In a year where The Avengers was king, The Amazing Spider-Man enjoyed a creative renaissance, and major moves were made on the mutant movie front, With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story celebrates the genius behind these beloved characters: Marvel founder Stan “The Man” Lee.
Spider-Man. The Incredible Hulk. Thor. The Fantastic Four. Captain America. Iron Man. The X-Men. Daredevil. Comic book artists would kill to have one of Stan Lee’s original characters on his or her resume. The fact that all of them sprang from one man’s boundless imagination blows my mind. The greatest strength of With Great Power is that it documents Lee’s immense influence over the comic industry (and pop culture, by extension), which is shown by the age-range of his dedicated fans. Literally, everyone from kids to seniors adores Lee—provided they have a vested interest in superheroes.
Probably because Lee has been part of this booming industry for decades, starting at a time when comics weren’t booming and the man acted as a virtual one-man-show in the offices of his earliest comic companies. Co-directors Terry Dougas, Nikki Frakes and William Lawrence Hess start their rough-and-tumble documentary at Lee’s acceptance of the National Medals of Arts & Humanities award for his contributions to the act of storytelling. Then, they collect a bevy of professional storytellers to tell us what Lee means to them. Nicholas Cage, Kevin Smith, Frank Miller and countless actors from Marvel’s cinematic universe contribute to the vision. Not one of them speaks ill of Lee in this gush-fest.
And Lee’s life story is about as interesting as you might have assumed. Lee says he “got into comics by accident,” joining forces with Joe Simon and Jack Kirby at an early age -- the beginning of a legendary partnership. Lee served as a one-man show in his thirties, ashamed to still be doing “juvenile things” (in his own words) as neighbors went on to become doctors, lawyers and successful accountants. If you believe his story, he was ready to quit when he finally – at his beloved wife Joan’s urging – came up with The Fantastic Four in 1961. According to stories, Lee’s an animated personality in every sense -- a creative goofball and a homespun artist who fought for identity and recognition for his artists at Marvel (Unsurprisingly, that celebration of talent also thrived at Pixar in the studio’s early days, which is why we know names like Lee Unkrich, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter).
It’s not all ‘wine and roses’ though. Comics once faced opposition from government officials upset by sedentary children staying indoors to read (instead of playing baseball outdoors). Poor sales in the early days of comics led to layoffs – a fact that seems unheard of now that comics are held in such high regard. And yet, Lee openly talks about recent failures, including Marvel’s bankruptcy woes and the struggles of Stan Lee Media.
But With Great Power answers all of the frequently asked questions regarding what life is like as Stan Lee. Fans are shown the modest workspace he keeps at his house. We’re given a sampling of his extremely busy travel schedule. He delves into the unexpected scientific, personal and military influences that went into the creation of the Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man and the isolated X-Men heroes. He and Joan even open up about the loss of a child.
The documentary might be low budget, but it’s blessed with first-person insight and vintage photos and video. Just by existing, it solidifies Lee as an American institution. ‘Nuff said.
Ironically, the Special Features of the With Great Power DVD are better than the standalone film, itself, and should be thought of as the sequel to the movie, which packs in far more information that we actually get in the documentary.
There are more than 90 minutes worth of footage, including additional interviews (and many, many personal stories) from Lee and his various collaborators over the years. The sweetest might be “The Biggest Fan,” which touches on the letters Marvel receives on a daily basis. The doc’s producers even conducted an Internet search for Lee’s biggest fan, which is really great. It shows adults letters they sent to Marvel as kids, thereby proving that Lee held onto the letters in a file somewhere. How could fans not love that?
“Pow, Zip, Boom”, meanwhile, studies the sound effects used in comic-book cinema. Music Is the Story focuses on, well, you can probably guess. Other features take us to UCLA, Sundance, Comic-Con and other places for public conversations with Lee and fans like Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada. If you can’t get enough of Stan “The Man,” then click on “Further Thoughts from Stan.” Seriously, if Stan Lee is your God, this DVD might be your bible.