Tribeca Film Review: Stan Lee

A charmingly opinionated look at the father of modern comics

There's a difference between ego and self-mythologizing. Or rather, the two personality traits are part of a Venn diagram, and their sets cross over more in some people than others. So while comics legend Stan Lee undoubtedly had an ego, the myth of Stan Lee – the narrative of his life – was a tale he carefully curated.

It's a mythology recounted in Stan Lee, David Gelb's fascinating recounting of how Stanley Martin Lieber, the Manhattan-born son of Romanian-born Jewish migrants, revolutionized one of the great American art forms.

Debuting at this year's Tribeca film festival ahead of its streaming debut this week on Disney+, Stan Lee isn't a full biography of Lee. Instead, it focuses almost solely on his relationship with Marvel Comics, both as the leviathan of comicdom and in its earlier, more tremulous form as Timely and his initial gig there as a gofer and inkwell filler. This focus explains the 20 year gap between his exit in the 1990s as publisher and return, circa the MCU movies, as Marvel's lucky rabbit's foot (and also the tragic later years, filled with allegations of elder abuse). With a narration strung together from decades of archival interviews with Lee himself, Stan Lee feels like the Stan Lee-approved version of his own life story: Never factually incorrect but still very definitely his version of events.

Yet in that version lies some real truths about Stan Lee the man: His frustrations, his workaholic tendencies, his hubris, his creativity, his convoluted relationship with comics – a medium that he was often set to abandon but that always lured him back.

After all, Lee's first comics weren't about superheroics: He lucked in by realizing that he could make accounting less boring for the military by putting it in the funny pages. Gelb presents Lee as a regular schmo who made brawny superheroes into regular schmoes, and that's why other regular schmoes could identify with them. As Lee puts it, his stories were about "good guys who occasionally fall on their faces [and] bad guys you can almost relate to. ... That's the real world."

Wisely, Gelb doesn't take the hackneyed route of creating fake four-color images of Lee, or throw dialog in speech bubbles. Instead, his early years are depicted using surprisingly sweet dioramas that somehow give a county museum charm to those reminiscences, and fill in the visual blanks before those decades of footage kick in.

And that footage is remarkable. There's a wry laugh to be had from archive material of Lee, silently smiling at a televised debate between self-described comic book enthusiast Warren Storab and DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz. Looking like a cartoon banker, Schwartz (himself worthy of an equally extensive documentary) dismisses the idea that comics are for anything other than entertaining readers for 48 pages. Lee never underestimated the power of comics or the intelligence of his young readers, and Gelb notes that through significant examples, like the lexicon in his captions that sent kids hurtling for dictionaries.

There's an old (and possibly apocryphal) story that, when asked what the difference was between Marvel and DC, Lee responded that they're both set in big cities, but the Marvel buildings were the only ones that had plumbing in the basement. His characters were grounded, often reflecting parts of Lee's own life, just as the fractious but loving family dynamics of the Fantastic Four echoed the dynamics of the legendary Marvel Bullpen.

Those personal aspects speak to a core contradiction of Lee: He was a huge, gregarious personality that put everything in the open, but sometimes that was his way of hiding deeper emotional truths. It's hard not to see him channeling his own childhood poverty into all those Spider-Man stories about Peter scarcely making ends meet, or the Fantastic Four declaring bankruptcy because of some bad investments. Here, the deepest insights are not in the long stories, but in the slightest of moments, like the little crack in his voice when he discusses the loss of his second daughter. Still, Gelb makes it clear that Lee was not just an industry innovator but a determined progressive: It's not hard to see why the son of Jewish migrants would create a team of besieged heroes from a minority group like the X-Men, but there was something truly audacious in writing Black Panther while reactionaries in the Senate were plotting the demise of the 1966 Civil Rights Act.

The real problem for Gelb is that he tries to set his documentary almost as a superhero origin story, but that's too simple for Lee, a man who never really has a moment when he puts on the costume. True, he does develop his superhero persona over time – it's a little unsettling seeing early footage before he perfected his costume of the comfy sweater, the shaggy hair, the oversized glasses, and that massive mustache over a permagrin – but maybe that's why the characters he created were always so much more filled with vibrant, distinctive life than those created over at the Distinguished Competition. They were always regular people struggling to be heroic.

And the question of his creations is one that Gelb tackles head-on. There's a school of thought that says that Lee would just throw one-sentence concepts at his artists and they'd do all the heavy lifting – a theory that makes artist Jack Kirby the true creator of The Fantastic Four, and Steve Ditko the father of Spider-Man. But Stan Lee presents a much more nuanced and messy depiction of the creative process, one that creates a convincing counter-argument that it's Lee's role that has been undersold for decades. It's all captured in another of those little moments – the wounded tone in a recorded phone call with Kirby, his former friend. For all his success and plaudits, Lee the man became a victim of the insults lobbed at Lee the mythical figure.

Maybe, however, that's what makes Lee like his own characters. It was never the cape that made him who he was. He was Stan Lee before he ever came up with the name.

Stan Lee

SVA Theatre, Sun. June 18, 2:30pm
Tribeca at Home, June 19-July 2

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