Stan Lee, the man responsible for creating so many iconic characters such as Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the Hulk, died today at the age of 95. Perhaps nobody other than Walt Disney has had a greater impact on societal culture than what Stan Lee had with the characters he brought to life. From his first few comic book pages, to his last cameo in a marvel film, he has captivated the minds of millions of young people well into adulthood for decades and taught us all how to become a superhero.
Speaking from personal experience growing up, some of my fondest memories come from watching cartoons like “Spider-Man: The Animated Series” in the evenings on tv with my friends. While I didn’t realize it at the time, these shows based on the characters he created had a great amount of influence on what kind of person I would grow up to become. I remember feeling inspired while watching my favorite superheroes battle it out for the values they believed so strongly in. But perhaps most importantly, these characters taught me that no matter who you are or where you come from, everyone has a little hero in them to “save the world,” so to speak.
At the time, that meant literally acquiring superhuman powers and beating up bad guys. But as I grew older, the idea that I could do anything I set my mind to didn’t fade away. In fact, being a kid from the Appalachia region in southern Ohio, this idea only grew stronger as I grew older.
Where I grew up, things didn’t “happen.” People didn’t go on to be any kind of big shot. Whenever I would tell people I lived in Ironton, Ohio, they would always ask “…Where?” Stan’s characters showed me that even someone from “nowhere” could aspire to greatness.
All of Stan Lee’s characters had problems. They weren’t super because they were perfect. They were super because they could overcome any challenge they faced, despite their disadvantages they often had. This was especially empowering to me as a young boy, and it was something I never forgot growing into adulthood.
Today, these stories didn’t age, nor did these characters. Rather they proved themselves to be as timeless as ever, and the values they taught are perhaps more important now than they have ever been. Rather than comic books or cartoons, we go in droves to watch films like “Avengers: Infinity War” because not only is it fantastic story telling, but it is telling a story everyone needs to hear.
Stan Lee’s characters at Marvel Comics always had an important underlying theme. In the X-Men, it is obviously a story about bigotry and the dangers of what can happen when we look at our fellow man as anything less than individuals. The less than obvious theme is the constant struggle the mutants face to either give into the hatred or set themselves on a higher standard.
In Captain America, Steve Rogers is constantly faced with moral choices, trying to keep his values of liberty in an ever changing modern world. This was most famously showcased in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) version of Captain America. He was constantly forced to choice between what is right and what is comfortable. In both Winter Soldier and Civil War, he must stick to his integrity and have the courage to go against the current to stand up for what is right. That is the theme of Captain America that we should all retain. The courage to do what is right, even when it isn’t easy.
And then there is Spider-Man, the boy who is in way over his head, just trying to protect the people he cares about. I think no other hero of all of marvel comics related to me more than Spider-Man did as a kid. I think that is the case with millions of people as well. He’s not the strongest, or the fastest, or the smartest hero in the Marvel Universe. He is, however, the everyday hero. The one that regardless of who you are or where you are, you can see a little bit of yourself underneath the mask. His theme is that anyone can be a hero.
To this day, I genuinely enjoy everyone Stan Lee helped create. I still find myself going to the midnight showings of films like Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War because these are characters I’m invested in. They are stories I care about, and most importantly, they are people I can relate to. Take away all the weird and fantastic powers they have, Stan Lee created some of the most uniquely human stories and characters in history.
Stan Lee was a remarkable person who knew how to live a truly full life. When talking about his job, he said “I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic-book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers. And then I began to realize: entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain people, you’re doing a good thing.”
That quote couldn’t be closer to the truth and it couldn’t more accurate to the type of life Stan Lee lived. He brought joy and comfort to millions of people in a way that he would never fully know, but could only hope to accomplish.
In the words of Stan, “Excelsior!”
And thank you for teaching a young boy from Appalachia that nothing can hold back your dream if you set your mind to it.