Where other writers created worlds, he created a universe populated by heroes blessed, or cursed, with special powers. Their conflicts, internal and external, played out across skylines and time warps, rearranged cities, destroyed planets. Their success created franchises available on multiple platforms, everything aimed at becoming more eyeball-battering, eardrum-splattering, boundary-breaking than whatever came before.
Everything, that is, except the cameo.
Beginning with “X-Men” in 2000, Lee made appearances in each Marvel movie, playing everything from a Hugh Hefner look-alike (“Iron Man”) to a guy whose car gets shrunk in the superpower melee (“Ant-Man and the Wasp”). He usually has a line, and it is usually funny. (“Superheroes in New York?” he says, looking up from an outdoor chess game in “The Avengers.” “Give me a break.”)
Even those members of the audience too young to remember a time when Lee was just a signature on a comic book, or what comic books meant once upon a time, looked forward to those moments. They were the biggest superpower reveal of them all. In the midst of chaotic extravagance, his appearance offered a moment's reality check, breaking the fourth wall to remind us that while Chris Hemsworth may indeed be a god, it was this crazy old coot in the tinted aviators who started it all.
Imagine. The man in the grandad windbreaker, master of the universe.
That, after all, is the point of the Marvel Universe — great power can be bestowed on the most unlikely individuals, often with mixed results. Lee himself dealt in mixed results. The credits battle between himself and illustrators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko over iconic characters including the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man rages to this day (and requires a far more qualified scholar than myself to explain).
Lee’s career and financial status rose and fell with the comic-book industry until the film franchise that began with “Iron Man” made him a star again. But his final years were marked by accusations that he had both abused his own power and been abused by those around him.
Every story in Lee’s universe was a contemplation of power: How it is acquired (accidentally, intentionally, with malice, in service), can it be controlled (yes, but usually imperfectly), and, most important, what is the toll of such weighty imbalance (on the powerful and the meek).
Lee’s and later others’ Marvel characters are, with a few notable exceptions, recognizable people (the quiet kid, the dashing arms scion, the sudden orphan, the devoted scientist) who become unrecognizable in their ability to lift cars/become invisible/swing from buildings/never die. They are united in that their lives are never again their own.
“With great power comes great responsibility” is a line that could easily have come from Homer or Queen Elizabeth I or John Adams; instead it is the motto of Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker, and forms the narrative spine of all Lee’s work and its descendants.
What do those with superpowers owe those without? Constant protection from evildoers, obviously, but also the ongoing awareness that superpowers corrupt in a super-sized way. Constant vigilance is required and like most vigils, it is usually a lonely one.
Superheroes are fun because their powers are physical; they remain meaningful because their powers are metaphorical. In “Stan’s Soapbox,” a newsletter that pre-dated the direct communication between creator and audience via social media by several decades, Lee often reminded his audience of that; he reissued his 1968 declaration against racism after the attacks in Charlottesville, Va.
For all their CG glory, Spider-Man, the Avengers and the X-Men are there to remind us that power is not evenly distributed in this world and sometimes it is the most unlikely individual who stands in the way of evil, sometimes alone and heartsick, sometimes with a gang that includes a trash-talking raccoon.
And always, for a moment anyway, a skinny old guy with big glasses and one great line.
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