By Kevin Kelly
Stan Lee is anything but shy and reticent, which you’ll notice immediately when watching With Great Power… The Stan Lee Story. He’s outspoken, self-promotional, jovial, and somehow through all of it he manages to remain humble as well, despite the fact that this documentary makes it sound like he nearly invented Marvel Comics single-handedly. Which might be true, as it is hard to imagine what the company would have been like throughout the 60s when they seemed to churn out hit after hit with Lee behind the typewriter.
One thing that needs to be pointed out early in this review is that this film was produced by Gill Champion, Stan Lee’s friend and COO of Lee’s POW! Entertainment, so we’re fairly certain that the movie had Stan’s final stamp of approval on it. As much light as the film sheds on Stan’s life, we’re sure that there could have been more stuff included in here. Why didn’t they interview anyone from Jack Kirby or Joe Simon’s families? What about any comments on the merger with Disney? More about the failed Stan Lee Media (which Champion was also involved with)?
Still, most people watching this probably won’t be looking for a scathing tell-all about Lee. What you get instead is a film that delves deep into his life and shows you plenty of things you thought you’d never see, like the inside of Lee’s home, interviews with his wife Joan, and even archival recordings of some of the early radio spots from Marvel. He does get misty-eyed when talking about the passing of Jack Kirby, and he talks about sharing credit for creating Spider-Man with artist Steve Ditko. You’ll hear recordings of him leaving messages for people apologizing about the demise of Stan Lee Media, see him hunting and pecking at his keyboard writing something new.
But beyond that you’ll see where it all began, and hear Lee himself talk about how he nearly stumbled into service at Timely Comics before it became Atlas and then later Marvel. He went from delivering sandwiches and filling inkwells for Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, before being asked to contribute to one of the prose sections in one of their books. In those days, comics had to have two full pages of prose to quality for third-class mailings, and the publisher thought no one read those so they didn’t pay much attention to them. But Lee gave great respect to his story, and from that moment on he wrote more and more.
It wasn’t long before Lee was climbing the ranks and the company was growing, although it would still be awhile until the 60s, where Marvel introduced a slew of new books in the wake of DC reviving older characters, and then finally in 1972, Marvel pulled ahead of DC and dominated the charts. In this film, Lee calls the 1970s his favorite time in the world of comic books, either before or after. And it’s easy to see why, as Marvel was nearly printing money, selling nearly 5 million comic books per month, and they even began dabbling in the world of television.
That’s when Lee, in 1981, moved to California to help establish Marvel in film and television (and to soak up all of the great weather). But, it took a long time before that would happen, with Marvel churning out stinkers like Howard the Duck and the David Hasselhoff-starring Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The film takes extended looks at the creation of the Comics Code due to Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent book, and at the final success of the Marvel film empire. Sadly, it doesn’t look too hard at Stan’s “Marvel Method” for creating books, which involved him giving the artist a synopsis of the story, and then creating the lettering and voice balloons once the art had been completed. It revolutionized comics at the time, and allowed Lee to work on multiple titles at the same time.
Likewise, the film doesn’t address the few times Lee went to work at DC Comics, Marvel’s chief rival, creating a series of Imagine If… books where Lee had his own take on Superman, Batman, etc. Lee has also famously told the story many times about Diablo being his biggest flop and character he was least proud of at Marvel, and we would have loved to have that retold here with artwork. And even though the film teases multiple interviews with sources ranging from Joe Quesada to Tobey Maguire, we barely get to see those. Unless they holding those back and planning a huge Blu-ray/DVD release, why weren’t included?
Still, the film does contain some terrific interstitials and sequences that are all told through comic book images brought to life and through archival photographs, newspaper headlines, and personal items that wouldn’t have been possible without Lee’s direct involvement. With unfettered access to both Lee himself and mountains of personal material, the filmmakers do construct a compelling look at Lee’s life as well as a snapshot image of what it was like to work in the world of comic books up until the 1980s.
Although the film itself ends awkwardly with a moment between Lee and his wife, and begins with Lee receiving the National Medal of Arts from George W. Bush, the film gives us a very good look at Stan Lee and what his contribution to the world of comic books was. It also presents the portrait of a man who doesn’t know when to quit, and looks like he never will.