Documentary filmmaker David Gelb draws on a vast archive of footage and audio to allow the Marvel icon to tell his story in Stan Lee.
Stan Lee is an icon but he never set out to be known for his work in comic books. No, this was a guy who hoped to write the Great American Novel. Suffice it to say, his path would lead him to fame but not because of novels. Through his work in comics–along with the rest of the marvelous Marvel bullpen–he would have a huge impact on the world. Take it from me–getting to meet the man for all of five seconds is one of the highlights in my life. It would turn out to be my only opportunity because Lee would pass away in 2018.
What is there about Stan Lee that we do not already know? This is the greatest challenge of all for filmmaker David Gelb. On the book front, there have been two biographies on Lee in recent years and they go where this film does not. They have the pages to do so–this film runs about 90 minutes, which is not enough time. Whether audiences learn something or not really depends on what they know going into the film. Gelb makes sure to hit some of the must-haves. You can not do a documentary on Stan Lee without discussing his work with Jack Kirby or the fallout. While Kirby did come back to Marvel following a stint at DC, their relationship would never be the same. It’s the same reason why Steve Ditko left: credit for creating characters. This is a longer discussion in and of itself.
This is not a talking head documentary. If it had, the film would easily have been a two-part doc. In all honesty, it should really be longer. After all, the Lee-Kirby relationship would be a full doc in and of itself! There’s a longer in-depth story to tell about Stan Lee but David Gelb does his best with keeping it to about an hour and a half. There’s no mention of the elder abuse. Outside of his movie cameos, we don’t see Stan Lee’s role in going to Hollywood and getting characters on TV or film. There is none of that in the doc. Nor are there any cultural critics discussing what Lee means to the world and to pop culture itself. Other than a few colleagues and Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige, it’s basically Lee telling his own story dating back to his birth in 1922.
Stan Lee is considered to be the official documentary. Except for the Funko sets detailed below, Gelb lets Stan tell his story through personal home video, interviews and audio recordings. But again, some of it is covered in the aforementioned biographies. It’s why I felt that I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t already know. That’s what makes this a challenging documentary. It’s still fascinating but I feel like this is a film that could have dug deeper into the subject. Casual Marvel fans may feel differently, of course.
Part of the problem in using Lee’s voice in telling his story is what does not make it into the film. Or what does not get as big of a focus. The fallout between Lee and Kirby is legendary. Up until film’s final hour, I found myself thinking, hey, are you going to talk about this at some point? Stan Lee did not create these characters alone and that’s part of the trouble in mainly using his voice in telling the story. We’re not getting the bigger picture as a result. The books are way better in painting the full picture of Stan Lee as a person. They go beyond The Man, The Myth, The Legend. The film does a fine job in touching on Lee’s personal life although I still feel that the film could have said something about the late-life scandals that impacted his comic con visits.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is how Funko played a role in its production design. It’s the most innovative part of the film, which is an otherwise conventional documentary. I have to admit that the Funko aspect of it all is certainly not something I expected going into the film.
Stan Lee does a fine job in bringing Stan Lee’s story to the screen but this film is not long enough as there are things that do not make it into the final cut. Stan Lee’s story would be better as a two-part doc or doc series–ninety minutes is not enough.
DIRECTOR: Stan Lee
FEATURING: Stan Lee, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Flo Steinberg, Kevin Feige
Stan Lee held its world premiere during the 2023 Tribeca Festival in the Spotlight Documentary section. Disney+ will launch the film on June 16, 2023. Grade: 3.5/5
Please subscribe to Solzy at the Movies on Substack.