For The Comics Journal an attempt to write sensibly about Stan Lee, which The Walt Disney Company of Burbank is framing as an official documentary portrait of the Marvel figurehead, in much the same way that Marvel used to do its Annual Reports as cartoons to frame itself as the happy fun-time capitalists.
Disney paid $4 billion for Marvel and has gone to great lengths to keep Lee associated with the surface of the brand without inserting him too deeply, efforts that barely missed a step after Lee curtailed his strict availability by dying. But even on the scale of industrial flattery, this film enters the chart of shallowest Stan Lee examinations at a high position, an echo of an old soundbite. They should have just borrowed the title American from Orson Welles and missed what he actually meant. It does no one any favours, including Lee.
What problem did Disney feel was on deck and needing to be solved like this? The nest of lawsuits and legal questions over Lee’s co-creations are still sub judice or legally silenced, but the general knowledge that these things were collaborative endeavours is long since out of the bag. Throwing this pre-fab slab of foam onto one side of the scales would be an option, on a not very long list, if you wanted to ever so slightly fog this idea once more, to just gesture towards the exceptionalism of Mr Stan Lee at this point in time. To do that and then avoid the harder questions by simply stopping halfway through his life, to get only as far as 1972 before saying Well I Must Be Going and checking out, is delicious corporate logic.
The man behind this documentary was also behind the 2020 series Marvel 616 which was essentially another eight chapters of the Annual Report, so all this is not exactly a left-field surprise. Unluckily for the world’s supply of flannel, it arrives just as comics creators are telling public stories about their private treatment by editors and publishers, including some of Lee’s heirs, proving that everything about comics has changed since Stan Lee started down the road towards Stan Lee except not so much actually. The offices are now pristine white hot-desk collaboration breakout stations but time is a tight circle, possibly within collaboration breakout stations most of all. The steps needed to layer something like compassionate creativity over the comics industrial complex and nail down the corners get ever more tense. Stan Lee is a nervous headache in audio-visual form.