Programming to tubthump the upcoming premiere of “The Avengers,” Epix has concocted a “Marvel Heroes Weekend” consisting of the company’s existing movies (“Thor,” “Captain America,” “Iron Man”) and a documentary devoted to their co-creator, Marvel patriarch Stan Lee. The 80-minute film is sort of a wonderful mess — disjointed, poorly ordered, but like Lee himself, irrepressible and bubbling with energy. If nothing else, it’s a primer on the genesis of superhero comics, an artform that, for better and worse, has become a cinematic staple.
Deriving its title from Spider-Man’s realization, “With great power comes great responsibility,” the doc begins badly, featuring a litany of empty tributes to Lee and Marvel from movie stars with all the heft of cribbing sound bytes from an electronic press kit.
After that, filmmakers Nikki Frakes, Terry Dougas and Will Hess settle into a more conventional biography, talking to an assortment of artists and other alumni from the “Marvel bullpen” who worked with Lee, as well as his wife, Joan, who proves every bit as colorful as he is.
The best part, not surprisingly to anyone who’s met him, is simply listening to the octogenarian raconteur spin stories he’s clearly told a thousand times before, no doubt with a healthy sprinkling of hyperbole.
Self-effacing but also a natural ham and showman, Lee speaks of the early days, how he stumbled into management and the stigma associated with the medium as a less-than-respectable career. As Lee relates, he was ready to quit when — following Joan’s advice — he decided to write a comic the way he wanted to, giving birth to the Fantastic Four in 1961.
Film deals less successfully with Lee’s reputation as a credit hog and his relationship with the artist on most major Marvel titles, Jack Kirby, who wound up resenting Lee’s long shadow, despite his role in co-creating Fantastic Four, the Avengers, X-Men, Iron Man, the Hulk and Thor during the 1960s, in what’s described as the most explosive period of success by a creative duo other than Lennon and McCartney.
As comics titan-turned-filmmaker Frank Miller notes of that heady period, those titles were “unlike anything I had ever seen before. The pages rippled with energy.”
The Kirby segment also messes up the chronology, preceding psychologist Fredric Wertham’s campaign against the corrosive effect of comics on children — and his book, “Seduction of the Innocent,” which cast a pall over the industry. But Wertham waged his campaign in the ’50s, before the wave Marvel unleashed that made comicbooks cool, relevant and relatable to young readers in a way they hadn’t been previously.
“With Great Power” captures what made Lee such a great ambassador for the medium, as well as acknowledging the pivot in tone and quality ushered in by the movie “X-Men,” spurring the onslaught of superheroes Epix is shrewdly exploiting. Perfect, it’s not. But listening to Lee, it’s easy to feel like a little kid — flipping through those brightly colored pages — all over again.