Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Saluting the Very Super Stan Lee

It’s a sad day in the Marvel Universe. Spiderman is sobbing and the Hulk has tears running down his bright-green cheeks. Almost exactly nine months after the triumphant screen debut of his Black Panther character as a leading man, the great Stan Lee is no more. He passed away on November 12 at the ripe old age of 95.  I met Lee briefly while working on the infamous 1994 Roger Corman version of Fantastic Four. I can’t remember much except for Lee’s insistence that we remain faithful to his characters in every detail. (He seemed less concerned about the fact that, on Corman’s typically tight-fisted budgets, we couldn’t possibly come up with special effects to do justice to his characters’ complex superpowers.)

Though I never really knew Stan Lee, my former colleague Craig Nevius had the pleasure of considering him a mentor and a friend. Craig was one of the many eager young writers in the Corman stable. He wrote quickly and imaginatively, and had a special talent for wide-eyed phantasmagoria. (I well remember how he brought life to a script called Stepmonster, in which a nice young kid concludes that his dad’s new wife is a dangerous Tropopkin.) Fittingly, Craig—a longtime lover of superheroes—was assigned to turn the Fantastic Four comic books into a viable screenplay that could be shot fast and cheap.

Marvel fans know what happened next. Cast and crew turned the Corman Fantastic Four into a labor of love, only to be stymied when—just before the scheduled charity premiere—the film was sold and shelved, to make way for Fox Studios’ big-budget version released over a decade later. Craig Nevius, like everyone connected with the Corman film, was bitterly disappointed, but he managed to salvage a warm relationship with Lee. In 2001, years after the Fantastic Four debacle, the two met for lunch to discuss Craig’s idea for a cinematic version of Lee’s own life. Here’s how Craig has described the project: “A shy Jewish boy from NYC who didn't see the world as it was but rather saw it as it SHOULD be, with bright colors and heroes. Of course the story ultimately would become his creation of Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man and Marvel Comics. And his fight against censorship when comics were considered by certain advocacy groups to be ‘corrupting.’” Craig planned to call it SECRET IDENTITY: THE REAL AND NOT-SO-REAL LIVES OF STAN LEE.

When Craig finished spelling out his concept, Lee exclaimed, “Wow! I'm impressed! With me! I didn't know my life was so interesting!” But then, totally deadpan, “I want to make sure that we're on the same page in terms of casting. Obviously, Brad Pitt should play me." Craig responded in kind: “Stan, I'm sorry but I disagree. Brad Pitt is nowhere near good looking enough to play you!" They parted on friendly terms; the project was sold, but (like so much in Hollywood) was never made.

The later years of Stan Lee’s life weren’t pretty. Especially after the death of his wife of sixty-nine years in 2017, there were power struggles around him, as well as accusations of elder abuse. It’s pitiful to think of this ebullient man, the hit of so many comic book conventions, being isolated from fans and friends: Craig Nevius lost touch with him when an email bounced back, amid rumors that someone else was now controlling his social media accounts. Sad to say, even superheroes lose their powers over time.

But let’s remember all he accomplished. As Stan Lee would say, Excelsior

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