We live in the age of superheroes. Some of the world’s most recognisable names, faces and outfits belong to the likes of Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk and the X-Men. These pop culture icons – and legions more – come from the imagination of one man, Stan Lee.
Stanley Martin Lieber was born in New York in 1922 to Romanian-Jewish immigrants. At 16 he joined Timely Comics (which evolved into Marvel) and by the age of 18 he was editor. During the Second World War he was a member of the Training Film Division based in Queens (pictured below), a group of nine men who created posters, films and other propaganda material. His distinguished colleagues included film director Frank Capra and Theodor Geisel, more famous under his pen name Dr. Seuss.
After the war Stan Lee created characters like the Fantastic Four and X-Men through the 1960s, and revolutionised comic books. Since the first X-Men and Spider-Man films, Marvel franchises have taken more than $11bn at the box office. The fact Stan Lee appears in a cameo role in most of the films means he is as famous as his characters.
Having just turned 93, he shows no signs of slowing down. At the cinema this year will be another X-Men film, its swearier spinoff Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange. That is as well as the major TV shows – Jessica Jones, Daredevil and Lucky Man, which stars James Nesbitt as a man whose superpower is good fortune – about to hit screens in the UK.
You have long believed being lucky would be the best superpower to have. Why has it taken so long to give a character good luck?
Believe it or not, the fans of superhero stories love their hero to have a costume. I couldn’t figure out what kind of costume you would give a man who has luck.
A costume does help when it comes to Halloween…
That’s very important to comic book readers.
Why is luck the ultimate superpower?
Nothing could ever go wrong. If you are faced by a killer who wants to shoot you, they will miss. People with good luck don’t get injured, you will always solve the crime, and so forth. If there were a way to ensure one had good luck, that would be the most wonderful power of all.
When you started working on comic books in the 1930s, and even up until a couple of decades ago, could you imagine they would become the biggest thing in popular culture?
I never ever saw that coming! I really think it’s because the movie versions of these characters have been so successful. People who have enjoyed the movies have then said, hey I want to know more about these characters – and they started buying the comic books.
These are in no way written just for children
Why did it take so long for these stories to be successfully adapted into films?
I think there are two reasons. One, the newer movies are able to use all of the wonderful special effects that weren’t available a few decades ago. And two, the characters on screen, the quality of the writing, the stories and so forth have been the type that adults can enjoy and relate to. These are in no way written just for children. They are stories like any good movie, except they have the additional value of having a fantasy angle to them, which people seem to love.
Are they the modern equivalent of fairytales – good versus evil with a clear morality?
Yes, I would like to think so. They’re all morality plays. All these stories are done so the hero is the one that the viewer would want to root for, that a viewer would wish he or she was. It’s always the good guy versus the bad guy and we hope the good guy will win.
Does he always have to win?
If you make it too easy, too obvious, people would get bored. The good guy also has a lot of problems, there has to be a lot of surprises and story twists but in the end it has to be written and it has to be acted so that if a young person were watching, they would rather be the good guy – the hero – than anyone else.
What was your role during the Second World War?
I wrote training films, I wrote film scripts, I did posters, I wrote instructional manuals. I was one of the great teachers of our time!
Alongside Frank Capra and Dr. Seuss…
Would you believe it? Also William Saroyan [the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and dramatist]. He sat at my left elbow.
Did you all work together in the same room?
At a time we did. Then later on I was shipped to various camps wherever they needed someone like me. But in the beginning we were all in one place. And I kept saying: “Look all you guys, you’ve got to think of your own stories. I’m too busy to help you!”
This month marks 50 years since the original Batman TV series aired on television. When that was successful did you wonder when your stories would also be told on TV?
No, as a matter of fact I never thought of that. All I thought about was, I hope the books would sell so I would be able to keep my job. I never thought about TV or movies until much later.
When was that?
After we started getting real fan mail from real human beings. Teenagers, people in college, adults. They would discuss the stories the way anybody would discuss a novel they enjoyed. I knew we were on to something.
Does the world need superheroes now more than ever?
I know that I need them more because it’s a good living! The world always needs heroes, whether they’re superheroes or not. Since time immemorial there were stories and legends about evil people who had superpowers and some human being had to find a way to conquer them. It seems to be part of the human condition.
Your characters are spread out among several film studios. For the first time Spider-Man will be appearing alongside other Avengers in Captain America: Civil War. Do you think one day there will be a film where more characters, like the X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy, all come together?
You mean all together in one film? Yeah, probably. It’ll be the most expensive film ever produced! But anything that the public want to see you can be sure it will eventually be produced.
Can you imagine Spider-Man saying: ‘May the force be with you’? It may come to that!
Disney owns the rights to many things, including the Avengers and Star Wars. The public would surely love to see some crossover there, so could that happen?
Well, I don’t know how many characters you can have in a movie but obviously the people who produce these things are looking to be as successful as possible. If they feel that incorporating Star Wars with the Marvel characters will be very successful, they’ll find a way to do it. Can you imagine Spider-Man saying: ‘May the force be with you’? It may come to that!
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The possibilities are overwhelming!
Nothing overwhelms people in the movie or television business. They are always looking for the next great idea.
Star Wars and Marvel coming together sounds to me like a good idea.
We did it in the comics. I created the Avengers by taking many of our characters and making a team out of them. We can have as many characters join the Avengers as we want to for future movies. That might be fun too – all of a sudden Luke Skywalker is an Avenger!
All superheroes have to have a flaw. So what is yours?
My flaw is probably that I talk too much. I should give shorter answers when I do an interview.
Lucky Man airs January 22 on Sky 1