Stan Lee is as close to a Walt Disney-type figurehead as Marvel is likely to get. Sure, many, many others deserve credit for making Marvel the pop culture behemoth that it has become since its founding, but for the general public, Lee is the face of Marvel. In addition to his central role in creating some of Marvel’s core characters, Lee’s long, long list of cameos in Marvel properties and other various films and TV shows over the last two-plus decades certainly helped keep his face familiar to newer generations of readers and moviegoers.
With his passing, that little bit of Marvel magic is past, but in honor of Lee’s tireless efforts to document his final couple of decades on Earth through billion-dollar blockbuster properties, here are his ten best movie cameos.
At first glance, there’s nothing really special about Lee’s cameo as a mailman who delivers a batch of envelopes to Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd), but it marks the first time Lee specifically portrayed a character he created: Willie Lumpkin, the friendly mail carrier who greets the team as they enter their building. Looking back at the way Lumpkin was drawn in the comics starting way back in his first appearance in 1963, it’s almost as if Lee knew he’d look like him in his later years. A friendly old man with the big smile under his white ’stache, Lee pretty much cast himself in the role forty years before Fox’s ill-advised throwback to lighter Saturday morning cartoon tone in blockbuster form was produced.
Disney Animation’s delightful and fun anime-inspired superhero/adorable-as-hell-robot adventure pulls a fast one on us when Lee makes a cameo in a framed picture as the father of the obnoxious rich comedy relief, Fred (T.J. Miller). Just when we think this is the extent of the cameo, Lee’s animated avatar pops up in the after-credits scene as a superhero with a secret lair, making us drool at the possibility of watching a middle-aged Lee kicking ass in the sequel. Who doesn’t want to see him throw energy rays at bad guys while shouting “Excelsior!”?
Out of context, this bit appears to be another run-of-the-mill comedy relief cameo we’ve seen in countless MCU installments, despite Lee’s terrific line delivery. But considering its placement in Marvel’s send-off to ’70s political thrillers—and still the best Captain America movie—the relief of tension comes at the perfect moment. It’s the standard second act break set-up; all seems lost for Steve Rogers, S.H.I.E.L.D. is under Hydra control and the odds are stacked against him. As the thematic representation of the conclusion of his character arc, where he struggles with his identity in modern America, he steals his old costume from the Smithsonian Museum. Lee, as the security guard, is afraid he’ll be fired. Don’t worry buddy, I hear Fantastic Four is looking for a mailman.
Believe it or not, there was a time when pretty much only comic book readers knew who Stan Lee was. That changed when Kevin Smith, applying his nerd pride pop culture dialogue from Clerks into his sophomoric sophomore effort Mallrats, decided to let his lovesick, literally shitty hand shaker protagonist (Jason Lee) take some vital romance lessons from Lee himself. I’m ashamed to admit that this was my introduction to who Lee was in the first place. (It was hard to get your hands on comic books in Turkey back in the mid-’90s.) If Lee had ever put together a demo reel to showcase his acting ability, this would be the centerpiece. He’s so natural in the part that the scene comes across as if Jason Lee in character merely chatted with Stan Lee himself and the exchange was filmed as a documentary piece. Of course, Kevin Smith being fully aware of Stan Lee’s characteristics while writing his part helps a lot.
This blink-and-you’ll miss cameo, showing Lee as a bystander saving a little girl while the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) wreaks havoc on NYC, creating some badly rendered CGI skeletons, seems inconsequential, yet that’s kind of the idea. The point of Spider-Man, and especially screenwriter David Koepp’s thematic anchor for the first film, is that even the most meek, mild-mannered citizen can make a difference through bravery against evil. Lee’s old man using whatever reflexes left in his body to rescue the girl encapsulates this ideal in under three seconds. Of course, the subtlety-killing Spider-Man 3 had to spell this out by having Lee literally tell that message to Peter Parker (Toby Maguire).
Lee himself called this his favorite cameo, and it’s not hard to see why. (Incidentally, he says his least favorite is Spider-Man, mainly because it’s so short.) It showcases a trifecta of elements near and dear to Lee’s heart. One, as a WWII vet himself, he becomes part of an in-movie tribute to the greatest generation. Two, his love for goofy comedy bits shines as he dares Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to pour him some superhumanly potent Asgardian liquor, only to get shit-faced mere second later. Three, he gets to deliver his catchphrase, “Excelsior!”, as a fall-down drunk.
I fully understand that placing a wholesome old man next to some sleazy imagery is on par with the “rapping granny” trope when it comes to lazy, juvenile comedy, but my inner 12-year-old still gets a kick out of it. Lee as a strip club DJ, surrounded by fake tits, is on par with Deadpool’s proud hard-R troublemaker identity in a sea of benign PG-13 superheroes. It’s the equivalent of Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) looking at the camera and saying, “See what I did with your beloved, moral Stan Lee? He’s a pervy DJ now”. Lee’s hilarious enthusiasm in the role only adds to the subversive nature of the cameo.
As evidenced by many of his cameos, Lee reveled in poking fun at his larger-than-life standing as a comics legend. That’s partly what made him so welcoming and approachable, diffusing his status as a way of directly communicating with the common fan. Teen Titans carry over their Animaniacs-style self-referential humor to their first feature-length adventure, and it provides the perfect set-up for Lee to lampoon his tendency to pop up in every single Marvel property. First, he photobombs the Titans as he tries to snatch as much screen time as possible for his cameo. After being told that he’s actually in a DC film, he shows up out of the blue again because he just “loves doing cameos!” This reframing of the otherwise modest Lee as an attention whore is comedy gold.
As we should all know by now, the MCU is a series of films and TV Shows that share the same characters. Yet Lee plays a different person in almost each of his cameos. This has led some fans to come up with the theory that he’s actually one of the Watchers), a race of alien creatures who observe the universe and compile information about it in Marvel comics. Instead of dispelling this theory, MCU embraced it in the second Guardians of the Galaxy, showing Lee delivering an oral report to his Watcher superiors about his adventures as various different people on Earth. An after-credits sequence also shows Lee stranded in the middle of space by the Watchers, complaining that they were his ride back to Earth. Apart from giving Lee a uniform identity in the MCU, the cameo also implies that his character might still be around to watch over Lee’s beloved superheroes even after his death, albeit in a different body. May I recommend Wilford Brimley?
Lee’s animated cameo in the terrific Into the Spider-Verse is such a fitting send-off that it comes across as if it was put together after Lee’s death, using a soundalike. But to our delight, it was Lee himself who recorded it. As the new Spider-Man Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) struggles to come to terms with his new powers, he visits a comic book store where Lee plays the owner. As Morales ponders why the world needs superheroes, Lee summarizes the existential meaning behind his career with just a simple line. It’s a wonderful little moment that fully earns its sentiment.