(The 2023 Tribeca Film Festival runs June 7-18 and HtN has a ton of coverage coming like Melanie Addington’s With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story, movie review. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
In With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story, the new documentary on the life of Stan Lee, the apparent question of do they bring up Jack Kirby is a resounding yes. But, the story focuses on much more of the humble beginnings of Stanley Lieber. Born in New York, Stanley Lieber became known as Stan Lee as a pen name to avoid tying his real name to lesser comic book writing. Like everyone else, he didn’t quite realize the power of what comics could do, not until he signed up for World War II to fight and instead got roped into becoming a writer. Needing a faster training period, he took his comic book lessons and applied them to a new manual. The experience took people from six months of training to six weeks as the comic book panels allowed for better comprehension of significant ideas. A lightbulb clicked for Lee. There was a potential for comics to be more.
Directed by David Gelb (Obi-Wan Kenobi: A Jedi’s Return), the film encompasses 100 years of the man, from birth to how his legacy has been cemented beyond his years. While Lee died in 2018 in Los Angeles, his impact and image on the screen will continue. But it is his own story of seeing his father struggle to get a job that led him to think the only path forward in life is to make a lot of money and create security. This work ethic is what quickly led to him getting fired at 15 (he lied and said he was 17) at his first job and desperate for money, taking on a job as an assistant with a comic book publisher, Timely Comics. Still lying about being 17, he spent the first year at 16 doing work and learning until he began to help with some storyboards. Out of protest, everyone quit and publisher Martin Goodman asked Lee to hold down the fort. He found himself the editor of a comic book empire at age 17.
Diving into the art and emerging change from a kids series to what Marvel became, the visual exploration of the evolution of the artists from the early days of Jack Kirby to Jim Steranko in the 60s to Mark Gruenwald in the 80s. While the film doesn’t touch much on later artists like Adrian Alphona with Ms. Marvel, it does emphasize the industry changes that were made in the early days with Lee. One of the biggest moments was when Spider-Man was born and again and recognized fully that youth culture was critical. When the government, knowing how popular Spider-Man was asked Lee to run an anti-drug story in the comics, he did in 1971. But it was going against the Comic Code Authority which led to the eventual change in their own rules because despite running without their approval, the three-part series did great.
Comic book fans will feel that much of the film is a recap, with some minor retelling of the known Marvel story using audio footage of Jack and Lee fighting on a radio call. For newer audiences, the battle may be new to them but opens up the ongoing discussion of collaborative art and who is the creator. The writer or the artist? The same argument within the film industry remains an issue we are seeing on the streets as our creatives are fighting for better pay while the studios are making money off of their work. Was Kirby right or was Lee? Or were they both? Is the person who comes up with the idea and tasks someone to do it the creator?
Also touched upon is his long love story with wife Joan and their courtship to two children, one dying very early, and their incredible love story as well as how Lee was “retired” from Marvel by being made emeritus and the struggle of losing over fifty years of control over the company. While touched on very quickly, they also gloss over the cameos in the movies and shows and the joy it brought him towards the end.
The film was screened at Tribeca and is premiering on Disney+ on Friday.
– Melanie Addington (@MelAddington)
2023 Tribeca Film Festival; David Gelb; With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story documentary movie review