Greetings, human! We at OTF are starting a new weekly post that we’re calling “Movie Monday.” Beginning today and running until the end of the year (at least), we’re watching and reviewing movies that we think should be of particular interest, importance, or delight to you, our wonderfully geeky audience. Most are documentaries, but a narrative or two may be thrown in there if it’s fun.
Today’s entry is a documentary scrutinizing the most revered near-nonagenarian in the nerd universe, “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story.” We hope you’ll enjoy it! –OTF Editorial Board
When you mention the name Stan Lee, several things come to mind. Among them, the legendary heroes of the Marvel Universe, clambering fans at comic conventions, and teenage enthusiasm embodied by an 89-year-old man. There’s probably little you don’t know about the living mascot of Marvel Comics, mainly because he’s never shy about sharing an anecdote from his prolific 73-year career in the comics industry, but there might be a few sides of Stan that you haven’t seen, such as Stan the loving husband and father or Stan the businessman. With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story, an entertaining documentary as gregarious as its subject, and colorful as any Marvel comic book, takes a look at Stan Lee’s life beyond the pages populated by heroes and villains, but also leaves the viewers, fan or not, scratching their heads about many of the dealings in Stan’s career.
Populated with testimonials by comic historians, writers, artists, celebrities, and Stan himself, With Great Power explores Stan’s early life in New York during the Great Depression and his budding career at Timely Comics (which would become Marvel) alongside industry giants Jack Kirby and Joe Simon in the 1940s. At the tender age of 18, Lee was hired as a creative head at Timely following a mass exodus of artists and writers, leaving briefly to fight in the army during World War II as part of an elite team of “playwrights” (among them William Saroyan, Frank Capra, and Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel). We also get a rare glimpse of Stan’s home life with his wife of 65 years, Joan, as they bicker playfully, dance in their living room, and share their differing opinions about Stan’s man cave of an office. They even open up about the daughter they lost as an infant, an experience that shaped them both in years to come. It’s definitely the most touching portion of the documentary. Everything else, however, you’ve undoubtedly heard or seen before.
Talk of the creation of Spider-Man and The Hulk is nothing new to fans, especially if you’ve popped in Disc 2 of your favorite Marvel movie. We all know that Peter Parker is the superhero with teenage problems, and Bruce Banner is Lee’s take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the atomic age, but Stan’s enthusiasm in how he tells these tales of creation keeps them entertaining. But don’t expect much more beyond that. More compelling subjects that fans might hope to hear about are touched on briefly, at best. The feud between Lee and Steve Ditko over the creation and writing credits for Spider-Man is explained away by the mention of a letter Stan wrote granting Ditko co-creator status, and Lee briefly explains that Jack Kirby‘s departure from Marvel stemmed from a newspaper article that highlighted Lee while downplaying Kirby. Having opened that can of worms, one would have expected to then hear about the ongoing battle between Marvel and the Kirby family, but that particular subject is noticeably absent, despite Stan speaking highly, and thoughtfully, of his departed friend and colleague.
As the documentary continues to chronicle Stan’s work in the comics industry, the comic pages give way to television and movie screens as the film touches on how Stan’s superheroes, and Stan himself, made the move to California to Marvel Productions to bring about such projects as the famous Spider-Man cartoon and equally infamous Fantastic Four live action film. Having branched out into this new medium in the 1970s and 1980s, Stan took the opportunity to get in on the “next big thing” in the 1990s with Stan Lee Media, a doomed victim of the “dot com” craze that went bankrupt after less than two years as a result of fraud and lawsuits. However, in the wake of failure, the ever-resilient Stan still managed success in POW! Entertainment, a production company that kept his creative juices flowing with projects such as the 2006 Sci-Fi Channel original movie Stan Lee’s Lightspeed and the reality series Who Wants to Be a Superhero?.
The documentary concludes with the reaffirmation that Stan, despite being 89 years old, is personification of the phrase, “You’re only as old as you feel.” His perpetual eagerness to create and produce keeps him out of retirement and young at heart (even though that heart now has a pacemaker, making Stan even more like Tony Stark). He is just as much of a fan of his own creations as the people who read Marvel comics, watch Marvel cartoons, and go see Marvel movies. Interviews on the red carpet at the premieres of such films as The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man maintain this as he gushes over how excited he is to see his creations brought to life like never before and entertaining fans and new audiences alike.
With Great Power feels more like an episode of Biography than a documentary, but any fan of comics will enjoy the glimpses at the man behind “The Man” and the stories of how he helped create some of the most popular, relatable, and influential characters in American culture. Like Stan, With Great Power simply wants to entertain, and like Stan, it largely succeeds.
Verdict: Recommended. To a comic book fan, it’s a double-edged sword, providing rare glimpses into the life of a larger-then-life creator, beloved by millions, but also rehashes much of what you might have already heard, yet still manages to keep it all entertaining.
EDIT: Aside from the multitude of digital distribution sources, the movie is also now available for purchase on DVD from Amazon.