Even if you're not a comic-book geek, chances are you know the name Stan Lee. His pioneering work with Marvel comics turned the struggling publishing company into a global entertainment phenomenon. With the release of both this weekend's "Avengers" and his new documentary "With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story," (which you can watch OnDemand on EPIX) there was never a better time to talk to the man who was there at the beginning. During our chat with the 89-year-old pop-culture legend, he looked back on Marvel's crazy history with the movies: from the '70s Spielberg collaboration he wished would happen to Michael Jackson's attempts to play Spider-Man.
One of the subjects we wanted to ask him concerned the controversy surrounding the acknowledgment of his long-time collaborator (and "Avengers" co-creator) Jack Kirby. It's a complicated story involving Kirby and Lee's contentious relationship; last summer, Kirby's estate lost a bid to reclaim his copyrights over the characters. With "Avengers" being the first Marvel movie post-Kirby lawsuit, his fanbase was anxious that Disney/Marvel would underplay the artist's contributions -- with some even calling for boycotts.
Moviefone did not have a chance to screen "The Avengers" in New York before speaking with Lee. But with Disney's promotion of the movie as "Marvel's The Avengers" or "Joss Whedon's The Avengers," along with Kirby's name being absent from all press materials and a media narrative that tends to refer to Stan Lee as "single-handedly" shaping modern comics, we hoped to get his honest thoughts on the concerns of fans. While we were able to confirm that Kirby gets an end-credits mention after our interview, our inquiry concerned all the information we had on the production up to that moment.
Before this renaissance of Marvel movies -- let's start with "Blade" or Bryan Singer's "X-Men" -- there had been several attempts to adapt Marvel to film. Out of those projects that never came to be, which one were you most excited for?
Well I was most excited for Bernd Eichinger, the producer at the time had been trying to produce "The Fantastic Four" and I thought that would have been wonderful if he could have done that, but the years went by and it didn’t happen until way later.
At one point James Cameron was even involved with "Spider-Man."
Oh yes, that was another thing that excited me tremendously. There’s nobody in Hollywood as far as I’m concerned who’s more talented than Jim Cameron. So that was disappointing when I learned that he couldn’t do it or wouldn’t do it, something went up or wrong. But then of course, we were lucky that we had... Oh my god, what’s the name of the director of "Spider-Man"?
Oh, Sam Raimi, of course. Every so often I have trouble with names. I don’t think "Spider-Man" could have been done better than the way Sam Raimi did it. It was perfect.
When you were creating the comics in the '60s and '70s, if you could have plucked any director from that era to adapt any Marvel comic, what would have been the dream project?
Maybe Steven Spielberg with the Silver Surfer.
You’re so close to that character. Why do you have such kinship for him?
I was able to express a lot of philosophy through his dialogue that I couldn’t get across with the other characters.
What would you hope to see with a Sliver Surfer-starring blockbuster?
I would love to see what they call "The Galactus Trilogy," the three stories where he met the Fantastic Four. I think anything could be done if they decided they wanted to do it and work at it enough, and if there’s enough money in the budget. There’s nothing that can’t be done today.
Have you ever had the aspiration to get behind the camera yourself and try to adapt a comic book?
I don’t know that I’d be a good director because I’m not a patient man; the idea of doing a scene and then doing it over again with another camera angle and then doing it over again for whatever reason, I couldn’t handle that. "Let’s shoot it. Okay great, now onto the next scene.” I don’t have the temperament to stay with something that long.
Well you’ve at least had the patience to act.
Those were easy. Those were little cameos, a few minutes and I’m on my way home.
Which cameo was the most exciting for you?
The most fun was probably the one with those three girls in the "Iron Man" movie. But I loved them all. I like the one where I couldn’t get into Reed Richards' wedding because they didn’t believe I was Stan Lee. Wait til you see the one in "The Amazing Spider-Man," that’s very funny too. I can’t tell you what it is but it’s funny.
Beyond a cameo, if you ever had the chance to audition for a Marvel superhero, who would you want to be?
I don’t think I could have been any of the superheroes. I could have been J. Jonah Jameson. But nobody could have played it better than... again I forget his name, but the fellow who played it was wonderful. [Editor's note: J.K. Simmons]
Even with special effects aiding you, you wouldn’t attempt to put on a pair of tights?
No, I don’t look that great in tights, I’m too skinny.
The most interesting bit of almost-casting that I've ever heard came from a Producers Guild conference last summer: the "X-Men" producers revealed that Michael Jackson seriously lobbied for the part of Professor X.
I wasn’t aware that Michael Jackson wanted to be Professor X. I knew Michael Jackson. And with the things he discussed with me, I felt he wanted to be Spider-Man. That was the character that interested him. He never discussed the X-Men with me.
How do you think he would have fared as Spider-Man?
I think he’d have been good. I think he’d have been very good. But I must say that Tobey Maguire was wonderful.
I’m fascinated by the fact that Jackson worked with Stan Lee Media and attempted to buy Marvel, in the 90s.
Yes, he wanted to. He felt that would be the only way that he could play Spider-Man. [Laughs]
What do you think the company would have looked like now if that partnership came to fruition?
I can’t imagine it would have been totally different of course, but maybe not as successful. Michael was not a great businessman.
I wanted to touch upon a more serious subject regarding the release of "The Avengers." Fans of Jack Kirby are concerned that his name appears nowhere on the credits of "The Avengers." What's your take on their concern?
I don't know how to answer that because in what way would his name appear?
His name isn't mentioned anywhere in the film production as a co-creator.
Well, it's mentioned in every comic book; it says "By Stan Lee and Jack Kirby."
But it doesn't appear for the film itself, and his fans feel he should get that recognition, with the movie exposing his work to a whole new audience.
I know, but you're talking to the wrong guy because I have nothing to do with the credits on the movies. I'm credited as one of the executive producers because that's in my contract. But Jack was not an executive producer. So I don't know what he'd be credited as. Again, I know nothing about that, I have nothing to do with the movie's credits. You'd have to talk to whoever is the producer of the movie. Is there anything you want to ask me about the documentary because I thought that's what I was supposed to be talking about.
I will, but I have one last question on the subject. As an executive producer on "The Avengers," what advice would you have for a young comic creator that's trying to navigate this new world of movie adaptations?
The way it works is if you make a good comic book that would make a good movie, and some movie producer sees it, he'd want to buy the rights to the comic book. One thing you might want to do is if you have a comic book that is that good, is try to get an agent. Try to bring the book up to an agency like CAA or William Morris. It's always easier if an agent presents it, then just the person.
Looking at "With Great Power," of all the people involved in that documentary who gave testimonials about your impact on them, who took you by surprise the most?
Frankly, everyone of them surprised me. I couldn’t have thought that I had that much of an influence on so many of these very talented people. I was almost embarrassed by the whole thing. Even the name, "With Great Power," I was a little embarrassed about that cause it looks as though it’s saying that I have great power, but of course that’s just a quote from “With great power, comes great responsibility.” I hope everybody realizes that.
I think so. And looking at that quote, it’s gone beyond comics, it’s gone beyond Spider-Man. People really do adhere to that as a life philosophy.
In fact, the fellow who is Attorney General of Rhode Island, he had a brass plaque made for his door and invited me to Rhode Island for the opening ceremony when he was going to put it on his entrance of his office door.
When I meet fans especially in different countries or even in different parts of the United States, they’re people that I never would suspect would be comic book fans and they start talking about things that they remember from "Spider-Man" or "The Fantastic Four" or the "Silver Surfer" and I’m always surprised. Very often I have parents come along with their children and the father would say "I was a fan of these stories and now my son is." I got into them because my father, who is no longer here, got me reading them so that’s very impressive to me.
I’m sure you’ve had so many crazy encounters with fans over the years, but what’s the most recent example of an extreme fan?
They’re always so nice but the one extreme thing that happens at least once in every comic book convention, somebody comes over to me and asks me to sign my name with a sharpie pen on his arm or his shoulder because he wants to have it tattooed; that to me is amazing. [Laughs]