Review by Sean Boelman
When a biographical documentary is produced by the company that employed an individual, it’s unlikely that it will be especially challenging or groundbreaking. That rule is not broken by the Marvel Studios-backed Stan Lee, but filmmaker David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) has still made a worthy love letter to an iconic figure in pop culture.
In honor of what would have been the comic book creator’s 100th birthday last December, the documentary Stan Lee takes a look back at Lee’s life and career as one of the main creative forces behind Marvel Comics and one of the most influential artists in all of comics history. While the documentary may not be particularly prying, it’s a compelling watch nonetheless.
Although it is understandable why this decision was made — the documentary is, first and foremost, a tribute to Lee — the film does disappointingly gloss over some of the contributions that other artists made to the success of Lee and Marvel. The movie does have a brief discussion of the sometimes contentious relationship between Lee and Jack Kirby, but apart from that, the focus is almost entirely on Lee’s contributions.
And to that matter, there are plenty of contributions that Lee made — not just to Marvel but the comics industry as a whole. However, with a sub-90-minute runtime, it feels like we are getting the Wikipedia version of Lee’s life. We touch on some of his most important creations — Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and more — but these are the stories that comic fans already know well. Hell, people with a basic knowledge of pop culture history probably already know these stories.
That said, where the film thrives is allowing the audience to hear Lee talk about his work in his own words. Even though the archive materials talk about familiar topics, it will be such a joy for comic fans to hear Lee’s voice again. Some viewers may even find themselves getting a bit choked up with nostalgia from some of the moments.
Gelb’s editing in the movie is very kinetic, weaving between different methods of storytelling in a way that will keep viewers engaged. Lee talked quite a bit about his work, so Gelb had a wealth of archive materials to pull from. Throw in a strong score by Michael Dean Parsons and Scott Michael Smith, and you have an effectively cinematic documentary.
The parts of the film that will likely stand out the most to viewers are those which utilize miniatures to recreate portions of Lee’s childhood and early life. Although this could be seen as a gimmick by some, it’s an effective device nonetheless. These sequences infuse the move with a feeling of child-like joy, much like action figures of Lee’s creations have for children throughout the years.
Although Stan Lee is hardly a revealing documentary, it will nonetheless delight comic fans. The merits of the film are summed up pretty well by a quote Lee himself says in an interview: “Maybe entertaining is one of the most important things because there are so many bad things in the world that if you can entertain someone for a while, it’s a good thing”
Stan Lee screens at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, which runs June 7-18 in NYC and June 19 through July 2 online.