I had just turned 9 years old when Dad took me to see “Spider-Man 2” at an Indiana movie theater. It was the summer of 2004, and there was little foundation in my mind for what I could expect to marvel at on the big screen, other than the first Spidey movie and a tie-in computer game I spent some time playing a few years prior.
Of course, that didn’t stop me, nor millions of others, from having a hell of a moviegoing experience. In 2018 “Spider-Man 2” still a highlight of the genre—even though its arrival was still early in the era of the superhero movie, when Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t yet a part of the Hollywood lexicon.
It was also a movie that led me to an epiphany.
In one of our hero’s thrilling battles with Doctor Octopus, a piece of New York skyscraper comes hurtling toward the crowds below. The camera cuts to a white-haired, trench coat-wearing, bespectacled man, who immediately pulls a shrieking victim out of the falling debris’s path.
I remember thinking that unusual; that the movie would take some precious moments away from the real action, putting the lens strangely and squarely on this man, as if it was supposed to make an impression. I also remember feeling a sense of déjà vu—like I had seen him before, somewhere.
Despite the movies – not comic books – providing my baptism to superheroes in the early 2000s, Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy and the initial batch of “X-Men” movies were integral in my early formation as a pop culture consumer.
For no reason in particular, it wasn’t video games and comic books I devoured early on. It was novels and film. Indiana Jones was my Peter Parker; Harry Potter my Steve Rogers. Wolverine in a bright yellow-and-blue suit is as foreign to me as astrophysics; all I’ve known is Hugh Jackman lumbering around in his trademark white undershirt.
And even though I don’t harbor memories of flipping through pages of brightly colored panels and word bubbles, of going to the corner store to get the latest issue, I still fell in love with the characters as they would later be portrayed on the screen. Even with whatever mischaracterizations that may have been born in that transition.
Before my film-watching tastes and tendencies inevitably evolved – and the excitement I would normally reserve for a new “X-Men” flick had given way to enthusiasm for new works from Fincher, Anderson or Cuarón – I was staying up until midnight for the first “Spider-Man 3” trailer to hit the internet.
I was awed at a wisecracking, cigar-chomping Hell dweller blasting demons to oblivion.
I was entranced at a caped crusader soaring through dark skies, in a superhero film that – despite my age – I felt was transcending its genre. Even when the movies weren’t Marvel properties, I sensed we wouldn’t have them if it wasn’t for those creations at the turn of the century being the first to succeed in translating to the big screen.
And, of course, inevitably and also somehow much, much too late, I discovered why that white-haired man with glasses who channeled his inner hero for a brief moment in “Spider-Man 2”– and who passed away Monday at the age of 95– seemed so familiar. All of a sudden, the larger-than-life figure that was Stan Lee emerged from behind the curtain as an architect of my youth.
He was like a pop culture wizard of Oz, if the deceiver was actually capable of the world-shifting powers he pretended to possess.
I didn’t overlook a Stan Lee movie cameo after that. And even now, at 23 years old, with different but very much existent levels of enthusiasm for each new MCU movie, his cameos are a reminder that every story I’ve seen on-screen involving Spidey, Professor X, the Avengers and Co., is but a pinprick of ink in the vast comic book universe he created, the geek scripture he helped write.
It’s one thing to tell stories that legions of people will absorb. It’s another success entirely for those stories to effectively puncture the fabric of multiple mediums. Entire franchises involving dozens, hundreds, even thousands of creative minds have made leaps beyond their original frameworks to reach TV, film, books, videogames and music. “Star Wars,” “James Bond” and “Pokemon” come to mind.
Lee, though, rivaled them all, embodying a deity-like status over the better part of 60 years. It’s difficult to imagine someone who better fits the label of industry titan than him, having envisioned caped icons with personalities as flawed as they were heroic as they were relatable.
By his enchanting comic book readers, he, by proxy, did the same to movie watchers, videogamers, book readers and others who would be inspired to create stories of their own. If a child had access to a medium – any medium – it seems like Stan Lee had a way into their imaginations.
For me, it was movies. It was the thrill of Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man zipping through New York City even when green screen technology was in its infancy.
It was bonding with my parents in our Friday night viewings of “X-Men” films—one of the few movie universes the three of us are equally as enthusiastic about.
It was the prospect of, again and again, watching people with their own imperfections kick some bad guy ass. And it was the understanding that if they could get past their flaws, maybe I can too.
Stan Lee arguably has his most indelible cameo in “Spider-Man 3” when, while standing next to Peter Parker on the street and seeing the news that the hero will receive a key to the city, he turns and says to him: “You know, I guess one person really can make a difference.”
We chuckled at it then, but, apropos of everything, we embrace it wholeheartedly now—he was never really referring to Spider-Man. The one person making a universe of difference, right up until his passing on Monday, was himself.