Directed by: Terry Dougas, Nikki Frakes, William Lawrence Hess
Starring: Stan Lee, Joan Lee
Love him or hate him Stan Lee has become the face of comic books. His image and iconic gravelly voice has been a part of the art form nearly from the beginning. Now this documentary, With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story gives us a look at his life and work. The film was a co-production of Lee’s POW! Entertainment and epix TV and it aired over a weekend as part of a block that included the Marvel films leading up to the release of Marvel’s The Avengers.
The film starts like most documentaries do, with a brief look at the where and when Stan the Man was born, done mostly with voiceover and a montage of still images. The film quickly jumps into Stan’s work at what would eventually become Marvel Comics. It feels appropriate for the film to make this rapid leap because Stan himself made a rapid leap into that world. He has spent his entire adult life working in the world of comics starting from a very early age. Stan had one other job before becoming a part of Timely Comics and he did join the military for a time as well.
This film attempts to ride the fence between telling the story of Marvel Comics and telling the story of Stan Lee. It’s a tough place to be because you really can’t have one story without the other. Stan was truly not just a face for comics he was literally at the core of the evolution of the medium along with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. With Great Power approaches the subject in decade blocks going through the 60’s, 70’s all the way to current. One brilliant thing the film does is contrast all of the comic book milestones with more personal moments with Stan’s wife. She discusses his career from her perspective and shares a great deal about their relationship and how Stan’s career has affected it.
Over the years there has been some amount of conflict over credit for the creation of Marvel’s characters and stories. The biggest conflict actually appears to have been between Stan and Steve Ditko. The film portrays the conflict as being fairly one sided with Stan apparently having no problem agreeing that Steve Ditko co-created Marvel’s most popular character Spider-man. But, the way Stan tells it he had created the basic story elements of the character and what he could do as well as crafting the name and Ditko came up with the look of the character. Lee even mentions that he first took the character to Jack Kirby but that he had felt that Kirby was drawing the character too “glamorous”. So if you read between the lines here you could assume that Lee still maintains that he created the character and Ditko more appropriately designed him. When one person becomes the face of a creative group jealousy abounds so that has to play a part in the fights so it’s tough to know what’s true.
There’s archived interviews with Ditko and Kirby and by comparing those to Lee’s past and current interviews it’s no surprise that of them Lee is the most popular and the face of Marvel Comics. He’s entertaining and highly personable. He takes a great deal of pride in the work that he’s done but he doesn’t seem to be the diva that the press long made him out to be. It’s not perfect though. There are sound bites from movie stars that lead nowhere and feel over the top. Had these sound bites led to deeper interviews because these celebs happen to be big fans the impact would be different but that are just not the case. The chronology gets a little wonky at times too so if you are trying to follow along with a calendar don’t bother until the mid-60’s portion of the film because you’ll be confused. Also, the film glosses over the lawsuit Lee had against Marvel that was eventually settled. That part of Lee’s story would have been of particular interest since it was never really as clear in the media as it should have been.
If you’re a new or old fan of comics this documentary is a must view because it truly does tell the story of comics through the eyes of the most influential creator in the media along with a look through the very grounded eyes of his wife. Stan Lee is an icon and he truly deserves the moniker.
This SD DVD presentation is pretty basic in its look and it features current and archival interviews and photos so the quality can jump from good to poor just based on the age of the material. Overall colors feel a little dim and muted but watchable. What you get is a pretty standard lower budget documentary here.
The audio presentation again is basic with some older audio, interviews with Jack Kirby in particular, feeling a little muffled. For the most part though the dialogue is listenable and for a film that’s all about talking heads that’s the most important thing.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The single DVD is packaged in a very low quality semitransparent case with Stan’s image surrounded by some of his characters on the cover. A film covering someone of this level of pop culture relevance deserved a little better presentation. As far as extras there’s a bevy of deleted/extended scenes and a director’s commentary. The bonuses are better than you’d expect but not as good as the story deserves.
With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story does one thing that previews documentaries have not; it gives true person to the “personality” that is Stan Lee. We see him as a creator, a representative for all thing comic books, and as a husband with a soft spot for his wife, and as a father. This most definitely is a messy documentary in execution but the parts all great. Just sitting and listening to Lee talk for 80 minutes would have been worth the price of admission alone so everything else here is gravy.
Overall (Not an Average) 8/10
The Movie 8/10
The Video 7/10
The Audio 6/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 5/10
Overall (Not an Average) 8/10