The Marvel Universe is one of the places that nerds like myself get lost in, just like Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter Universe, Forgotten Realms etc. . . The Marvel universe is at its heart, a science fiction universe and what I think really sets it apart is it’s positive take on the human condition. Yes, Stan Lee’s creativity is preternatural but I certainly don’t want to be the one-millionth person to remind whoever might be reading this that we wouldn’t have Spider-man, the Hulk, Iron Man . . . Okay, I’m doing just that.
I love science fiction and what a lot of that has in common is that its dark and cynical. And rightfully so. If we look at our past to inform our future, our prospects don’t seem too promising. And yet, we have made progress scientifically and culturally. For all of the complaints about millenials, they (we?) are shaping up to be the most tolerant, educated and progressive generation to have ever lived, as should be the case for every new generation to arise as humanity advances. I hope I’m not overstating things if I say that I think people like Stan Lee play a huge role in asserting progressive culture. That world that he helped create is an example of art imitating life and vice versa. In many ways the Marvel Universe looks like us and at the same time we try to emulate it. It’s a world of diverse, intelligent, ambitious and moral people.
From time to time, someone like Stan Lee or Gene Roddenberry come along and show us that we’re not so bad after all. They show us that humanity can do better. We can be brave, we can be disciplined, we can be strong and we can be intelligent. But most importantly, we have the power to help others, assert our dignity and fight against bad ideas. As one example, in 1963 Stan Lee gave us the X-men, a cast of diverse super-heroes of various races facing the challenges of being feared and despised minorities. And for over 50 years these characters have been used to give us a progressive perspective on the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement and just being decent to your fellow man. He didn’t just create a universe to play in, he made a universe that we could all play in, that we could all identify with and he used his stories to challenge bigotry. I can think of nothing more appropriate than using an art form as uniquely American as comic books to tackle these very American problems.
Seeing these very old problems rear their head again makes me miss Stan Lee even more. Things have taken such a strange turn that any time a minority or woman of colour is cast in a movie, the far Right launches a hostile campaign to try to ruin everyone’s fun. And yet, in 1966 Stan Lee made Black Panther because there was a dearth of black super-heroes. And he made this super-hero by steering clear of offensive stereotypes and demeaning fallacies. He courageously acknowledges the damage that racism has done to America by using his stories as allegories for these problems.
So from now on, every time some simpleton complains about ‘politically correct casting’ or loses their mind at a race or gender change for a character, I wish they would have to listen to Stan Lee in this video at 1:11 on a loop for an entire day until they get the picture. The point is to be inclusive, the point of these heroes is to fight against bigotry and other wrongs.
Even from a purely creative point of view, the pantheon of super-heroes has become somewhat immutable. There aren’t a lot of new men in tights showing up in comic books or on the big screen. The latter part of the century was a virtual Cambrian explosion of creativity with an endless list of character popping onto the scene, many of them the brainchild of Stan Lee and his colleagues. And now that’s stopped. As far as comics and even movies go, creators dive into that well and have been mining it for decades. These characters, some half a century old are dominating the box office and have become a film genre unto themselves. And any tampering with these characters is met with naked hostility.
Gene’s gone. Now Stan’s gone. It makes me wonder who’s going to take up the mantle of making a universe for all of us to aspire to? Someone who’s going to show us the better parts of ourselves and confront the bad guys in our world with the open hostility they deserve? It's gone viral, you've seen it a million times already today, but to me, it's the most important thing that Stan Lee contributed to our world so I'll include it here (even though it might be illegible, you've seen it already).
Fiction has never just been about entertainment to me. It’s about taking a look at ourselves. Stan Lee did that with unique courage, childlike wonder and a loving heart. We need more like him, especially now.