There isn’t a comic book fan walking the Earth who doesn’t know who Stan Lee is, or what his legacy has meant to their beloved industry. Along with artists like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Bill Everett, and countless others, Lee created what is now known as the Marvel Universe. Characters like Spider-Man, The Hulk, Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and a host of others all sprung from the mind of the quirky creator back in the ‘60s, and their adventures still continue today in various comic books, cartoons, TV shows, and movies. And in the new documentary With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story, directors Terry Dougas, Nikki Frakes, and Will Hess take viewers through the evolution of Lee’s creative empire.
The documentary starts off with how Lee broke into the comics industry in his teen years, when he worked as an editorial assistant for Timely Comics, which would later be rebranded as Marvel. After working on Captain America Comics for a while, Lee soon joined the army during WWII, where he worked on educational pamphlets for the troops. This wasn't a glorious job, especially the pamphlet he created about the dangers of venereal diseases, but it showed the man's dedication and work ethic.
Once this intro is out of the way, the film kicks into gear as it explores the genius behind Lee, with interviews and insights from some of the biggest names in comics and entertainment. Hollywood stars like John Favreau, Tobey Maguire, and Nicolas Cage all expound upon their love for the man, each of them citing how his creations have been integral to the successes of their respective careers. But the real meat of the documentary comes from the comic book talent themselves. Artists and writers such as John Romita Sr., Roy Thomas, Frank Miller, and Gene Colan all share anecdotes about Lee that bring a sense of humanity to the man. Stories of Lee acting out comic panels in the office and terrorizing his artists prove that he isn't just a creative genius—he's absolutely insane, as well. And his humor hasn't lost a beat, as the flick's more recent interviews with Lee himself prove that he's just as sharp as ever, even though he's well into his later years.
Old audio recordings of Stan and grainy video of the original Marvel Bullpen shown throughout With Great Power collectively serve as the Holy Grail for comic book fans. The archival material shows a simpler time when these characters weren’t huge movie stars and corporate mascots; instead, Stan was just a man trying to keep a small publishing company afloat by pumping out quality comics. It’s interesting to see how these small ideas ballooned and revolutionized the pop-culture landscape. Longtime fans should love seeing how Stan came up with the idea for the Merry Marvel Marching Society, not to mention his thoughts on the ill-fated Amazing Spider-Man live-action television show from the '70s.
For one of the first times ever, Lee let filmmakers enter his home; inside the icon's pad, viewers get a sense of his quaint personal life with his wife, Joan. It’s surreal to see the biggest icon of the geek world puttering around the house like a normal 90-year-old, and the film does a great job of showing him in his natural environment away from big crowds and fans. Stan’s cheery demeanor does get tested, though, as the directors dig deep into his feelings on real life issues, including the loss of one of his children and the death of Jack Kirby. For lifelong Marvel followers, the parts about the creative strife that Lee had with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko are enlightening, but they barely scratch the surface when it comes to the contentious creator’s rights battles he has dealt with over the years. That material could easily fill a whole documentary all by itself, and it's somewhat tip-toed around here.
Unfortunately, for as educational as this documentary can be at times, it tends to skip around a bit too much, losing any sense of linear storytelling along the way. One minute, Marvel is celebrating the success of the Spider-Man and X-Men movies, and the next, the filmmakers are detailing Marvel’s bankruptcy case, which happened years prior. These transitions are abrupt and can throw off the rhythm of the film. A bit more structure could have helped peg each event to a specific time and place, rather than leaving it up to the audience to figure out. But those are just small nitpicks in an otherwise solid crash course on comic book history.
Before you rush to see The Avengers next Friday, give With Great Power a look and learn the story behind every component of that superhero-packed adventure. The documentary is an incredibly educational and entertaining way to see how Stan Lee, along with his roster of artists, went on to create some of the biggest characters in pop-culture.
With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story airs tonight on Epix at 8 p.m. EST.