Review by Brian Lowry, CNN
(CNN) — Before Marvel conquered the pop culture and cinematic universe, Stan Lee served as the genial goodwill ambassador of the comic-book industry. As such Lee created a rich archive that provides the basis for “Stan Lee,” a breezy Disney+ documentary looking back at the colorful comics patriarch’s life and career in commemoration of what would have been his centennial year.
Beginning with Fantastic Four in 1961, Lee and artist Jack Kirby created a sprawling roster of superheroes that gave rise to the Marvel renaissance, and Lee added Spider-Man with Steve Ditko for good measure. But Kirby died in 1994, before those characters burst into movies with “X-Men,” “Spider-Man” and “Iron Man,” with Lee’s comic cameos becoming a beloved staple of the Marvel films.
Long before that, though, Lee capitalized on his showmanship and ebullient personality to fill the self-appointed role of smiling advocate for Marvel and comics in general, touring college campuses and appearing on TV and radio programs.
That video and audio record enables director David Gelb (who oversaw Disney’s 2021 documentary about celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck) to lets Lee narrate his own story, spinning yarns he told hundreds of times, with only a few outside voices to augment that.
Born Stanley Lieber (he famously professed to have cut his first name in half when he got into comics to preserve his full name for more serious writing later) in 1922, Lee stumbled out of high school and into a job working for an uncle who ran Timely Comics, fetching coffee for Kirby and editor/writer Joe Simon, who co-created Captain America among other early heroes.
Gradually segueing to writing and editing, after serving in World War II Lee returned to running what became known as Marvel, churning out all kinds of stories before reaching his wit’s end, when his wife Joan famously urged him to attempt something closer to his own sensibilities before quitting in frustration.
“What I tried to do was write the kind of stories I would want to read, and sometimes I had to buck a trend to do that,” Lee recalled.
Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Avengers, the X-Men and Doctor Strange followed, in a creative explosion that some have likened to the Beatles’ musical footprint.
Beyond that, Lee was a consummate salesman, unlike his two most prominent collaborators, Kirby and Ditko. To its credit, “Stan Lee” doesn’t whitewash the most debated and controversial aspect of Lee’s career: the extent to which he took (or in some people’s view, hogged) credit for Marvel’s signature creations and gave short shrift to the artists in the process.
Lee discusses how Ditko felt that he deserved more recognition for the creation of Spider-Man. In an extraordinary audio clip, he also called into a 1987 radio program that was interviewing Kirby, as the two proceeded to get into a rather testy exchange over just how much writing Kirby had contributed to the comics on which they worked together.
After years of frustration over how Marvel was treated in movies and TV, where he exercised little input or control, Lee lived long enough to see his work celebrated and adapted with a seriousness that had long eluded the genre, basking in that adulation until his death in 2018. That includes video of a speech he gave at UCLA the year before he died, underscoring how Lee could hold a room by the sheer dint of his personality into his 90s.
Produced by Marvel Studios, “Stan Lee” includes the voice of current Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige, who speaks about hoping to tap into just a small percentage of the staggering creativity that Lee and company exhibited during Marvel’s legendary ’60s run.
“Stan Lee” is obviously intended to be celebratory in nature, but by allowing Lee to tell the story largely in his own words, it conveys a genuine sense of what made him as big and colorful as any of the spandex-clad figures that he helped birth and spring off the page.
“Stan Lee” premieres June 16 on Disney+.
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