Film Critic Rhys Lloyd-Jones remembers Stan Lee, who we lost in November this year, mastermind behind the Marvel Universe
My first encounter with the world of the late Stan Lee came in 2004, in a McDonald’s. Spider-Man 2 had just been released to critical acclaim and so came the wave of merchandising. Still unaware of Spider-Man and all superheroes, I found inside my Happy Meal a plastic Doctor Octopus figure. Poorly sculpted and badly painted, the toy had nothing special about it. His face was lopsided and one of his metallic tentacles was missing a claw. But for some reason it fascinated me. It captured my four-year-old imagination. A man with octopus arms: how strange, how bizarre, how wonderful! Who had came up which such an idea?
I didn’t actually see Spider-Man 2 for many years after, but from that toy, I launched into comics, specifically Spider-Man. I never thought too much about who was behind these creations, I just knew I enjoyed them. Heroes like Superman or Captain America had always been too safe, too plain. Muscles aren’t substitutes for personality. But Spider-Man had the integral trait that made him the most relatable, the most engaging hero in the world. A lot of the time, he was an idiot. A teenage genius to be sure, but an idiot in everything else. He was funny, he made mistakes, he tried to do the right thing but sometimes made things worse. He had the qualities and flaws that everyone has and the fact he could crawl on walls seemed like an afterthought.
In 2008, Iron Man was released and the $10bn behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe began. The MCU and the impact it has had on cinema is a testament to the legacy that Stan Lee leaves behind. And the reason it works, the reason the MCU can be larger than life and also feel so human, is the exact reason that I fell in love with Spider-Man. Because, be it Tony Stark and his raging narcissism or Bruce Banner and his meek demeanour, the characters never fail to be human above all else. This comes from Stan Lee and his love of that messy, complex business of being human. Anyone in his eyes could save the world. Stan Lee had a boundless imagination that the world will likely never see again. Whether it be octopus arms and billionaires in flying suits, or green monsters with a big heart and teenagers who can walk on walls, he reinvented the superhero medium. But to me, that isn’t his greatest impact on pop culture and now, so many years later, modern cinema.
To me, his greatest impact is the reinvention of the hero. The world has enough of men in suits with fancy gadgets, or soldiers with guns. Stan Lee was a great believer that anyone, in a stroke of luck like a radioactive spider bite, or hard work, like building a robot suit, could find themselves in the shoes of a hero. And even if you made mistakes, you had a great responsibility. His characters have reinvented cinema and Stan Lee reinvented heroes. Excelsior!