The creator of the comic book the blockbuster film was based on talks about his iconic character and the new entertainment company he’s formed
Stan Lee has been a comic book icon for years, but his genius wasn’t as recognized as it is now since the comic book movie boom that started at the turn of the century with 2000’s X-Men. Since then, Lee has helped usher in, as executive producer and with Hitchcockian cameo performances, a swarm of highly successful superhero movies. His latest new successful franchise just started up this summer with Iron Man, which comes to DVD and Blu-ray on September 30. I was invited to a press conference with Lee, who gave us an hour of his time to talk about almost anything under the sun in his comic book world, including the recent formation of his new entertainment company, POW! Entertainment, which will be creating comic books and stories for other mediums as well. Here’s what this great artist had to say.
What’s your opinion on the fact that the superhero movies are getting bigger and bigger and a lot of the summer blockbusters of this year are all superhero based. Did you ever think it would get to the point where Hollywood would’ve raced to the superhero genre the way it has?
Stan Lee: Never. Not years ago, but after these movies came out and after Spider-Man came out, how successful they all were, you didn’t need a house to fall on you to realize we’re on to something. I think it’s not so much that these stories are about superheroes, but it’s about the fact that they’re different. They’re not what you’d see in an average, everyday movie. It’s not your usual gangster movie, cops and robbers. It’s not a western, it’s not a romance or a teenage comedy. The public always loves anything that’s different, as long as it’s well-made, if it’s well-done. You never know what to expect when you go to one of these so-called superhero movies. I think there’s the element of the excitement of what I’m going to see, and with the special effects now where you see men flying and walking through walls and shooting flame or whatever they do, especially the younger audiences, which make up a bulk of the moviegoers, they love that sort of thing. Now I’m not so surprised anymore. I’m surprised at what superhero movie doesn’t do well.
You were out here for awhile, trying to get this Marvel phenomena going and it took awhile. Can you talk about your experience beating down doors at first and then turning into what it is today?
Stan Lee: We had a funny experience because, before present management took over Marvel, the previous management, I’m going back about 10 years or more, didn’t want to do movies or television. I will never forget, I had arranged for one of the networks to do a TV series based on our character called The Black Widow. Those days, Bo Derek was a big star. We got Bo Derek, she was willing to play The Black Widow and I forget whether it was ABC or CBS, but one of them was excited about doing the series. The person who, at that time was running Marvel, said, ‘No. I don’t want to do it.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Well, if the series doesn’t do well, it will hurt our character. It’ll be bad for the character.’ I couldn’t understand that kind of logic, because, if you feel that way, then you’d never do anything because it might not do well. But anyway, I wasn’t the fellow running the show. We had the same problem with Daredevil. I had that practically sold to another network and the people in charge were afraid and he was an important character. I gave up at that point. Luckily, we had new management later on, and they realized the value of TV and movies, especially movies, and then we were off and running.
You mentioned TV. The superhero movies are huge in Hollywood, but besides NBC’s Heroes and Smallville, it seems there’s a lot of room for growth for the characters. Do you think there’s a certain character or two that might be a good fit for a network?
Stan Lee: Strangely enough, I think almost any character would work. It depends on how the character is written, how it’s directed, how it’s acted. There are so many things you think that wouldn’t work, but if they’re done the right way…, for example, when we first did Spider-Man, my publisher didn’t want to publish Spider-Man. He said it was the worst idea he had ever heard for a character. From his point of view, he was right. I wanted Spider-Man to be a teenager who had a million problems. My publisher said, ‘Stan, first of all, people hate spiders, so you can’t call a character Spider-Man.’ Then he said, ‘He can’t be a teenager because teenager’s can only be sidekicks, not heroes. Then you say you want him to have problems? Stan, don’t you know what a superhero is?’ So, from his point of view, he was right, but it just happened that I found the right artist and we handled it the right way and it caught on. Now, you take Heroes, this was a show that has so much fantasy. Every character has a different superpower. At the beginning you weren’t quite sure who’s good and who’s bad. Everybody said to me, ‘Oh that’ll never work. It’s too complicated. People won’t remember from episode to episode,’ and so forth, but it worked because it was well-done and you got caught up and interested in the characters. To my way of thinking, whether it’s a superhero movie or a romance or a comedy or whatever, the most important thing is you’ve got to care about the characters. You’ve got to understand the characters and you’ve got to be interested. If the characters are interesting, you’re half-way home.
You pioneered the shared universe with your superheroes, it was the first time they had interacted in a comic book. Now it’s happening in the movies. Is that anything you were ever thinking about, or were you just thinking that these film characters would be in their own little world?
Stan Lee: Well, it seems the most natural thing in the world. If you have superheroes or characters that exist in the same world, and you’re doing movies of them, wouldn’t it be fun to put a couple of them together in one movie? Audiences love that. It’s a natural thing to do that. The difficult thing is, at Marvel, some of the characters are under contract to different studios. Spider-Man is at Sony and Iron Man is at Paramount, and so forth. They’ve got to take characters that they can control, so to speak, and put them together. In the comics, it happened accidentally. I had written each book separately, but then it occurred to me that if they all live in New York, why wouldn’t they meet, and wouldn’t it be fun to have them get together in the story. That’s how it happened.
Do you feel a certain sense of pride when you see these characters you created now? Are there some that you had created that had taken a turn you didn’t think they would?
Stan Lee: Well, of course, the old Captain America were disappointments. I’m delighted at how the movies have turned out now and the reception they’ve received. This Iron Man movie especially, because nobody expected it to do what it did. Everybody said, ‘Oh, Iron Man isn’t one of Marvel’s top characters,’ but I always thought it was. An interesting thing about Iron Man is when we did it as a comic book, we got more mail, more fanmail from females than any character we’ve ever had. I used to wonder about that but then it wasn’t such a mystery. He’s handsome, he’s glamorous, he’s wealthy, he’s very macho and, also, he’s got a weak heart and he needs care. I mean, this was just perfect to appeal to females. I had done it accidentally, I hadn’t thought about it that way but it just happened to work out that way.
You’ve done a lot of cameos throughout the years. Could you possibly rank which ones are your favorites?
Stan Lee: I really love them all. I was disappointed with the one in the Iron Man movie, because I had a line there that they cut out. Those of you who’ve seen it, I’m standing there with my arms around three attractive blondes, which was not too unpleasant. They wanted me to be a little like Hugh Hefner and they even gave me a pipe. Then Tony Stark taps me on the shoulder. He thinks I’m Hugh Hefner and when I turn around he said something like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ I don’t remember what he said, but I was supposed to say, and I got this line from the director, ‘Oh, that’s OK. I get that all the time.’ When the movie came out, they had cut the line. Either the movie had gone long and they had to cut a second whenever they could, or maybe he thought it would get too big a laugh. The funny thing about it, when I turned around to say that to Downey, I had the pipe in my mouth and I had this girl’s head right over here and I turned around and I hit her right in the face with the pipe. So, needless to say, we did another take with that one, but it was fun.
The circulation of comic books is not what it was in the day when you were writing comics, it’s much smaller now. When you’re doing POW! Media, how do you reach out to that generation?
Stan Lee: Our new company, POW, which stands for Purveyors of Wonder, with an exclamation point because I don’t want anyone to think it means Prisoner of War. It’s really fun. I’ve got this little company, we’re not doing comic books yet, but we may. We’re doing movies and television shows and DVD’s and electronic entertainment, things you’ll be able to see on your phones. I’ve never been busier, I’ve never been having more fun. We signed a first-look deal with the Disney company, and we have three really big movies that are being developed there now. Two of them feature new superheroes. I can’t tell you what they are, but one is called Blaze, one is called Nick Rachet and one is called Tigress. They’re all totally different and I think they’re going to be good. Everything Disney does is good and based on my story, how can it miss? (Laughs). We have some television things we’re working on. We’re doing an animated series with Paris Hilton, because I feel she needs a little publicity. We’re doing one with Hugh Hefner. It’s going to tell the real story. See, nobody really knows about Hugh Hefner. You think of him who just likes wine, women and song… that’s just an act. He is one of America’s greatest superheroes, secret agent, and I’m going to tell the truth of how this man has been saving our nation and nobody knows it. We’re doing another one about somebody I want to make famous and that’s Ringo Starr. These three are going to be cartoons and they’re going to be very good. I’m having more fun than I’ve had in a long time.
As the effects have become bigger and bigger, do you think it’s affected the storytelling side at all?
Stan Lee: Let me put it this way, it shouldn’t. As special effects and technology get better, they should enhance the story. For example, everyone is now working on 3-D and you’ll be seeing a lot of big movies coming out in 3-D. It depends on the producer or director. If a producer just wants to throw out a 3-D movie and hope he’ll make money because it says 3-D and doesn’t much care what the story is, then that’s what you’re talking about. But, if somebody has what could be a really good movie and says, ’Boy, this would be even better in 3-D,’ then I imagine it would be better. It’s like everything else. Technology isn’t a villain. Technology should help, but if you just use the technology for the sake of technology, then you’re cheating your audience. You’re not giving them the best story and the best direction and so forth. I’ve got to mention one other thing. I know I’m sitting here and giving you all these opinions and sounding very wise, but I’m not the smartest guy in the movie business. I have not done that many movies and, believe me, I am learning also and the things I’m telling you are the things that are going through my mind and what I’m trying to absorb also. I am so impressed with people who can really make a big movie, a good movie. The amount of work that goes into it is incredible. I’m lucky. I don’t have to produce the whole movie. What I’ve been doing is just coming up with ideas for movies. I write a concept, a treatment, an outline, and if I sell that to a studio, then someone else does the actual production and I go on to another project, although I keep the title executive producer. I try to butt in a little bit, but that way, I can work on a dozen projects at one time, instead of having to sit with one thing all the time. So that’s what I do. I’m not the biggest expert. What I’m telling you is my opinion and I may be wrong, but I so rarely am (Laughs).
If you look at a property like maybe Daredevil or Elektra that wasn’t up to expectations, even for the studio. They’ve been pretty vocal about not being happy with the way they turned out. Have there been times where you looked at a property and said, ‘They missed it’?
Stan Lee: Oh, sure. Elektra, it was a shame. I’m one of the few people that feels that Daredevil wasn’t that bad, and I even thought that Affleck didn’t do a bad job. There were a number of things. There were too many stories in one. I would’ve played up one villain, made Bullseye the villain, because he was easily the most fascinating villain in that. I would’ve left out Kingpin. I would just let it be Bullseye vs. Daredevil. I would’ve left out that church business with him. You didn’t need that at all. I would’ve kept it a little bit lighter and made more of the fact that he was blind, but yet, he was able to tell if you were lying because he had super-hearing and he could hear your pulse rate speed up and things like that. I didn’t think they played that up enough. Other than that, I didn’t think that was a bad movie, especially since I had a cameo in it.
Can you talk a little bit about Time Jumper? Is that going to be a digital comic?
Stan Lee: Ah, Time Jumper. That’s what POW! is doing, it’s one of the things we’re doing with Disney and it’s going to be a digital character. You’ll be able to catch it on your telephone, on the Internet and hopefully it’ll even become a TV series or a movie. Disney is very excited about it. They’re putting a lot of work into it and, obviously, it’s about a guy who travels through time, but it’s not your usual, ordinary type of time travel story. We have high hopes. I love the name.
Now that Iron Man proved that the lesser-known Marvel characters can be successful, is there another charcter from your tenure at Marvel that you’d like to see get his own movie?
Stan Lee: Yeah, I can’t wait until they do Doctor Strange. He’s the master of the mystic arts, for those of you who are untutored in comics. I imagine they’ll get around to him pretty soon.
They did a television movie years ago, didn’t they?
Stan Lee: Yes, they did, and it was damn good. You know what happened? They pitted it against Roots and it got no ratings and it was a shame because it was a good movie. I forgot about that. Bless your heart, that’s right.
Iron Man hits the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray on September 30 and look for Stan Lee’s latest creations of POW! Entertainment in the near future.