Over the past 20 years, Marvel has gone from the verge of bankruptcy to being the dominant entertainment company in the world. Marvel properties began their domination of the box office in 2000, with the first X-Men film, and continued with the Spider-Man franchise, culminating in the 2008 creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Iron Man.
All of those characters–the X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the Avengers–were created by Lee and his collaborators (most notably Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko). While he wasn’t responsible for every one we’ve seen on the screen–Captain America and Wolverine, most notably, pre- and post-dated Lee–much of what the world is captivated by in cinema right now is the product of Lee’s imagination. But if Lee had his way, it would have started decades ago.
“I wish it had happened overnight,” Lee admits in a conversation the week of the release of Avengers: Age Of Ultron. “I’m not a patient guy–I wish this had all happened 30, 40, 50 years ago, but I’m glad it happened. I’m glad I’m still around while it is happening, because it’s incredibly enjoyable.”
Lee spent much of the ’80s and ’90s focused on trying to develop Marvel’s properties for television and movies, but aside from a few successes–the Incredible Hulk TV show, a bad Howard The Duck film, some Spider-Man and Fantastic Four cartoons–the Marvel age of Hollywood didn’t begin until the new millennium. But all of that has culminated in movies that don’t just exist, but exceed expectation. Here’s how Stan Lee sees the evolution of his career–and of Marvel–over that time.
Stan Lee’s real name, famously, isn’t actually Stan Lee. It’s Stanley Leiber, but–as he’s explained multiple times in his “Stan’s Soapbox” column in the back of Marvel books over the decades–he used the pseudonym to save his real name for the literary works he dreamed of creating in prose, while he wrote comics to pay the bills in the ’50s and ’60s. But when asked to identify the turning point in his career, Lee quickly identifies the merging of the two ambitions.
“I think the biggest decision I ever made was to stay in comics. Years ago–just before I started The Fantastic Four, which was the first superhero book I did–I wanted to quit, because nobody had any respect for comics. I figured, ‘Why am I in a field where I’m embarrassed to say what I’m doing?’” Lee recalls. “And my wife told me to stick it out. She said, ‘Write a few books the way you want to do it, instead of the way they tell you to do it. The worst that’ll happen is you’ll get fired, but you want to quit anyway.’ So that’s when I did The Fantastic Four, and luckily it sold better than all the other books.”
Part of what made Lee’s run at Marvel so remarkable wasn’t just the characters he created, but also the personality he brought to the company. He created fan clubs like the Merry Marvel Marching Society, he shaped a narrative about the Marvel bullpen that made it sound like the best job in the world, he called fans “True Believers” and signed off with “Excelsior!” Stan Lee wasn’t just a guy who wrote comics, he was S-T-A-N, and that persona has always defined Marvel.
The week of the release of Age Of Ultron, we’re speaking with Stan Lee because of a Marvel Studios cross-promotion with Gillette. When I ask Lee about how he kept his creative spark in the early ’60s, when he was inventing countless characters who are now major Hollywood properties every month, he quickly reverts to S-T-A-N to make sure the sponsor gets its due: “Well, because I had an objective. I had a goal,” Lee starts. “One day I wanted to be involved with a company that would have ProGlide with Flexball technology like the Gillette razor company, and now my dream has come true. I’m doing some promotions for Gillette razors that are homages to Iron-Man, to Hulk, to Thor, and Captain America. And who would have thought that a great company like Gillette one day would be linked to Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Hulk? So everything seems to tie together as time goes by and I’ve never had a better time.”
Promotional performance art has been a part of the Stan Lee formula since the beginning–and even at 92 years old, he still delivers, with style.
When Lee was writing comics in the ’60s, Marvel could sell more than 9 million comics a month. In March 2015, the top 300 comics from all publishers combined moved fewer than 7 million units. Comics are still a vital medium, but they’re not the mass communication platform that they once were. And Lee admits that, if he were starting out today, he would be looking to work in Hollywood.
“I would be trying to, sure,” he says. “I would be starting with [movies and television]. But I love comic books–comic books are still a great way to tell a story. People used to object, but to me, a comic book is like a Shakespearean masterpiece.”
It’s hard to tell if Lee is 100% sincere when he explains that he thinks a comic book is a Shakespearean masterpiece, or if there’s a little of the pitchman coming out again, but when he talks about the creative choice that made the Marvel heroes endure, it’s easy to tell that he’s thought a lot about it–and it is the same thing that makes all great drama work.
“I think it’s because I tried to give them private lives and problems,” Lee says–something that heroes like Superman and Batman didn’t have in the early ’60s. “Everything isn’t good with them, they don’t just have a super power that means they can do anything. I’m hoping that the readers and the moviegoers find their lives and their careers somewhat interesting and complex.”
It’s interesting for Lee to bring that up in relation to the movies, because while it’s been well-cited as one of the innovations he brought to Marvel Comics in the ’60s, it’s less remarked upon as the basis for the Marvel films–but despite the high-action, Captain America’s life as a man-out-of-time, or Iron Man’s as a businessman with the enemies and rivals that creates, are as vital to the characters as the villains they face. And Lee sees that in the characters to this day, in every medium they’re in. “You can make characters that, even though they have super powers, they also seem to be relatable,” he says. “Because they have problems just the way that you and I do.”