This review is made possible through an advanced screener of Stan Lee, provided to Agents of Fandom by Disney for review purposes.
A brand new Stan Lee documentary, simply titled Stan Lee, has made its way onto Disney Plus. Directed by David Gelb, the documentary clocks in at an hour and 26 minutes in length, and carefully curated with audio and footage of Stan himself over the course of multiple decades. As such, the larger than life comic industry icon unknowingly takes viewers through his early life, as well as the evolution of what went on to become Marvel Comics.
Any fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe who have never taken a peek behind the curtain to learn more about what inspired the films they cherish so much will likely gain an even greater appreciation for the man and his work.
Stan Lee documentary review: a deep dive into the evolution of the comic book art form
“One time, I saw a fly on the wall while trying to think of a new superhero. I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be cool if a hero could stick to walls?”Stan Lee, as heard in the Stan Lee documentary on Disney Plus
No, despite the above quote, things didn’t always come so easily for Stan Lee. But he certainly made it seem that way, didn’t he? The Stan Lee documentary is narrated by Stan, as opposed to someone recounting the events of his life secondhand. Although the audio and footage of Stan has been compiled through a number of different interviews over the years. It’s easy to follow with a natural flow that takes you chronologically through the major moments of his life.
As Stan discusses his upbringing and childhood in the 1920s and 30s, as well as what inspired his work ethic, many viewers are able to discover for the very first time what made him tick. It will surprise no one to learn that Stan loved reading from an early age and—while he did have his favorites—would essentially read anything he could get his hands on. He also discusses how his affinity for writing developed during his formative years. The first-person perspective that the documentary employs really makes the viewer feel as if Stan is telling them his story 1-on-1.
The Stan Lee documentary also touches on just how early Stan began working, how a particular twist of fate led to his meeting both Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (archived audio from both Simon and Kirby is included with their accounts of meeting Stan) and how, believe it or not, Stan felt that “silly” comics would just be his launching point into something more “real.” Stan speaks with an impressive level of honesty when recounting that time in his life, as it would have been quite easy for him to claim in hindsight that he always knew the medium would take off.
Insight into the meteoric rise of Marvel Comics
Of course, the biggest reason why Stan Lee is known by millions around the globe is because of the characters he created with Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. As such, it’s only natural for the early days and subsequent rise of Marvel Comics to be covered in this documentary. Between the reactionary business decision that led to the creation of the Fantastic Four, the multiple twists of fate it took to make Spider-Man the hero we know and love. And the unorthodox manner in which Stan, Jack, and Steve would write and illustrate their comic cooks. A lot about marvels early days are covered.
To the credit of both Stan and those who produced the Stan Lee documentary, this account is not all sunshine and rainbows. At one point, Stan recounts how in the early 60s, he felt completely burned out, despite the success they experienced. He felt what he was doing didn’t matter anymore and wasn’t important in the grand scheme of things (a feeling that he luckily overcame). Even trying to do a public service and incorporate positive sentiments (such as anti-drug messages) into Marvel stories would sometimes get pushback from the Comics Code Authority.
At the end of the day, however, the positives associated with Marvel Comics and its rise to prominence far outweigh the negatives. The Stan Lee documentary touches on how the team took real world parallels as inspiration for their comics, with the X-Men serving as a means to spread anti-bigotry messages being the most prominent example. Fans who have come to know and love crossover events in both print media and the big screen will enjoy Stan recounting the birth of those, as well.
Stan’s relationships with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko
David Gelb and the team behind the Stan Lee documentary should be commended for not omitting the fundamental disagreements that Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had with Stan regarding everyone’s respective contributions to character creation. However, even though the accounts of said disagreements are made exclusively from Stan’s point of view, it is noteworthy that they’re included. Stan does indeed speak on the rift between him and Ditko over the creation of Spider-Man, with Stan (perhaps unknowingly) making a compelling point as to why they should have shared credit for the character’s success.
The doc touches on Kirby and Ditko’s contrasting art styles. There is also an interesting account from Stan on how certain Marvel heroes may not have gained popularity had he not taken animation of said characters away from one and given it to the other. Steve Ditko’s dissatisfaction with the resolution of he and Stan’s argument over character creation is mentioned, although not discussed in great depth. Finally, the departure of Jack Kirby from Marvel Comics is explored, with a tense and uncomfortable interview exchange between Kirby and Stan being played for viewers.
What could the Stan Lee documentary have spent more time discussing?
One of the more puzzling choices within the Stan Lee documentary is to include a significant time jump which omits a great deal of Marvel and Stan’s respective histories. Shortly following, Stan notes his displeasure with the direction Marvel was heading and their handling of his contract with the company after it was sold during the late 80s. All Marvels struggles during the 90s and early 2000s are skipped over entirely. We then jump ahead to 2010, following the birth of the MCU.
Given the fact that he did not disappear from the public eye or stop giving interviews during this time period, its exclusion from the Stan Lee documentary is disappointing. This was a time of great turmoil for the Marvel brand, and it would have been very interesting to get Stan’s take on it all. Considering his own assessment that he’s “not a businessman,” however, it’s entirely possible (although unlikely) that sufficient audio or footage didn’t exist to cover Marvel’s business dealings during that time period.
Something that the Stan Lee documentary definitely accomplishes is capturing Stan’s desired impact on Marvel fans. At one point, he mentions an uneasiness about his promotion to a publisher, as it didn’t allow him to do much writing anymore and caused him to feel more disconnected from the fan base. His attempts to find a way to reconnect with fans after that point is another intriguing component that succeeds in humanizing an otherwise larger-than-life figure.
As you might imagine, the Stan Lee documentary also features a brief account from both Kevin Feige and Stan. They reflect on the creation of the MCU and what kind of impact its success had on them both. What might be the most impactful portion of the entire doc, however, is how it closes. Viewers are given footage of Stan in what was likely one of his final public appearances. Speaking at a UCLA Graduation ceremony in 2017, we see and hear Stan imploring the students to pursue their dreams, no matter how silly they may seem. After all, he’s an expert in that field!
Final thoughts and takeaways on the Stan Lee documentary
While it’s far from perfect, the Stan Lee documentary really is something that fans of the comic book genre should take the time to watch. It provides a comprehensive account of the evolution of comics as an art form over the course of the 20th century.
Stan Lee and many other writers and illustrators during his time are the very people who inspired many of us to love comic books. If you’re one of these people and would like to connect with others who admire and cherish this timeless art form, you can listen to Comic Corner here.
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'Stan Lee' Documentary Review'Stan Lee' Documentary Review
- Excellent deep dive into the evolution of Marvel Comics
- Chronological storytelling is easy to follow
- Touches on disagreements on creation of Marvel characters
- Large inexplicable time skip
- Stan's later years not included
- Somewhat of a one-sided account of the rift between Stan and illustrators