It’s hard to remember now, but in 2011, when “Captain America: The First Avenger” came out, “Marvel Cinematic Universe” was not a widely known term. Though superhero movies were certainly big business by then, a nostalgia-filled World War II movie featuring a star-spangled patriotic super-soldier was hardly a surefire creative success. And yet, though 15 more movies have come out in the Marvel Cinematic Universe mega-franchise since then, it’s still one of my favorites in the series.
Of course, Marvel Comics wouldn’t be what it is without Stan Lee, who created or co-created most of the company’s iconic characters. That’s why I heartily recommend checking out the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival’s free double feature of “Captain America” and the documentary “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story” at Century 16 Downtown in Pleasant Hill on Saturday, March 9. Cap’s first film outing shows at 2 p.m., followed by the Stan Lee doc at 4:30 p.m.
“The Stan Lee Story” came out in 2010, so it’s a little out of date; Lee died last year at 95. Nevertheless, it’s an uplifting telling of his life and the creation of his expansive pantheon of superheroes.
The movie is at its best when it focuses on interviews with Lee and shows us touching, hilarious scenes of him and his wife, Joan, who died in 2017, puttering around their Los Angeles home: dancing together in their living room, expressing their love and gently ribbing each other. In one scene, she reads aloud from a love letter he wrote her once — on Spider-Man stationery.
Though his larger-than-life public persona can look like a performance, in interviews it’s clear that he really is the charming, comic book-loving patron saint of superhero stories that he appears to be. And he’s a real mensch. While other corners of the comic book industry suffered from conflicts over which writers and artists would get credit for creating which characters, Lee graciously and repeatedly tells of his admiration for the artists he worked with as a writer in his decades-long career at Marvel. Though the character concepts were his, he credits as co-creators the artists who designed the look of the characters, including legends like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby.
Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber to a poor Jewish family in New York City. He used a pen name in comics because it was not a respected art form when he began his career — he was saving his real name for the great American novel that he never got around to writing.
In 1961, weary of the horror, crime and teen drama comics popular at the time, he nearly quit to write that novel. There was no market for the comics he wanted to write — or so he thought. His wife suggested that he write his dream comic before he quit. If it was a success, he could stay in comics making money and doing stories he loved. If not, oh well — he was about to quit anyway.
So he wrote the first issue of “Fantastic Four.” It was a hit. Over the next decade he had one of the most remarkable runs in any artistic medium, creating Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Ant-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, the X-Men and others. A half-century later, it’s hard to imagine what pop culture would be like without the movies based on those characters. In 2018 alone, four movies made a combined $7.5 billion. Four more are expected this year.
They are flawed characters. Their powers are often a curse. And they reflect the social and political issues of their day. Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) is an awkward teen who struggles with dating and guilt over the death of his uncle. The Thing (aka Ben Grimm, who in recent issues had an adult bar mitzvah and Jewish wedding) looks in the mirror and sees a monster. The Hulk, who gains his powers in a nuclear accident, was a response to Cold War-era fears of nuclear war. The X-Men are stand-ins for all persecuted minorities. And Lee created Black Panther because he was troubled that were very few black superheroes at the time.
Lee had a creative moral compass that directed him to deal with social issues and the ramifications of having great power. The film’s title is a reference to Spider-Man’s famous catchphrase: With great power comes great responsibility.
As many interviewees in the film — including comic books artists and writers as well as a parade of stars of movies based on his characters — say, Lee’s innovation was making the character behind the mask more important than the mask itself.
MCU films have become predictable in many ways; this year, we’re getting the 21st and 22nd films in the franchise. But Captain America’s first outing was a pleasant surprise in 2011. In an age of nonstop irony, one of Marvel Studios’ standard tools for making its more outlandish characters seem more grounded, “Captain America” is surprising for its sincerity and straightforward patriotic vigor. I remember seeing it for the first time in theaters and waiting for the irony to emerge, but it never did. It’s a sincere, patriotic war movie with a lot of heart.
In a way, it’s an odd choice of film to pair with “The Stan Lee Story.” Though he wrote “Captain America” for years, the character predated his writing career. Why not show a movie based on a character he actually created?
There are a few connections. Captain America was created by two other Jews, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, during World War II. On the cover of the first issue, Captain America punches Hitler in the face. And, of course, like every film based on Marvel superheroes, Lee makes a cute cameo in the film — this time as a security guard at the Smithsonian.
In this film incarnation, Captain America’s involvement in World War II resembles Lee’s in a way. Steve Rogers is a young man from Brooklyn who desperately wants to enlist and fight Nazis; he feels a strong sense of duty to defend America overseas. But he is repeatedly turned down for enlistment because of his short, scrawny physical form — until he is accepted into an experimental program and turned into the tall, muscle-bound Captain America.
In the documentary, Lee expresses a similar feeling. He left his job at Timely Comics (Marvel’s predecessor) to fight abroad because he felt strongly that it was his duty to participate in the war. The Army gave him the job of “playwright” — a title he shared with the likes of Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), Frank Capra and others of similar stature. It was their job to write scripts for propaganda films and pamphlets on how to prevent venereal disease.
Similarly, for a time in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” Steve is used as a propaganda tool, sent around the U.S. selling war bonds.
“The Stan Lee Story” is mostly a tale of triumph. Sadly, Lee’s final days were tragic, with allegations of elder abuse by family and business associates. Nevertheless, Lee is a larger-than-life character and a true mensch worth celebrating with a fun afternoon at the movies.