Seventy years to the month after the nom-de-toon “Stan Lee” first appeared in a comic book, “Thor” is similarly perched atop the box office. In one sense, the origin story of Stanley Martin Lieber resembles that of the Norse superhero he co-created, only told backward. Thor is to the godhead born until, because of his impudence, he’s sentenced to a mortal existence. Lee was a mere Manhattan comics-industry mortal for decades until, because of diligence and vision, he was elevated to Marvel Comics demigod, creating — alongside fellow legends Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko — the likes of Spider-Man and Iron Man, the Hulk, X-Men and the Fantastic Four.
All those characters have already appeared in feature films, and the latest wave of Hollywood superheroes is gathering force as it rolls in this summer. “Thor’s” domestic opening last Friday will be followed in short order by “X-Men: First Class,” DC’s “Green Lantern” and Marvel’s “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Meanwhile, casting decisions for the next Superman and Batman films — as well as the Spider-Man reboot and the cinematic assembling of the Avengers — have sparked feverish online speculation and reaction.
The superhero film is still as unstoppable and resilient and globally enduring as, well, Stan Lee himself.
It is the eve of the British royal wedding. Lee’s longtime wife, Joan, who is British, wants her husband to awake in the wee hours to watch the Westminster Abbey nuptials. Her husband has a one-word reply: “Why?” Yet in his storytelling soul, he knows that the lure of the ceremony involves much the same dynamic that has made him rich and famous as a weaver of costumed tales.
“My theory about why people like superheroes is that when we were kids, we all loved to read fairy tales,” says Lee, beaming behind his trademark tinted glasses. “Fairy tales are all about things bigger than life: giants, witches, trolls, dinosaurs and dragons and all sorts of imaginative things. Then you get a little bit older and you stop reading fairy tales, but you don’t ever outgrow your love of them.
“Superhero movies are like fairy tales for older people,” continues Lee, whose voice envelops the listener with a raspy, lilting warmth. “All those things you imagined — if only I could fly or be the strongest — are about wish fulfillment. . . . And because of that, I don’t think they’ll ever go out of vogue.”
Lee still creates superheroes ceaselessly, as if his trained writer’s brain were an involuntary muscle. “The first Chinese superhero,” he promises, teasing his upcoming lineup. “And the first musical comic book.” He recently announced that he’s teaming with Arnold Schwarzenegger to create an animated TV character, “the Governator.”