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Stan Lee, who died Monday after enduring a tumultuous couple of years, was not on hand for the dawn of superheroes. That was the time of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman — and those DC characters also made successful leaps from the page to movie and TV screens long before Lee’s creations made a dent there. (Apologies to anyone who thrilled to Spider-Man’s adventures on The Electric Company.)
But however successful (and sequel-tastic) 1978’s Superman and 1989’s Batman were, Hollywood didn’t truly enter its love-it-or-loathe-it comic-book era until it embraced the characters Lee helped create in the 1960s, when he brought superpowers to the real world.
Like Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison, Lee was a creator with a canny enough sense of his persona (sorry, make that “uncanny”) to become the public face of work done by many people. He was not the sole inventor of Spider-Man, Iron Man, et al. — artist/writers Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others made invaluable contributions — but it does seem fair to give him much of the credit for the naturalistic world they inhabited and the ease with which they bounced into each other’s storylines. The “shared universe,” an idea that triggers dread among today’s franchise-weary cinephiles, worked beautifully for Marvel Comics in the ’60s.
Lee didn’t entirely invent that, either — DC had already made shaky attempts to explain that Gotham and Metropolis and all its other imaginary burgs were in the same America, which was protected by the Justice League — but Lee’s eagerness to make his characters relatable sold the reality of Marvel’s world. His greatest creation (with Steve Ditko), Spider-Man, was not just from New York City but from Queens; he was a nerd with rent troubles and bullies to fend off. Introduce him to a god like Thor or a Hulk-ed out monster, and he’s going to make nervous wisecracks.
Spider-Man made the Avengers’ intimidating world accessible to readers, and he did a bit of the same when it came to the movies. Yes, the X-Men series started first, and was eagerly embraced. But that family of mutants had a self-contained saga that consumed everything around them: With mutation as a metaphor for otherness and America embroiled in anti-mutant controversy, there wasn’t much room for other tights-clad do-gooders to fight off invaders from other dimensions. (Which was convenient, since Fox didn’t have the rights to make movies with most of them.)
But in 2002’s Spider-Man, Sam Raimi and David Koepp brought Lee’s sensibility into the 21st century. Spidey wouldn’t cross paths with any other heroes for a while, but much more than Bryan Singer’s X-Men, he lived in the real world, and the thrill of seeing Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker cope with astounding powers primed audiences for the onslaught to come from the yet-to-be-born Marvel Studios.
Lee didn’t just help create the characters that moviegoers have met over the last decade and the endless intertwined dramas that make them a package deal. He helped birth the global geek culture that would eventually become our mainstream. Back in the ’60s, Lee penned slangy, colorfully written editorials that treated the reader like a buddy. His exhortations (“Excelsior!”) and behind-the-scenes talk involved readers in the process of creation. At its worst, this proprietary sentiment led to a world in which fanboys bully people off the internet for daring to mess with their childhood heroes. But at its best, back when comics/sci-fi fans were on the fringe instead of ruling the multiplex, it reminded readers that they weren’t alone in their weird enthusiasms.
When Marvel Studios finally started up, it made enough seriously entertaining movies (alongside the Thor-sized clunkers) that its nods to self-promotion felt less like mega-corp synergy than an extension of that Stan Lee spirit. You could practically hear him, once the credits started, encouraging “true believers” to stay in their seats for a teaser for the next adventure, the next hero to make the leap from page to screen.
Even when those teasers started to feel rotely promotional, we had goofy Lee cameos to remind us of the heroes’ scrappy origins. Whether playing a hot dog vendor or a delivery guy, he was always astonished — either by the fictional action around him or by the actual fact that, in his nineties, he was at the heart of popular culture.
That’s an honor that never fell to the faceless (but fascinating) people who invented the superhero genre, nor to the publishing company that gave us Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman. Those heroes, born separately, have fared poorly when thrown together onscreen. But Stan Lee and his bullpen created a family of heroes, and it’s hardly surprising that, once in the hands of talented filmmakers, they took the world by storm together.
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