Sunday, December 07, 2008

Stan Lee's Iron Man longevity, by Scott Podmore - Sunday Mail - 18th October 2008

Stan Lee, one of the creative geniuses behind Marvel Comics, has been thrilling his superhero-loving readers for almost 70 years, says.

Stan Lee's charisma walks into the room as briskly as his ageing, yet strong, frame.

"I'm good at anything except facts," he says, arms outstretched.

It's enough to calm the nerves of an Australian journalist introducing himself to the maker of his childhood comic-book superheroes.

"Loved your cameo in the Iron Man film, Mr Lee," I offer.

"Ah, yes, thank you. It (the cameo) made the movie, you know," he says, a glint in his eye.

Forget top-line actors and directors; this is Stan Lee, 84, creative force behind such historic Marvel comic-book heroes as Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and Fantastic Four. Just for a moment, guess how many children have opened their minds and hearts to these worlds he helped co-create in the past 50 years and you may begin to appreciate the magnitude of his influence.

Despite his age, Lee makes no secret of his youthful zeal to continue moving forward. He is owner of a new company, POW! Entertainment – driving new and exciting projects – and emeritus chairman of Marvel Media.

Most recently it was Iron Man, one of his "lesser known" superheroes, who was triumphantly brought to life on the big screen and which was released last week on DVD and Blu-ray. Another recent film version of one of his characters, The Incredible Hulk, also hits these formats this month.

As is the case with most of the films featuring Marvel superheroes he helped co-create, Lee is becoming as popular for his cameo appearances as he is for his part in creating the superheroes.

In Iron Man, Lee briefly appears as Hugh Hefner, fussed over by three young blondes on the red carpet as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) swings past and says "hello". He was the hot dog vendor in X-Men, the man who drank the contaminated soft drink in The Incredible Hulk, Willie Lumpkin in Fantastic Four and the man at the fair in Spider-Man.

"I really love them all. I was disappointed with Iron Man because I had a line, but they cut it out," he says, with a hint of sarcasm. "Standing there with my arm around three attractive blondes was none-too-unpleasant. Originally, Tony Stark was meant to come up and tap me on the shoulder and say something like, `Sorry, I thought you were Hugh Hefner', and I was meant to say, `Oh, that's OK, I get that all the time'.

"But the movie came out and they had cut the line. Either the movie went too long or he might have thought the scene would get too big a laugh and steal the show.

"The funny thing about it was when I turned around to say something to Robert (Downey Jr), I had my pipe in my mouth and I hit one of the girls right in the face. So we had to do another take. It was fun."

Speaking of fun, Lee can't hide his smile when discussing his co-creations currently sparkling in Hollywood and across the world.

Audiences in their droves are embracing the superhero-blockbuster film genre, though Lee didn't always see it coming.

"Well, not all those years ago, anyway," he says. "After Superman came out and then the success of Batman and Spider-Man, we realised we were on to something.

"It's not so much that these stories are about superheroes as it is about the fact they're different.

"They're not what you would see in an average everyday movie – not your usual gangster movie, cops 'n' robbers, western or romance. The public loves anything different, providing it's well made, of course, and you never quite know what to expect. It's that element of excitement, of `What am I going to see?', and now with the special effects you can see men flying and people walking through walls, bursting into flames."

However, in the beginning, it wasn't easy bringing Marvel and its legion of comic-book characters to the table for mainstream entertainment media. Lee had to bang down doors and persist.

"We had a funny experience," he says, after a deep breath.

"The previous management of Marvel didn't want to do movies or TV. I had arranged for a network to meet about a TV series we had planned on a character we called the Black Widow, and in those days Bo Derek was a big star and we had her lined up.

"The network was excited, but the person running Marvel said, `No, I don't want to do it'. I asked why and they said, `If the series doesn't do well, it will hurt our character'.

"I couldn't understand that kind of logic because if you looked at it that way you would never do anything.

"So, we had the same trouble with the idea for Daredevil. I gave up at that point. Luckily, we had new management later on and they realised the value of TV and movies, especially movies. We were off and running."

Surprisingly, his most famous creation, Spider-Man, almost never saw a comics stand. But Lee continually challenged conformity and backed his own ideas until he emerged.

While writing for Marvel he pitched the Spider-Man concept to his publisher, only to be told it was "the worst idea he had ever heard".

"From his point of view, he was right because I wanted Spider-Man to be a teenager who had a million problems and my publisher said, `First of all, Stan, people hate spiders. And he can't be a teenager because teenagers can only be sidekicks, not heroes'," he says. "But it just happened that I found the right artist and apparently we handled it the right way and it caught on. Whether it's a superhero movie or a romance, the most important thing is you have to care about the characters. You have to understand the characters and you have to be interested in them."

So how has the comic-book guru managed to continually reinvent, while remaining faithful to his characters? "That's a tough one, because if I give away too much information, all our competitors will swoop," he says, laughing. "There's no secret; just do your best.

"You create a character and you know your character, and the story works, but the problem comes when you have to do the next story because it's a series. You've got to make it different from the first one – so people don't think they're reading the same thing over and over. Yet you've got to keep it true to the first one in that you have to keep the character in character. It's a balancing act you play.

"I don't know that there's a formula.

"You've just got to really think it out all the time. And I know that's why I don't have a bigger head of hair as I used to. When I had to do Spider-Man, the Hulk and the X-Men – and I had to do a new one every month – the problem was, `How do I make each one different yet the same?' If you're lucky and you think it out, the story comes.

"If not, you bang your head against a wall." Not only has Lee brought us diverse characters, he also pioneered the shared universe: the first time superheroes interacted in other stories, something being adopted in the big-budget movies today. Marvel Studios teased us in Iron Man when Samuel Jackson's Nick Fury, Marvel's agent of Shield, appears briefly at the end. "Well, it seems the most natural thing if you have superheroes who exist in the same world and you're doing movies on them," he explains.

"The most difficult thing is some of the characters at Marvel are under contract at different studios.

Spider-Man at Sony, Iron Man at Paramount and so forth. So they've got to take characters they can control, so to speak.

"In the comics it happened accidentally. I had written every story separately, but then it occurred to me that if they all live in New York, why couldn't they meet? So it became fun to get them in the one story and that's how it happened."

Iron Man is out now on DVD and Blu-ray. The Incredible Hulk DVD and Blu-ray are released on Thursday.

(Credit: The Daily Telegraph)

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