Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige grew up as a devoted Marvel Comics reader, so it was a huge thrill when he finally got to meet Stan Lee, the iconic comic book creator who filled the skies of the Marvel Universe with creations like Spider-Man, the Black Panther, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, the X-Men, Magneto, Loki, Ant-Man, the Wasp, Doctor Strange and the Silver Surfer. That first meeting with Lee came when Feige was an associate producer on X-Men, the landmark 2000 film that ushered in a new level of success for Hollywoods Marvel adaptations.
“Every meeting with Stan Lee was better than the last,” a somber Feige told Deadline on Monday after hearing that Lee had died at 95. “Thats been true from the first time I met him — when I was 26 years old and on the set of the first X-Men movie and we were filming his cameo on a beach in Malibu as a hot dog vendor — to just 10 days ago at his house. That was one of the amazing things about Stan: his charisma and his enthusiasm. For 95 years, almost 96 years, that spirit was infectious and that spirit made Marvel what it is.”
Feige said there was no simple way to summarize the legacy or achievements of Lee whose writing career began with his first published work back in 1941. Lee was a teenager when he wrote Captain America Foils the Traitors Revenge, published as a text-only tale in the back pages of Captain America Comics No. 3.
The two-page story marked the first time that Captain America ever threw his shield, a tactic that instantly became a signature visual of the character. When that fact was mentioned to Feige on Monday he chuckled in admiration — it was likely the closest he would come to laughing on an otherwise grim day.
“Amazing,” Feige said. “Isnt that incredible? I didnt know that. Theres so many amazing things he did. Im so thankful that through the success of the Marvel films that Stan was able to see fans all over the world embrace his creations in his lifetime. Thats something that Jack Kirby [Lees famed collaborator, who died in 1991] didnt live to see in his lifetime. With the films Lee was embraced not just by the comic book fans he would see at conventions but to people on the other side of the world.”
Lees other legendary collaborator, Steve Ditko, passed away in June. The tandem of Lee and Ditko created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, characters that met on screen for the first time in Avengers: Infinity War, which was released in April. “Im very happy,” Feige said Monday, “that at least they got a chance to see that.”
The success of Marvel Studios in its first decade has been nothing short of extraordinary. The movies have soared while the rival Warner Bros films featuring DC Comics superheroes have been inconsistent — Wonder Woman was a smash but Justice League was a disappointment and Green Lantern a glowing-green debacle. One reason is the creative DNA of the Marvel characters, who are defined by their flaws and often become heroes through affliction or accident. That (along with humor and irony, two other Lee trademarks) makes the Marvel movies far easier for young moviegoers to relate to and to embrace.
Superheroes had taken flight in 1938 with Superman, who was followed in short order by Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Hawkman and the other costumed do-gooders of DC Comics. The DC characters were influenced by the European tradition of adventure heroes with aristocratic origins and each possessed a unique birthright.
Early on Superman was presented as the last survivor of a distant “planet of supermen,” Batman lived in an inherited mansion, while Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Hawkman were all of royal heritage. Readers could admire them the way they admired Hercules or King Arthur but they would be hard-pressed to see themselves reflected in the characters.
By 1960 the heroes of DC Comics were also bland and scrubbed clean of any real-world edginess — the publisher was the Pat Boone of comics. (Its more than a metaphor: DC in fact published Pat Boone as a monthly comic book starring the singer in his own series from 1959 to 1960). The bank robbers and gangland killers in DC Comics wore neckties and the heroes were respectful to authority and each other.
That made Marvel Comics feel especially revolutionary in 1961 when Fantastic Four No. 1 arrived on newsstands as a strange and subversive revamping of superhero expectations.
The Fantastic Four didnt have secret identities and they bickered and insulted each other. They were driven at times by ego, jealousy, self-pity, profit, pettiness, lust or hubris. They had problems paying their bills. They played practical jokes on each other. They lived in New York (not Metropolis or Gotham City) where the citizenry sometimes jeered or heckled them.
The melodrama of a soap opera was superimposed over cosmic adventures and thrilling action. Heroes often got their powers in random ways (because of a bug bite, for instance, or laboratory accidents) and despite their strength they suffered bitter setbacks and public disgrace. It was a fresh, dynamic, game-changing success that made publishing history and set the stage for the Hollywood success of Marvel that would follow it decades later. On Monday, Feige agreed that the innovative leap of the 1960s work by Lee and his collaborators still echoes in the success of Marvel on the screen.
“Its hugely important and its another among Stans multitude of genius choices and innovations,” Feige said. “He found what was relatable for the readers within these extraordinary characters. I know thats why I responded to them when I was a kid and why so many people respond to them. Yes, I dont have super powers, unfortunately I cant climb walls, I cant spin a web any size — but I sure felt awkward in high school and I felt the alienation that many teenagers do. That was Stans brilliance. Bringing something very personal and very authentic to a canvas that extraordinary and larger than life. “