The story of Marvel can scarcely be told without some focus on Stan Lee, the man, the myth, the mascot. The eponymously titled Stan Lee, a new documentary by David Gelb, flips this script to focus on the life of a true comic book giant. Told primarily in the first person, Gelb focuses on the high points of Lee’s life and career, glossing over the messy bits. This results in a sweet celebration of a visionary but is like looking at a single panel in a comic book. You are not seeing the whole story.
Lee narrates his life from birth, growing up as a child of immigrants, to his time with Marvel. Lee describes the thought behind the types of characters he would want to read about and some of the initial struggles the company faced before finding its path. As he grew into the figurehead of the company, the line between where Lee stopped and Marvel started became blurred, with his name and likeness becoming synonymous with the publishing giant.
There is no doubt that Stan Lee was an engaging figure. Once he stepped away as a writer, he championed the company by traveling and doing speeches and presentations to really sell the idea that comic books were not just for kids. That same penchant for verbal storytelling comes through here. Gelb smartly uses archival audio from appearances and interviews to narrate the film. This is Stan Lee’s story, as told by Stan Lee.
The director smartly frames the film by date. Each segment shows quick flashes of world events occurring at the time Lee’s story is taking place. It is a quick way to contextualize Lee’s motivations without rehashing world history. Action figures placed in miniature sets visually represent other scenes of narration. Stylistically, this gives the film a youthful feel that matches the enthusiasm of Lee’s dialogue.
However, despite his claims of making his heroes human by making mistakes, the film never paints Lee with flaws. Gelb glosses over creative differences at Marvel and ignores any skeletons Lee may have had in his closet. This is a celebration of a man, not a definitive narrative of a media titan. Because of this sanitized telling, one scene featuring a phone interview between Lee and fellow creator Jack Kirby is quite jarring. In the scene, Lee calls into a radio show to wish Kirby a happy birthday, and the call quickly grows contentious. The moment stands out because it contradicts the tone of the rest of the film and never comes to a resolution.
The end of the film veers into Lee’s now infamous movie cameos. Rather than enhance Lee’s story, this segment feels like an advertisement for the many titles streaming on Disney+. The documentary, of course, premiered on the same service. While fun to see some of the behind-the-scenes footage of Lee filming his cameos, the scene feels inauthentic. Instead of a feature documentary, it feels more like a television special. It feels contrived to close out the film, whose primary subject is Lee, with a segment about his cameos.
In the end, Stan Lee has the feeling of a fluff piece. It is fascinating and enjoyable to have Lee narrate his own life. Doing so, however, limits the narrative to only the positive parts. The inclusion of behind-the-scenes footage of his many cameos further makes the film feel incomplete. Gelb does a fine job framing the setting of the narrative though, and the visual storytelling is engaging. However, fans looking for a definitive documentary will be left wanting a few more panels.