the grand old age of 95. It is hard to express just how significant Stan Lee’s contribution to comic books and Superhero Movies was (and will continue to be) but I am going to have a bash.
When I graduated from The University of Westminster in 2004, I did so with a dissertation entitled The Amazing Adventures of the Man of Steel in the 21st Century subtitled ‘How can Warner Brothers use their proposed project Superman V to capitalise within the market established by X-Men in 2000?’ The conclusions I drew were essentially that audiences are loving their superheroes so will of course go to see anything that wears a cape and flies but that the character of Superman would not fit within the Marvel universe of human misfits with super powers.
As it happened, Warner Brothers did not read my dissertation and went on to make one of the worst Superman movies ever with Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006). You’re going to see that name again in the next sentence – it is important. One of the many reasons that this movie was a total wet fart in spandex was because the filmmakers took a character who is an alien with a really strong moral compass and squeezed him into a world of flawed humans who happen to have superhuman abilities. I called it. I felt vindicated and heartbroken at the same time. I love Superman.
With the release of X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000) the ground on which superheroes stood was shaken to its very core in much the same way as it had been when Stan Lee first started writing the kind of characters that he wanted to write back in the early 60s. Stan Lee had been working in comic books since 1939 – let’s all just take a moment to appreciate longevity of that magnitude – but it wasn’t until he had paid his dues that he was able to try out a radical new idea.
While Superman was an alien flying around an imaginary city, Stan Lee created characters who were human beings, with human relationships and families, and set them in New York City – his beloved hometown. Stan Lee wrote real people with real problems, albeit with extraordinary abilities. The way that these abilities manifested themselves in ordinary people was so 60s – cue exposure to nuclear reactions, toxic waste, gamma rays, and genetic mutation. Stan Lee read about gamma rays in a newspaper and thought they sounded cool so made them central to the origins story of The Incredible Hulk.
Ah, the Hulk. I grew up watching repeats of the Lou Ferrigno TV series (which I loved almost as much as the Adam West Batman!) and was thrilled to see the original actor given a cameo in the 2003 high-budget production Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003). Stan Lee shared this cameo and it is one of my favourites. It’s not just the fact that it is a double cameo – a million fanboys and fangirls wet their pants in unison – but it’s the self-aware dialogue that they have between them.
Do you think that a massive security breach may be on the cards? Ya think?
Not since Alfred Hitchcock has a cameo been so eagerly anticipated and expected in every film. Stan Lee would pop up in the most wonderful scenarios and the sense of joy in seeing the creator of these hugely popular characters existing in a world of his own creation is immeasurable. This may be the saddest part of Stan Lee’s death; though he lived a long and full life and will undoubtedly live on forever through his creations, future Marvel Superhero Movies will be bereft of these wonderful cameos.
If you have a spare 10 minutes today, some wonderful soul with way too much time on their hands has made this amazing compilation. It really is a joy to watch.
If I had been writing this article back in 2004, I would have been well-versed to talk to you about every Superhero Movie, whether from the Marvel or DC universe, comic strips, live action films, cartoons, TV series, whatever but today I am well out of the loop. This was a conscious decision.
After paying my very hefty ticket price to see the latest Superman incarnation in Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013) I lost the love of it all. If Superman Returns was the worst Superman movie ever made then Man of Steel was the loudest! Characters bang and crash their way around an imaginary city where their punches do not seem to hurt each other but entire buildings are razed to the ground. I found myself wondering what the collateral damage would be and left with my ears ringing. I decided that every aspiring writer and director of a Superhero Movie should be forced to watch Superman (Richard Donner, 1978) and admire its use of humour, romance, action and adventure with a great script and great acting. I was even hugely disappointed with Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017) despite the powerful female characters and director, they still ended up in a scenario of (you’ll pardon the expression) dick-swinging from the SFX department with no regard for the story. I was no longer excited by new Superhero Movies.
Last week, I realised that I am perhaps being massively unfair because all of the films mentioned above are DC characters which, 18 years later, are STILL trying to shoehorn themselves into the world created by Stan Lee. I have not seen The Defenders (Netflix, 2017) but I plan to because Stan Lee’s voiceover in the clip shown in the cameo compilation struck a chord with me. This is not only a perfect illustration of the legacy that he leaves in the characters that he created but also just a wonderful sentiment that needs sharing in the real world he leaves behind:
Heroes show us we don’t need to be perfect to do what’s right.
It’s not about living without fear, but facing injustice.
It’s not about being powerful, but finding your calling when you least expect it.
They show us it’s OK to be vulnerable, no matter how tough you are,
Because even though they’re heroes, they’re still human.
Maybe I should reconsider my recent aversion and dive back into the Marvel universe.
Thank you for all of the stories, Stan Lee. You will forever be remembered for showing us that one person can make a difference. ‘Nuff said.