Building on a rapport with his fans that began on the Marvel Bullpen letters page all those years ago, Lee remains a vital part of superhero fandom by making routine cameo appearances in every Marvel hero movie since 'X-Men.' With Lee at the helm, Marvel became known as the "House of Ideas," and now he's bringing his latest hero-based concepts to his own company, POW! Entertainment. Moviefone recently chatted with the impresario from Vancouver, where he was filming his upcoming cameo in the SyFy TV series 'Eureka.'
As the elder statesman of the Marvel Universe, I think you're entitled to retire, as original 'Spider-Man' artist Steve Ditko has. Why is it important for you to stay involved with your creations?
Because everything I do is such fun. Some men like to play golf, but I love to do what I'm doing. I love being with writers, artists, actors and producers talking about new shows and books. What could be more fun?
I'm sure it keeps the creative juices flowing.
Yeah, I think so. I'm constantly coming up with new ideas because I'm with idea people and we're always talking about, "Wouldn't this be a great movie? Wouldn't this be a great TV series? Wow, this would be a great graphic novel." I can't think of anything more enjoyable than that.
We're obviously in a cultural environment right now, in which comics and superheroes are hotter than ever. Why do you think that is?
Well, first of all, people like to see things they haven't seen before, and we haven't seen many superheroes [in movies], until the first 'Superman' movie, which started it all. Then, Marvel took the reins and carried it through. These stories are imaginative and they're full of surprises. They're like eye candy. You're sitting in the audience while seeing all these great spectacles, special effects and things you haven't seen before. After so many movies and television series over the years, the public is a little jaded and they're always anxious to see something new. These comic book movies and these superhero stories, they do offer new looks at things.
But there seems to be so many superhero movies these days; do you think audiences will ever reach a breaking point?
Only when the writers run out of ideas. I'll give you an example: Ever since I can remember, and I can remember a long way back, there have been gangster movies. There have been movies about, you might say, cops and robbers -- movies involving detectives, police and criminals. Now, they still have movies like that. You would say, "Well, isn't the public sick of seeing cops chasing the bad guys on the screen?" Not if it's done well and not if each story contains some surprises.
I think I'm going to have to agree with you, because there are bad comic movies, and then there are good comic movies.
Of course, and that goes for everything. There are great romance movies and there are some that are corny. Everything depends ... Well, now with movies it depends on more than just the story. You start off with the story, but it depends on the right casting, the right directing and the right camera work. Entertainment has become so complex now. But ,again, if everything comes together well, then the public enjoys it whatever it is.
As a lifelong comic fan, I've noticed that, while movies and TV shows based on comics and superheroes are getting hotter, it seems like comic books themselves are in decline, especially among kids. Do you believe that comic books are still relevant today?
Oh, I think they are as long as they're well done. Even though I know we're in an electronic age and everybody is talking like we'll read all our stories on iPads, on the television screen or on your cell phone, there's still something kind of nice about a thin little comic book, which you can look at, turn the pages, see the pictures clearly in color, read it at your own speed; and when you finish, you kind of fold it and put in your pocket or you show it to a friend. You can collect them and they don't take up much room.
You can have a year's collection of comics just on one shelf and you can trade them with friends. I think there will always be comic books, but they may not be the big bestsellers that they had been in the past, but that goes for everything. Everything is changing so quickly with the advent of all the electronic entertainment like video games. I mean, now people spend so much time on video games and playing with their cell phone and texting. It's all new exciting things for younger people coming along, so there's so much that's vying for everyone's attention that there may be less of an audience per month for comic books. There may be less of an audience per month for regular books, or for movies, or for television or for anything eventually, but I think those things will always be with us.
Why do people continue to respond so strongly to the superhero?
I think people are always looking for something that represents the ideal person, or the ideal situation. You know, there's another reason. I feel that almost everybody has loved fairy tales when they were young. I don't know anybody who didn't read fairy tales as a young child. You're reading stories of witches, ogres, giants, monsters and so forth -- kids love that sort of thing. But, after a while, you become too old to read fairy tales; you outgrow them. But I don't think you ever outgrow your love for those types of stories. And if you think about it, superhero stories today are like fairy tales for older people. It's people with powers and abilities that no human beings have. The villains are always bigger than life or the menace is bigger than life and it's like the giants and the dragons in the old fairy tales. So, it's a chance for older people to have that same fun and excitement that they had when they were young reading fairy tales -- at least that's my theory.
What was it like working with the cast of 'Entourage' and joining the show's long list of celebrity appearances?
It was great! Those things give me a big kick and before 'Entourage' I had been on 'The Big Bang Theory' and it was the same thing. It was fun, and I expect to be on a few other shows in the future and I expect they'll be just as much fun. I love doing them. I think I'm a first-rate ham, really.
Do you feel that you have to flex different muscles as an actor than you would normally as a comic book writer?
All of it is fun. Writing comics is fun, working on movies is fun and doing this little bit of acting is fun. As long as you're with people who you like, who you respect and who you get along well with, everything you do is fun.
Speaking of cameos, what are you planning for your next batch? Will you play someone else like you did in 'Iron Man 2' or will you go back to playing yourself?
That really depends on the director, it depends what he wants me to do. Now, in the 'Thor' movie, I just play a nameless person doing something -- and I won't tell you what it is, because I want you to be surprised. I haven't done my 'Captain America cameo yet; they're shooting most of it in England. I'm hoping they shoot some scenes here in America, so I can be in one, and 'The Avengers' ... I don't know. I haven't spoken to the people yet. I've just been told that it will be in Los Angeles, so I'm assuming I will have a little role in that also.
Are you still holding out hope that one day you will receive a bigger role in any of these films?
In the back of my mind, yes. I'd love to get a real role in one of these movies. But, practically, I know that it's almost impossible, because then you have to spend a lot of time with the production company during the shooting. If you have one or two scenes, you don't shoot them quickly and go home an hour later. It might take three or four days of staying on the set before those scenes get completed. And I don't have the time to do that, because I'm so busy with my work at POW! Entertainment. So right now, these little cameos are really all the time I have to do. Although, you're right, when I daydream I would love to have a big role. I would've love to have played Odin in the 'Thor' movie, but Anthony Hopkins [who plays the role] is one of my favorite actors. I will tell you something in confidence, something I don't say to other people too often: He is a far better actor than I could ever be. [Laughs] I think I made the right choice.
What is your favorite new project currently in development at POW! Entertainment?
Everything I'm working on is my favorite at the moment. In fact, we have two things going in Japan right now. We have an animated cartoon series called 'Heroman' which is doing very well in Japan and we may be bringing it to this country. We have a comic book character series called 'Ultimo,' which is also doing very well. In fact, they are printing English-language versions and selling them in this country, that's fun. I'm also working up some new comic books with the Archie company. You know, Jughead, Archie, Betty and Veronica, but they're not teenage strips like that -- they're superheroes. They haven't done those before and they'd asked if I'd create some superheroes for them. So that's fun, going back and doing comics.
How do you view the span of your career and the fact that people have taken your ideas and made them part of our cultural lexicon?
I think, in a way, I'm very lucky, because when you think about it, I did these comic books and suddenly ... Well, not suddenly, but later on people are making these great movies based on the comic books I did. It's the people making the movies that are doing this wonderful job and somehow or other, I'm still getting some of the credit for it. So, I feel very fortunate.
Did you ever imagine in the '60s that any of this would reach the level that it has? Did you hope that it would?
I never even thought about it. I've said this so often: In those days, we just hoped that the comics would sell and we'd keep our jobs and be able to pay the rent. I mean, I never could have envisioned that it would turn into something like this.
Catch Stan Lee at Fan Expo in Toronto this weekend, or in one of his many upcoming cameos. Or you could just keep reading his comics -- he likes that.