‘Stan Lee’ (2023) Review: A Glossed-Over Documentary But A Fitting Retelling Of The Comicbook Legend’s Life

Last week, I was rewatching Spider-man: Into The Spiderverse (2018) before going for the sequel. When the mandatory Stan Lee cameo scene appeared, my immediate thought was how I was going to miss seeing the man doing his thing for one minute while watching Across The Spiderverse. For a lot of people around the world, Stan Lee used to be the goofy old guy who cameoed in every single Marvel movie until his death back in December 2018. He made one posthumous appearance in Avengers: Endgame (2019), but even after that, the MCU managed to find creative ways to pay tribute to Lee in many of their projects. 

Lee’s legacy goes far beyond the MCU, of course. It’s safe to say that the man will forever be remembered as the person who made Marvel Comics what it is. A documentary on the man’s life was long-time due, and we finally have it, courtesy of Disney and director David Gelb. And the most interesting aspect of it is that Lee himself narrates it, thanks to a lot of archival footage and voice recordings. The movie, which is essentially a retelling of Lee’s life story, is exactly how it should have been: exuberant and full of hope.

The narrative approach is very straightforward here, as it starts right from the day Stanley Martin Lieber was born. Yes, that was his real name. Lee’s childhood was quite regular, although his father had to go through a lot of employment-related struggles. That impacted his life to a huge extent- as Lee jumped into every opportunity of odd jobs that came his way. Despite having a natural knack for both reading and writing, he did not hesitate to take a job at a tailoring shop or the job of an office boy. Getting a stable job that puts the bread on the table became the most crucial thing in life for him. But life had other plans for him, of course. While another errand boy job took Lee to Timely Comics, he got to experience the creative process of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who were already on a career high thanks to their creation Captain America. With Kirby and Simon eventually leaving Timely Comics, Lee got his first break from publisher Martin Goodman at the age of seventeen. From there on, there was no looking back for the man.

Eventually, Kirby returned, and together, Lee and Kirby formed one of the most formidable writer-director partnerships, which laid the foundation for Marvel Comics’ initial success. The working equation between Kirby and Lee gets a lot of focus in the documentary, as Lee tells in detail how it felt working with the legendary Jack Kirby for so many years until Kirby abruptly left. Despite creating so many great things together, the two did have a fallout, which led to a battle of egos. Snippets of a 1987 Radio Interview where Kirby and Lee had a very public argument regarding story credits are used in the documentary, although Stan Lee doesn’t really talk about it.

Stan Lee documentary also manages to explore the creative origin of most of the popular Marvel characters. A large chunk of focus goes to Spider-man, understandably. At a time when teenagers were mere sidekicks, Lee having the courage to introduce a Superhero who was still in high school and had all the regular life problems to deal with said a lot about the man himself. In fact, Lee’s whole philosophy of creating Superheroes who are basically regular people but with Superpowers is what Marvel Comics has always been about. And arguably, Spider-man is the flag-bearer of that. Speaking of Spider-man, the documentary does not shy away from another credit-related tussle between Lee and Steve Ditko. While Kirby, with an already legendary status, was Lee’s go-to illustrator for all his big comics, for Spider-man, he chose to give the drawing responsibility to Steve Ditko. The reason behind the decision has been clearly explained by Lee: Kirby’s flashy, grand style wouldn’t have been a natural fit for a character like Spider-Man. Dikto, on the other hand, had a much different, more grounded style, which was exactly what Lee envisioned. However, Dikto thought it was unfair that Lee got all the credits. The documentary, as well as Lee himself, does hint at supporting Dikto. It was only fair, given an idea only remains an idea if nobody executes it. Dikto did get the credit, and today, both Lee and Dikto are known as co-creators of Spider-Man.

It was refreshing to see Lee acknowledge DC Comics’ Justice League as his initial inspiration behind creating the Fantastic Four, and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as the inspiration for none other than the Hulk. We also get to know how Lee and Kirby took a swing at including Norse mythology and made the God of Thunder, Thor, one of their own. What I particularly loved about the documentary is how it emphasizes Lee’s extensive talk about grave issues like racism, bigotry, and society’s naturally unfriendly attitude towards differently-abled people. Considering the whole documentary is basically different interviews and recordings of Lee joined in such a way that it successfully manages to retain the flow of a narrative, the director has done a really good job here.

Stan Lee documentary does have some issues, though. The use of a three-dimensional clay model as a storytelling tool does not quite work. The strange tonal shift in the last five minutes, with the documentary essentially turning into an MCU commercial, made the MCU fan in me shed a tear, but it was really abrupt and absolutely unnecessary. However, the real issue is the obvious glorification of Lee as a human being and glossing over his flaws. Lee himself, being the narrator, didn’t leave room for other perspectives at all. Considering this is a Disney production, this is not at all surprising. But even with all that, we can all agree that Stan Lee was still a good man. Why else would he turn the differently-abled into Mutants? Or throw a Black Panther in the face of every racist white guy on earth? Or do a much-needed anti-drug Spider-Man story despite comic censorship not allowing it. Stanley Martin Lieber was a force of nature who wanted to change the world with his stories, which he managed to do successfully. He was also a very normal human being who loved his wife so much that he basically based the iconic character of Mary Jane on her. And the last time we saw the man on screen, he asked us to focus on love instead of indulging in unnecessary wars. At the end of the day, the documentary does manage to get the man mostly right.

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Rohitavra Majumdar
Rohitavra Majumdar
Rohitavra likes to talk about movies, music, photography, food, and football. He has a government job to get by, but all those other things are what keep him going.

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Stan Lee documentary does have some issues, though. The use of a three-dimensional clay model as a storytelling tool does not quite work. 'Stan Lee' (2023) Review: A Glossed-Over Documentary But A Fitting Retelling Of The Comicbook Legend's Life