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Stan Lee's Mutants, Monsters and Marvels is a 2002 documentary film directed by Scott Zakarin. Stan Lee is the most famous name in comics and during his long association with Marvel created Spider-Man, Daredevil, The X-Men, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four and many more (this cherished era is known as the "silver age" of comics). Mutants, Monsters and Marvels is not a very flashy documentary or an extensive biography and consists almost entirely of Lee being interviewed by the film director Kevin Smith in (appropriately enough) a comic shop. You do though get enjoyable images of famous panels or covers from vintage comics relating to whatever they are talking about at the time. Over the course of the interview Lee talks about his inspiration for these legendary characters and his life inside the comic industry over the decades. If you did grow up loving and collecting Marvel comics then you'll certainly enjoy this even if Smith never really digs too deep on matters like Lee's relationship with the genius artists Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. Kirby suggested Lee gave himself too much credit for the success of Marvel and the artists not enough for bringing his ideas to life in the first place. When this issue is (lightly) floated Lee says he is happy to have the title "co-creator" and is diplomatic and generous I think. The interview is relaxed and pleasant and Stan Lee is his usual self. Genial, self-deprecating, full of anecdotes and facts and someone who retains an enthusiasm and energy that confounds his years. I suppose working in comics all his life he never really had any reason to grow up. The interview was conducted just as Sam Raimi's Spider-Man film was due to be released and so Spider-Man does tend to feature a lot but then he is Lee's most famous creation anyway. Spider-Man had a torturous journey to the big screen and was tied down in legal wrangling over studio rights for many years (Smith reminds us that James Cameron was going to make a Spider-Man film in the nineties with Leonardo DeCaprio as Peter Parker but it never went into production). A Spider-Man film is the greatest dream of Lee's professional life and you can tell he's very excited about the whole thing.
There are some great vintage Spider-Man panels as they talk about what was a golden period for Stan Lee and Marvel in the sixties. They couldn't seem to put a foot wrong and finally closed the gap on DC Comics (who of course had Batman and Superman). Lee explains how he got the idea for Spider-Man after watching a fly crawl up the wall and then seeing a pulp magazine about a hero known as The Spider. The hero in the magazine didn't have any powers but Lee loved the Spider moniker and thought about a hero who could stick to walls. He says that in the end you run out of special powers to give your superheroes and it struck him at the time that no one had done a hero who had insect abilities like wall crawling. Although Spider-Man would become the most famous of all Marvel characters Lee says that this was the one new character that Marvel were resistant to at first. Lee was so successful he could more or less do what he wanted at the time but they really didn't like his new web-slinging hero at all. The reason why they thought it wouldn't work? Because, they explained, everyone hates spiders! They were wrong of course. The interview is helped by the fact that Kevin Smith is a comic book anorak and therefore knows what he's talking about. He actually doesn't say an awful lot to be honest. He's happy to prompt Lee and then just sit back and listen. Lee explains how Marvel also disliked the fact that Peter Parker was going to be a teenager. They thought teenagers should only be sidekicks but Lee wanted to use Spider-Man to introduce more realism to comics. Spider-Man was one of the first characters to have a public life that was just as troublesome (if not quite as epic) as his costumed one. Spider-Man could do amazing things but once the costume came off plain old Peter Parker had the same problems as anyone.
Superheroes were always brilliant scientists, industrialists or had millionaire alter egos but Lee made Peter Parker live in a modest section of Forest Hills in New York he knew well to stress how ordinary he was. I found it quite interesting here when Lee and Smith discuss the differences between Marvel and DC. DC had fictional cities like Metropolis (Superman) and Gotham (Batman) and Coast City (Green Lantern) but Lee put his characters in New York because it was where he was from and a place he knew. He wanted to put them in the real world and live in suburbs and streets that really existed. This of course meant that the characters would bump into each and guest star in each other's comics. They all co-existed in the Marvel universe. This continuity and crossover element was new at the time and largely credited to Lee. So, for example, if Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four needed a lawyer he would hire Matt Murdock - who was of course Daredevil. What I found interesting too was point about Marvel characters being science heroes much more than the ones in DC. Most of the famous Marvel characters got their powers from some sort of radioactive accident. Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider, Bruce Banner was hit by a gamma ray and became the Hulk, the Fantastic Four were hit by cosmic rays, and so on. Lee says he knows nothing about science and wouldn't know "a gamma ray from an eggplant" but his guide was whether something sounded good. Gamma rays sounded good. He's quite amusing at times. I liked his analysis of Dr Doom - the great nemesis of the Fantastic Four. Lee says Doom is his favourite villain for a number of reasons. He made Dr Doom the King of the country of Ladveria. There is no such country as Ladveria but it sounds real! People have been known to look for it on a map after reading the Fantastic Four.
Because Doom is a King he has diplomatic immunity when he visits the United States. It's brilliant. He wears a steel mask and a cape and is always trying to take over the world but they can't arrest him! Clever stuff. Lee says that when Doom - the ultimate megalomaniac - used to take his mask off, Jack Kirby used to draw him to look like Lee as a joke. Interesting stuff on the Hulk too and Daredevil too. Lee talks about Boris Karloff and Frankenstein and how he felt sympathy for the monster. That's what gave him the idea for the Hulk. He wanted Jekyll & Hyde in there too. Daredevil came about because Lee wanted to have a blind hero. Matt Murdock lost his sight as a boy and was endowed wih heightened senses and became the scarlet clad crimefighter Daredevil. Lee says he was worried that blind people might find the character offensive but they loved it. Smith dryly notes that Matt Murdock is a rare case of a lawyer being treated in a sympathetic way! There are loads of anecdotes here I enjoyed. Like the revelation that Thor's mystical hammer "Mjolnir" was named by Lee's brother Larry. Geeky but fun trivia. Like Lee talking about how he always gave the characters nicknames too. "Spider-Man was Spidey, Captain America was Wing Head, Thor was Goldilocks. I loved calling Iron Man Shell-Head and Daredevil was Horn-Head." There is a lot of stuff about the approach to comics and the "Marvel method". This is essentially the close co-operation between writers and artists. Lee recalls a time though when he was made President of Marvel and it turned out to be a terrible mistake. He was now spending his time going to financial board meetings and hated it. As he says, he was asked to come up with a three year plan but had always been the sort of person who didn't even know what he was having for lunch that day.
I suppose the obvious drawback is that the target audience might not find much new here but Lee is always good company and I enjoyed his insights into his life at Marvel and picked up some new stuff. If you do have boxes of old Marvel comics like me I think you'll like the sections where he talks about the addition of title boxes to make them more like films and how they tried to make the comics seem more personal. Lee would have a column in Marvel comics that was sort of like lifting the curtain and addressing the readers. It was intended to make you all feel like part of some little world. Stan Lee's Mutants, Monsters and Marvels is a fairly basic documentary but one that Marvel fans will certainly enjoy. It runs to about 95 minutes but you do get a special feature that features more of Lee talking to Kevin Smith about further Marvel trivia and history. At the time of writing you can buy this new for £12.99 and used for under a fiver.