Sunday 21 October 2012

With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story (2010)

Directors: Terry Dougas, Nikki Frakes and Will Hess
Star: Stan Lee
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.

Unmistakably one of the great names in the world of comic books, Stan Lee is more than worthy of getting his own documentary. In fact, it wouldn't take much argument to suggest that this is a long time overdue, whether you've known him for decades from the characters he co-created for Marvel Comics, whether you discovered him more recently through the blockbuster adaptations of those characters to the big screen or whether he's just a personality who magically appears at what seems like every single nerd event known to man. In some ways this is a telling biography, as its best parts step back from his numerous achievements to look instead at a humble man and his wife. In others, it's a notably misleading propaganda piece as it focuses so closely on Lee that a fresh face to comic books would be excused for leaving it believing that he invented the things, created every character and pushed them all past every evolutionary step.

Perhaps it would have been more grounded had this film been shot in the late nineties, before the success of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films and before Marvel Studios ventured into producing their own pictures, like Iron Man and The Avengers, but after Marvel Entertainment had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and after Stan Lee Media had collapsed into bankruptcy amid the illegal stock manipulation of his partner, Peter Paul. At that point, Lee was by no means the infallible man with the Midas touch he appears to be today and telling his story might have been more about restoring his rightful place in comic book history. Maybe, maybe not. Instead it was shot a decade later in 2010 with Lee a household name, his powerful charisma matched only by his sense of childlike wonder at the world around him and seemingly unstoppable energy, even at 88 years young. So it's an iconic American success story seen through rose coloured glasses.

I'm far from a comic book nerd, but I do read graphic novels, I do go to Comicons and I do know a little about the history of the industry. I know enough to recognise that while what we're told in this film is no doubt the truth, it's far from the whole truth. I learned a lot about Lee's part in the wider story of American superheroes and the evolution of their worlds, but only because I could recognise some of the gaps, where the work of others who worked before and alongside him was either omitted entirely, dismissed quickly or explained away in dubious terms that occasionally left a bad taste in the mouth. These omissions are far from minor and their presence leaves all the various looks back at comic book history on shaky ground. One such omission might perhaps be excused as an unfortunate oversight, but when they're frequent and pervasive the film turns from a viable documentary into purest propaganda.

The biggest omission surely has to be the competition. Created in 1934, DC Comics predated its biggest rival in name by 27 years and through lineage by 5, given that Marvel Comics began its life as Timely Comics in 1939 and became Atlas Comics over a decade later, formally adopting its most famous name in 1961. We're given some fascinating background into this progression, but Marvel's achievements are not given context, even when they were made in reaction to the competition, most obviously DC. Marvel's superheroes were successful in the early sixties, but they were written in response to DC's prior success. The Fantastic Four was a direct response to DC's Justice League of America. To be fair, this is a standard hour and a half film and Lee's story is inextricably linked to Marvel's rather than DC's, but omitting the competition utterly removes any real context and makes both Lee and Marvel appear even more important than they were.
More galling is the treatment of a couple of other people whose names are tied more closely to Marvel's. Jack Kirby was an artist with Timely at the beginning, while Lee was hired shortly after as an office boy, tasked with keeping the artists' inkwells full. Kirby co-created Captain America with Joe Simon, as Lee was moving up to writing filler stories. By the time superheroes were all the rage again in the sixties, Lee was now editor-in-chief and art director, but most of Marvel's most iconic characters, such as Iron Man, the Hulk and the X-Men, were joint creations of Kirby and Lee. Those characters Kirby didn't have a hand in, such as Spider-Man, another artist called Steve Ditko did. Both Kirby and Ditko are highlighted here and their importance evaluated, but while Lee personally enthuses that they were every bit as important as he was, the film's tone is that he's merely being modest and that they're only equals because Lee says so.

None of this is meant to undermine Lee's own importance, merely to counter the film's viewpoint that he was the be all and end all, either at Marvel or with comic books at large. Lee legitimately did change the face of the industry in a number of ways, most obviously crediting the artists and letterers as well as the writers and grounding superheroes in the real world. Peter Sanderson, a comic book historian, wrote that DC was the equivalent of the Hollywood studios, while Marvel in the early sixties was the French New Wave, shaking up the way in which these stories were told and, in doing so, revolutionising the entire industry. While DC characters lived in Gotham City or Metropolis, Marvel characters lived in New York. They fought Communists as they'd fought Nazis during the war. They even dealt with everyday problems as well as villains, marking the point at which superheroes became more important out of their masks than they ever were inside them.

While this film does well talking up Lee's substantial contributions to his field, aided by neatly animated graphics, they're lessened through the equally substantial gaps. It succeeds better in the little details, revealing that comic books had two page prose layouts in order to qualify for second class mail privileges, that Lee acted out on top of his desk the poses that he wanted his artists to draw or that he contributed to training films during the war, classified by the US Army as a playwright. It succeeds in the highs and lows of Lee's emotion: talking about the modern movies, he's full of energy, like a kid in a candy store whose only enemy is time; while talking about the horrendous earlier live action movies, his frustration is palpable. Nicolas Cage may talk fairly about the deficiencies of technology but that isn't the key reason; it's that only with Raimi's Spider-Man did those who understood comic books start making comic book movies.

Without a doubt, the best scenes are reserved for Lee and his wife, a former English hat model named Joan. While she was married when they met, he proposed after two weeks and they've been together for 65 years. They're a riot of a couple, bickering back and forth with the sort of twinkle in their eyes that can't help but raise a smile. We're privy to happy moments and sad ones, all of which feel remarkably honest, so intrinsically so that the filmmakers aren't able to spin what they say into something else, however they edit the footage or splice in interviews with others. They know what they want to say: the movie opens with Larry King calling Lee 'the most famous name in American comic book history' and what feels like all of Hollywood agrees. Yet fame isn't substance and what I'll take away from this is that, comic books aside, Stan and Joan Lee have obviously enjoyed the heck out of their lives and they're still doing it.

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