The Many Cameos of Stan Lee

The trials and tribulations of Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men and other Marvel Comics superheroes are familiar around the world thanks to comic books and films. Somewhat less known are the successes and struggles of the writer, the publisher and the showman Stan Lee, who was pivotal — along with the artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko — in bringing so many of Marvel’s characters to life.

The documentary “Stan Lee” by the director David Gelb that debuts on June 10 at the Tribeca Festival in New York City seeks to change that. The film uses previously unreleased audio recordings and film footage and new and archival interviews to tell Mr. Lee’s story. The film, which will be available on Disney+ June 16, is a new way of seeing Mr. Lee, who was a constant presence in the lives of fans thanks to his writing, his voice work, his television appearances and his Marvel movie cameos. Here are some notable ones.

Cameo Appearances

When “Iron Man” was released in 2008, it was the beginning of what is now known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It also started a streak of appearances by Mr. Lee in the films. In “Iron Man,” he is at a party and is spotted by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who confuses him for Hugh Hefner.

Not all his appearances were tongue-in-cheek. One of the most sincere can be found in the opening of 2019’s “Captain Marvel,” which came after Mr. Lee’s death in 2018. As the “Marvel Studios” logo comes into focus, flashes of comic book images and dialogue give way to clips of Mr. Lee as swelling music plays. When the logo fades, only the words “Thank You Stan” remain. Later in the film he appeared in a more traditional cameo, shot before his death, when Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) meets him on a train reading a “Mallrats” script.

Voices Carry

Mr. Lee’s voice and his catchphrase “Excelsior!” were comforting to fans in many places. In addition to narrating several Spider-Man video games, players could use “EEL NATS” (his name spelled backward) to unlock levels.

In 1975, he narrated a “Fantastic Four” radio series. The Human Torch was voiced by Bill Murray, who told Jimmy Kimmel last year that he only remembered saying the character’s battle cry, “Flame On!”

In the final episode of “Spider-Man: The Animated Series” (1994-98), Spider-Man, during an adventure through the multiverse, visits our world. He meets Mr. Lee and swings him on spider-webs through the city. When the mysterious Madame Web arrives to take the hero home, Mr. Lee asks, “Who is that exotic lady?” Her voice was a clue: she was played by Joan Lee, his wife, who died in 2017.

Distinguished Competition

Mr. Lee and Marvel are irrevocably linked, but he was no stranger to working with superhero industry rivals DC Comics. From 2001 to 2002, DC released a “Just Imagine” series of stories written by Mr. Lee in which he reinterpreted Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and other heroes. The company revisited them last year with all new stories in honor of his 100th birthday.

A cartoon version of Mr. Lee also appeared in DC’s 2018 animated film “Teen Titans Go! To the Movies.” In one scene, he dances, strikes action poses and declares, “Hey everybody, look at me, doing my subtle cameo,” while music plays and “Stan Lee” logos appear on the screen. He returns later and says, “I don’t care if it’s a DC movie — I love cameos!” It was a sign of how self-effacing he could be: poking fun of himself in a rival’s movie.

Letters From the Editor

Mr. Lee wrote a multitude of stories, but readers heard from him directly in the form of editorials on the back pages of many Marvel Comics. “Stan’s Soapbox” columns, written between 1967 and 1980, allowed him to ruminate on everything from the creative process to social issues. The author Brad Meltzer wrote in Mr. Lee’s obituary for Entertainment Weekly, “He gave an entire generation creeds to live by. Principles to emulate.” One of Mr. Lee’s editorials, from 1968, started with this: “Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today.” A collection of his editorials is available from the Hero Initiative, a charity which helps comic book creators in need.

Birthday Suit

The Marvel Fumetti Book, published in 1983, is a comic book anthology using black and white photographs by Eliot R. Brown to tell its stories. Readers were treated to behind-the-scenes looks at Marvel’s editorial staff, who were sometimes shown acting out plot details. In one story, Mr. Lee playfully admonishes the team for recent developments, including “Alcoholic Iron Men!” and the mohawk haircut for the X-Men’s Storm. “I’m not sure I like what I see!” he says. “Knock it off already!”

He is also pictured in the comic’s centerfold laying on a couch with a Hulk costume superimposed over him. But the original, unused photo was bolder: It was a nude picture of him with a strategically placed comic book.

Non Marvel Comics

In 2020, TidalWave Productions released “Tribute: Stan Lee,” a 30-page biographical comic. It chronicles Mr. Lee’s career before and after Marvel, the publisher’s initial forays into animation and television and some of the creative gestalt that gave birth to the Fantastic Four and other superheroes. The comic also notes the conflict between him and Mr. Kirby, the artist who created many of the characters with Mr. Lee, who felt he was not given enough credit or compensation for his hand in bringing those heroes to life.

One of Mr. Lee’s final projects was the serialized Webtoon comic Backchannel, co-written by Tom Akel and drawn by Andie Tong, about a hactivist group. A collected edition will be released Aug. 15. Watch out for a cameo appearance by Mr. Lee in Chapter Nine. He is shown working at a movie theater, which is based on one of his first jobs as an usher.

George Gustines is a senior operations manager at The Times. He began writing about the comic book industry in 2002. @georgegustines Facebook

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