With Great Power… the Stan Lee StoryA movie review article by: Jason Sacks
Stan Lee is a complicated figure in comics history. Stan the Man was the real driving force behind the House of Ideas, and comics might not exist today without Stan. Whatever you might think of Stan's writing style, there's no denying that he's a genius at promotion, at building his company, and at displaying an incredible personality that instantly charms and delights, fills fans with joy and makes readers feel like they're part of a wonderful cult that is cooler, hipper and happier for being part of the Marvel fan universe. For any of us who read Marvel Comics between the '60s and '80s and gloried in "Stan's Soapbox", we have vivid memories of the ways that Stan made us excited to be part of the cult of Marvel.
But some fans see Stan as a huckster, a shucker and jiver, a man who lives on hype and half-truths as a way to build his fame while forgetting the artists who helped him along. This group of fans, the group I like to call the "Satan Lee" cult, feels that Lee takes credit for work he didn't actually create, that he was unwilling to share credit with his co-creators and would steal credit for the work that Kirby and Ditko and the other artists did for these comics. After all, Stan created very concise plots for his stories and left the artists to create the flow of story around them. As the story goes, for instance, Jack Kirby created the Silver Surfer out of whole cloth in Fantastic Four #48 without Stan having said a word about the character – a character that would, ironically, become Stan's favorite character.
The new documentary With Great Power shows us the real Stan Lee and gives us a portrait of the world that Stan lives in. It's a charming portrait of The Man, showing us sides of Stan Lee that most of us just don't know anything about. This delightful new film shows Stan as he really is, presenting him paradoxically as both a plain and complicated man, giving viewers a three-dimensional view of the legend and delivering details of his life that most of us had no idea existed.
At the heart of this film is Stan's marriage to his beloved Joan. Stan and Joan married shortly after World War II – she was a war bride – and their marriage has thrived since then. This documentary gives viewers an intimate and sweet view of the pair together. It's charming to see this loving couple dance around in their living room or watching Joan brought to tears reading a love letter that Stan wrote to her. Throughout the film, we see the deep love that Stan and Joan feel for each other – through both good and bad days, the couple stays together.
The film doesn't hesitate to tell the sad stories. We hear the story of the time that Joan destroyed Stan's favorite typewriter in a fit of anger – a story that still causes some frustration for the couple. And most movingly, we learn about how Stan and Joan lost their second daughter just a week after she was born. For anyone who believes that Stan has lived a completely charmed life, it's a dreadful revelation to discover that he has faced some terrible tragedy as well.
The film also spends a significant amount of time discussing the failure of Stan Lee Media in 2000, maybe the worst event of Lee's later life. The filmmakers walk through the events at the company, not hesitating to show us the excitement that the company created in Stan's life only to see the company's collapse weigh very heavily on him.
While the movie doesn't avoid discussing the tragedies in Stan's life, it spends most of its time on the stuff that we all want to enjoy: the success and excitement of his career. The creators of this film scoured archives to uncover obscure material that even the most devoted fan of Stan Lee has never seen. There's a wonderful selection of old TV and radio appearances with Stan, particularly a very sweet appearance by Stan and his daughter JC on a New York City Father's Day TV special in the late 1970s. We get to see the real Stan in that scene, sweet and kind and without hype, but it's also always really fun to see Stan ham it up at movie premieres, TV appearances and at Comic-con. We get lots of those scenes of Stan on camera, and it's fun to see it explored in such depth. And it goes without saying that we get dozens of rare photos of Stan's life and career in this film as well.
The film also brings viewers comments about Stan from many people both inside and outside the comics industry. John Romita Sr. comes across as a charming storyteller, and we also get to see Gene Colan, Joe Sinnott, Joe Simon, Mark Evanier, Todd McFarlane and many other comics creators talk about Stan, along with such celebrities as Nicolas Cage, Ringo Starr, Tobey Maguire, Samuel L. Jackson, Lou Ferrigno, Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Stewart and Brett Ratner. These comments allow us to get a different perspective on Lee and appreciate his career even more.
Most importantly for the Satan Lee crowd, Stan has glowing words for the work of Steve Ditko and especially Jack Kirby. As Stan says in the film, "they would have been nothing if not for the artists I worked with. It was a partnership." Stan goes out of his way to compliment Ditko and talk about how important the artist was at creating the image of Spider-Man that helped to propel the character to mass popularity.
Even more exciting for us fans, we get lots of talk about Kirby, including footage from the final interview that the King conducted. It's such a wonderful treat to get to hear Jack Kirby talk on this film and hear our real hero talk about comics in his own words, with his own voice. Stan has nothing but good things to say about Jack in this movie. The comments in this film still won't satisfy those who believe that Stan screwed over Ditko and Kirby, but they go a long way towards making the public well aware of the great work that these men created in comics
This is a slick, charming, flashy, extremely fast-moving documentary that gives viewers a thorough view of the man behind The Man. My only real complaint is that the film is sometimes too slick, too filled with quick cuts and flashy editing that takes away a bit from the story it tries to tell. The filmmakers were obviously very excited to share as many of the goodies that they created or captured, and sometimes the slickness is a bit overwhelming. I occasionally wanted to ask the filmmakers to slow down the movie and allow viewers to savor the scenes a bit.
With Great Power concludes with an absolutely sweet scene of Stan and Joan flirting with each other on the back deck of their beautiful Los Angeles-area home. The couple are so wonderful together, so comfortable and sweet and truly in love after all these years. It's one of the most charming moments I've seen in a movie in a long time. What better way to wrap up a portrait of a legend than by showing him at the moments of true bliss.
This film is available On Demand, iTunes, as a rental on YouTube, or on DVD – with a plethora of bonus features - on November 6th.