BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. — Stan Lee professes no deep and analytical insight into the human soul. “I’m not a psychiatrist,” he begs off. “All I know is, the good superhero movie has got action, suspense, colorful characters, new angles — that’s what people like.”
The rangy 88-year-old — sitting poised against the leopard-print pillows on the couch in his POW! Entertainment office, several days before “Thor’s” premiere — is a natural at delivering the dramatic angle. Asked to strike a towering pose, he springs to his feet and in a blink is balancing with feline ease atop a chair.
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.”
Lee’s literary approach — and his desire to depict his heroes’ private lives — profoundly altered comics. Spider-Man suffers a teen’s social travails. Iron Man battles his demon addiction. Lee says he was guided by intimate questions: “What did they do when they weren’t fighting supervillains? Where did they live? . . . What were their hopes, dreams, aspirations, as well as their frustrations?”
He believes passionately that many people like their superheroes to have depth, to have vulnerability, to have flaws — to be vexed beneath the spandex.
“For a long time, there was no personal involvement with some of the superheroes,” Lee says. “I’d read books and Dickens always had interesting characters. Mark Twain had interesting characters — so did Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Arthur Conan Doyle, who created the greatest fictional character of all in Sherlock Holmes.
“I wanted to write the kind of dialogue that would give the character personality.”
When superhero films combine that depth of character with wish fulfillment, Lee says, they’re already winners. “You’ve got power and abilities you don’t see all the time. Plus, great stars, great directors . . . .” “Thor” was directed by Kenneth Branagh and its cast includes Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman.
Lee leans back. More than three decades after he moved to Hollywood, the very thought of such superheroic movie magic makes him smile.
The arc of Stan Lee’s life began to bend toward greatness a half-century ago, when he was on the very verge of quitting the business.
Lee had broken into comics two decades earlier when hired as a teenager by Joe Simon, co-creator of Captain America with Kirby. Then, in 1960, Lee’s boss Martin Goodman — who was also married to Lee’s cousin — told Stan to create a team of superheroes. DC was boasting of its success with its superhero team Justice League of America. Goodman wanted Lee — as editor of what would soon become Marvel Comics — to follow suit.
“Not again,” Lee recounts of having to hew to scripting convention. “I told my wife Joanie, ‘I’m going to quit.’ But she said: ‘Why not write it the way you want to write it? If it doesn’t work, the worst that’s going to happen is that they’ll fire you. And you want to quit anyway.’ ”
Emboldened, Lee shunned the superhero’s usual teenage sidekick. He eschewed secret identities. He even decided to have his characters bicker. The result was the Fantastic Four. “I tried having heroes [Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Girl] in love and getting married,” he says. “And the teenager was a brother [the Human Torch] who didn’t particularly want to be a superhero.
“It was the turning point of my life.”
Co-created with Kirby, the Fantastic Four debuted in November 1961 and sold briskly, setting the stage for a run of characters that would turn around Marvel’s fortunes. It also helped Lee learn to listen to himself.
“I don’t analyze things too closely,” Lee says. “I find the more you analyze, the more you get away from spontaneity. I have only one rule: I just want to write a story that would interest me — that’s the only criterion I have. Am I eager to see how it ends? If these characters really existed, would I want to see what happens to them?
“ . . . If I like something, there are bound to be millions of people who like it, too. And if they don’t, shame on them.”
“There’s no question that Stan and the innovations he came up with saved the comic book and the superhero,” says Tom Brevoort, Marvel’s senior vice president of publishing — noting that Lee and the artists he worked with “made me want to do this professionally.”
“By crafting characters with feet of clay and personal problems — and not writing down to an audience that was perceived to be primarily 8-year-olds — Stan opened the doorway for more sophisticated and interesting treatments of any subject matter in comics,” Brevoort says.
“He made comics interesting and relevant and fun again.”
The man who has written thousands of stories for thousands of characters doesn’t believe in epiphanies — at least for himself. “I don’t have inspiration,” Lee says. “I only have ideas. Ideas and deadlines.”
Jack Kirby had drawn Norse strongmen for years, but it was at Marvel in the ’60s that he and Lee teamed on the idea of the Thor we know. (The so-called Marvel Method of production relied on fluid collaboration, so much so that parsing the credit among creatives remains an inexact — and much debated — paleontology.)
“I dreamed up Thor years ago because I wanted to create the biggest, most powerful superhero of all and I figured who can be bigger than a god?” Lee says of his idea for his God of Thunder, which was first scripted by Stan’s younger brother, Larry Lieber. (The Brothers Lieber still produce the syndicated “Spider-Man” comic strip.)
“I chose the Norse gods,” Lee adds, “because I felt people were less familiar with them than with the Greek and Roman gods.”
As for the character ideas behind Hollywood’s next Marvel release, Lee says: “In the case of the X-Men . . . I wanted to do a strip that would point out the injustice and wrongheadedness of bigotry.
“As for their powers, I took the easy way out; instead of dreaming up some complicated explanation for each, I simply wrote, ‘They were born that way. They were mutants,’ and that was that.”
Still an indefatigable ambassador of the art form, the ever-adapting Lee says he is working on such projects as a comic rock opera and new lines of books. “To have an idea is the easiest thing in the world,” says Lee, who minutes before was writing weeks of outlines for the “Spider-Man” comic strip. “Everybody has ideas. But you have to take that idea and make it into something people will respond to.