At 91, the mastermind behind Marvel Comics — and co-creator of properties like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the Avengers, individually and assembled — might seem like an unlikely star. But Lee has made a habit of appearing in cameos in films based on Marvel properties, and with that universe fanning out to include second-tier properties like Ant-Man and Doctor Strange, along with a Fantastic Four reboot, the writer and impresario could stay pretty busy just flitting from scene to scene.
More imminently, Lee will be featured on TV twice in February: In “Stan Lee’s Mighty 7,” premiering Feb. 1 on the Hub network, voicing an animated version of himself stumbling onto a team of real-life superheroes while grappling with writer’s block; and in another cameo, this time in “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD,” the ABC series that extends the Marvel franchise into television.
Asked if he’s ever objected to the bits filmmakers dream up for him, Lee offers assurances he does not. “I’ll do anything to get on the screen,” he says cheerfully in an interview. “I’m a real ham.”
Lee’s hammy qualities will hardly come as news to his longtime observers or to the comicbook world. What is hard to imagine, given how these characters were once treated, is that studios would be willing to gamble on something like Ant-Man, whose prior TV exposure has largely been limited to being lampooned in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch.
The demand for Marvel heroes co-created by Lee (mostly with late artist Jack Kirby) is such that the comics ambassador could make a pretty good living as a glorified extra, even if he weren’t cashing in royalty and producer checks as well.
“Mighty 7,” by contrast, features new characters; Lee gets top billing, naturally, amid a vocal cast that includes Armie Hammer, Teri Hatcher and Christian Slater. The project has landed at the Hub, a partnership of Discovery and Hasbro, thanks to Lee’s lengthy relationship with network chief Margaret Loesch, whose resume included a stint running Marvel Prods. in the 1980s, when selling superheroes was a much different proposition.
As Lee is fond of telling it, in the early days, comics were “so ill-respected it’s the reason I changed my name.” Born Stanley Lieber, he sliced his first name in half to preserve his real name for the great novel he hoped to eventually write.
Still, asked if he could have envisioned the modern comics explosion, Lee says he could — or, at least, began to once director Bryan Singer unleashed his version of “X-Men” in 2000, followed a few years later by Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man.” “I thought then that every one of our characters would make it,” he says.
Lee sees technology as the main reason for the genre’s modern renaissance. “The special effects make it possible to tell these stories the way they should be,” he explains.
Of course, a vfx focus ignores a more fundamental reason comics have become less of a punchline: how seriously filmmakers approach the genre in terms of tone. Gradually, artists weaned on comics saw these properties as mythic stories — “Fairy tales for grownups,” as Lee puts it — in a way that doesn’t require camp tics or winking at the audience.
Given the success Marvel has enjoyed theatrically with “The Avengers,” “Thor” and “Iron Man,” Lee jokes, “I’m surprised that DC hasn’t offered me a cameo in one of their movies.”
Considering how bitter the Marvel-DC rivalry has historically been, that’s unlikely. But if there’s one thing that’s true with Stan Lee, it’s that anything seems possible.