To see Stan Lee in person is to witness a display of dynamism and enthusiasm that is both unbelievable and delightful — after all, the man is 89 years old and he certainly owes no one a tap dance. Still though, he performs, he glad-hands, he gushes about everything and everyone around him — perpetually playing the content, shrugging, jovial old man; the legend, the architect and now mascot for Marvel Comics.
We want to like Lee, and he makes it easy. We want to learn more about him, but that is made hard because we’ve been fed his smile-inducing anecdotes and the history of his and Marvel’s rise for years and years. It isn’t his fault, the man’s been living in the public eye for nearly half a century, feeding the quest for insight on his work for just as long — trouble is, there are unexplored areas of Lee‘s career, questions that are rarely asked, and never fully answered.
It was my great hope going into With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story, that we would get a look into the mindset of Lee and get a fuller examination of his take on the more controversial elements of his career and still developing situations like the fight being waged against Marvel by the family of departed comic legend, Jack “King” Kirby, the artist and co-creator of many of Marvel Comics’ (and before it, Timely Comics’) most lasting and iconic characters. Sadly, this is not that kind of “documentary”, but rather it is a moving biography that never really feels objective or independent.
To it’s credit, With Great Power does briefly mention some of the above questions in between celebrity testimonials (I could have lived my whole life without Paris Hilton commenting on Stan Lee) and those welcome but familiar stories that call attention to the landmark way that Lee helped bring diversity and tolerance into comics while simultaneously elevating the form.
In mentioning those controversial questions about Kirby and Steve Ditko, the film admirably resists the urge to be a complete puff piece, but they really only dance on the periphery of these important issues, dismissing the Ditko feud with a somewhat condescending explanation on why he “gave” Ditko the honor of being dubbed the co-creator of Spider-Man.
Lee also explains that Jack Kirby‘s departure stemmed from a newspaper article that highlighted Lee while downplaying Kirby, and Kirby‘s distaste for Lee getting a larger share of the credit, an odd statement to anyone with knowledge of Kirby‘s other difficulties with Marvel, like his fight with the company over the return of his original art. And though Lee does go on, at great length, about his friend, Jack Kirby, and the loss he feels now that hes gone, that memory is not given the fullest tribute due to the way that Lee describes Kirby‘s departure from Marvel and his (Lee’s) general silence, both during the documentary and in general, about the ongoing Kirby family legal fight against Marvel.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying Stan Lee is some great villain, he just comes off as standard and pedestrian. Non-heroic and contrary to both the tagline for this film (which calls Lee a real superhero) and the characters that he and Kirby co-created, thanks to the way that he (Lee) has kept his mouth shut, a mouth that could possibly shame and shake Marvel to do right by the Kirby clan.
Labeled an opportunist by some, Lee has earned the adoration of millions (myself among them) and a place on the Rushmore of comicdom, but the people who worked alongside him, who worked with him and the people whose contributions before and after his reign elevated him and Marvel deserve his recognition and his courage, after-all, with great power comes great responsibility.
I give With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story 2.5 out of 5 stars because Lee and the filmmakers wasted an opportunity to live up to those obligations. This documentary will likely frustrate those with ample knowledge of comic book history, but I do recommend it to Stan Lee loyalists and for those who are just starting to take an interest in comic book history. With that said, I also recommend that they take some parts of it with a grain of salt and an invitation to explore further.
With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story debuts on EPIX HD tonight (April 27th) at 8PM as part of the EPIX Marvel Heroes Weekend marathon that will feature Thor, Iron Man 2, and the television debut of Captain America: The First Avenger. If you don’t have EPIX HD you can register for a free preview here.