Stan Lee is an ubiquitous public figure, having done the near impossible: creating an empire that transcends cultural, racial, and religious barriers. I don’t intend to sycophantically praise the man with wanton hyperbole, but it is easy to understate his impact on comics, film, and pop culture as a whole. The documentary With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story—originally released in 2010, the film was re-released this week on DVD and digital video—attempts to track Lee’s life and impact on the world.
With Great Power covers Lee’s life from his time as a budding writer with Timely Comics in the 1930s and 1940s to his current position as cultural ambassador of all things comics. The film is a fast paced race through Lee’s life, hitting the highlights with potent energy. Utilizing standard documentary format of talking heads—including Kevin Smith, Nicolas Cage, Kevin Feige, and Jon Favreau—and archival footage. The most prominent talking head is Lee himself who is a fascinating primary source on his life and career, simultaneously building on his own myth as a living legend and deconstructing the life behind a legacy.
However, the film has a tendency to race through some of the more fascinating elements of his life. I’ve always been a fan of lean filmmaking, why make a one-hundred minute film when the story requires only ninety five minutes? (Truman Capote once quipped: “I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil”.) But With Great Power a film that could use a few extra minutes added to its scant runtime of one hour and twenty minutes. The film misses the opportunity to be a fully comprehensive biography and instead plays more life a highlight reel. Most of Lee’s career is covered, but some of the weightier moments—like Lee’s tenuous and fruitful relationship with Jack Kirby and the X-Men comics reflection of the civil rights movement—become brief footnotes rather than rich chapters.
It should come as no surprise that Stan Lee’s charisma is the film’s greatest strength. He has an infectious enthusiasm that seeps through every frame. The film’s most invigorating element is its depiction of Lee’s relationship with Joan Lee, his wife of sixty-some years. The two are playful and fun, communicating in an unspoken language of mutual adoration and understanding. For all of my whinging about With Great Power’s need for some added depth, the film manages to cut to the core of Stan Lee just by showing us a few minutes of him interacting with his wife. In one beautiful moment, the two burst into a spontaneous dance in their living room, and, in that moment I’d have a better chance of swimming to Mars than I would in wiping the grin off of my face. Sadly, Joan Lee passed away earlier this year.
It’s easy to let the behemoth of Marvel Comics eclipse any singular person or vision. With Great Power: The Story of Stan Lee manages to captures Stan Lee’s charm and paints a vivid picture as to why Lee continues to be revered as a creative mind, even as his creations begin to cast shadows far beyond his own.