On the 12th November 2018, at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles California, the world lost one of its greatest superheroes. When we say ‘superheroes’ in the real world, a lot of people’s minds will think war veterans, life-saving doctors or any other person that works to help others and make the world a better and more peaceful place. Stan Lee wasn’t a war veteran nor did he ever work in healthcare. To sum up concisely why Stan Lee can be considered a real-life superhero: it’s because he saved us from something. He saved us from the bore of everyday life.
Stan Lee was born and raised in Manhattan and at the age of seventeen became an assistant at Timely Comics. This kickstarted his career as Timely which, by the 1960s, became Marvel Comics. The first superhero Lee created was Captain America, an all-American soldier fighting on the battlefields of World War II. With his American flag inspired uniform and indestructible shield, Captain America and his best-friend/sidekick Bucky Barnes gave children and adults across the country a new superhero to root for.
“He saved us from the bore of everyday life”
In the late 1950s, DC Comics, Marvel’s main rival, experienced major success with its modern revamping of the archetype superhero with The Flash and Justice League. Lee was set with the challenge of creating a multitude of new superheroes that could join forces and become a super-team, defeating the evil of the world with their range and diversity of powers. This is when Lee started to sketch the beginnings of what the world now knows as The Avengers. Lee, with artist Jack Kirby, created Thor, Iron Man and The Hulk. With other writers he created Doctor Strange and Spider-man, one of Marvel’s most enduringly popular and profitable creations. Excluding The Avengers, Lee also wrote the X-Men comics and Daredevil.
Fast-forward to the early 2000s, after the major success of various portrayals of DC’s Batman and Superman since the 1970s. Marvel still hadn’t had a similarly successful film adaptation, but Lee saw his first hero swing his way into cinemas in the shape of Tobey Maguire as the high-school nerd turned New York’s greatest superhero, Spider-Man.
Another portrayal of the web-slinging hero in 2010 with Andrew Garfield taking the reigns, proved that Sony weren’t capturing the true essence of the character and the franchise fell apart after the second film. This could be due to Garfield’s feud with producers or the fact that Garfield and Stone’s chemistry wasn’t enough to carry a film of shallow character-development and unthoughtful dialogue. Or, maybe, it was because in 2008 a new kid on the block shoved all other cinematic superheroes aside, and had audiences running with their money in hand.
Iron Man kick-started what we know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Lee’s comics not only began the most extensive movie franchise in the world, but revived Robert Downey Jr.’s career and catapulted him into worldwide fame and adoration. As the top earning actor in Hollywood, Downey Jr.’s charm, wit and perfect comedic timing combined with his natural propensity as a leader made him the perfect casting as the man who would march the Marvel heroes into consistent international success.
“Although Marvel does consist mainly of men, Lee didn’t forget to put some kickass women front and centre”
Although Marvel does consist mainly of men, Lee didn’t forget to put some kickass women front and centre. Scarlett Johansson took on the role of Black Widow, also known as Natasha Romanova, who Lee created with Don Rico and Don Heck, having her comic debut in The Tales of Suspense anthology in April 1964. Her penchant for martial arts makes her a flexible and understated hero, able to do the job cleaner and faster than her male counterparts. Recent entries in the pantheon of Marvel heroes include Scarlet Witch, one of the most powerful heroes in the franchise, possessing boundless forces of telekinesis and reality-warping powers. Black Panther gave us the fierce Okoye and the ultra-intelligent Shuri, confirmed as the smartest character in the MCU. In March 2019, we will see the first female solo film in the MCU as fans will finally see the cinematic portrayal of Captain Marvel, called to help the Avengers against the wrath of Thanos, proving that the future looks bright for the women of MCU.
Lee made the conscious effort to employ each character as a vehicle to explore and discuss various issues and concepts that shape our world: Bigotry; corruption; the death of loved ones; familial trauma; acceptance of one’s identity and friendship. Yes, the friendship between the heroes themselves, but also the friendship that transcended the page, the bond and connection that readers and viewers formed with these characters. Writer Clifton Fadiman said of The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, “that rare miracle of fiction has again come to pass; a human being has been created out of ink, paper and the imagination”. I don’t think there is more appropriate quote to apply to the work of Stan Lee and his fellow writers, as when you leave the cinema, or finish the final page of the comic, you genuinely feel as if you have gained a new friend.
“when you leave the cinema, or finish the final page of the comic, you genuinely feel as if you have gained a new friend”
It would be a crime not to mention the unforgettable villains that we have met along the way. Lee challenged us by writing villains that we both loved and hated, villains that we wanted to see defeated, but still left a gaping hole in the story upon their demise (which is probably why no one in comics ever stays dead). Perhaps the most beloved villainous character is Loki, Thor’s own brother, who was constantly switching between good and evil, mirroring the real world where good and bad aren’t always easy to distinguish from each other and grey areas exist.
In ninety-five years of life, seventy-eight years of work in the comics industry and ten years of cameos in the MCU, Stan Lee has established himself as one of the most important and celebrated writers of all time. Lee saw the pain and suffering that world has been subjected to, saw the ennui that can flood our day-to-day lives and gave us something to marvel at. His legacy gives readers and audiences something to admire with the same wide-eyed wonder shown by Lee’s endlessly charming cameos in the films. Stan Lee, on behalf of millions of fans, we say a heartfelt thank you and goodbye.