In an age where anyone with a smartphone can take their 15 minutes of fame, Stan Lee embodies the kind of legend that only comes around once a generation. Passing away peacefully at the age of 95, the comic book writer turned icon gained prominence for creating some of Marvel’s best loved characters and his monthly column ‘Stan’s Soapbox’ (1967-2001). Starting out in 1939, Lee helped revolutionise the industry, developing the famous “Marvel method” as well as giving his heroes flaws and reminding us that they are still, in most cases, fallible humans – Peter Parker after all had just as many problems with girls as he did villains, both super and ordinary.
Growing up poor as the son of a Romanian immigrant, Lee used his voice to stand up for good. Most memorable is a famous 1968 Stan’s Soapbox opening with words that he shared again in the wake of the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally: “Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are.”
In his later years he became known to new generations of Marvel fans via his film cameos, starting with an Incredible Hulk TV movie in 1989 and picking up the pace when the current superhero movie trend gained traction with Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000). He has made a cameo appearance in every Marvel film since, including those created outside the studio itself, such as X-Men and Spiderman (until of course the latter “came home” in the aptly named 2017 film). In tribute to a great man – who joked with the Dallas Comic Con audience in 2011 that “I cry and I yell and I scream until I get a cameo” – here are, in no particular order, the top ten Stan Lee cameos:
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989: Dir: Bill Bixby)
Worthy of a spot on the list for kicking off the now beloved trend, this 1989 TV movie saw the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno) put on trial, with Lee present as a juror. He obviously remembered what the monster he co-created with Jack Kirby way back in 1962 was capable of given he is one of the first to get the hell out of there when the big guy goes green and starts wreaking havoc. Seeing Lou Ferrigno painted green and tearing up the courtroom is both a welcome callback to the roots of comic book cinema and a reminder of how far we have given the now computer generated Hulk is routinely capable of destroying entire cities before our eyes.
The Avengers (2012: Dir: Joss Whedon)
Inter-planetary play has become the norm in the intervening years, but there will always be something special about The Avengers. Marvel’s first real event movie, it’s impossible to put yourself in the shoes of the guy who created many of these characters – imagine how it felt to watch them come alive and together on screen for the first time. The irony of his cameo is that Lee isn’t convinced they did come either alive or together – born in Manhattan, he channels his inner New Yorker as he scoffs at a news reporter: “Superheroes in New York? Gimme a break?” before returning to his chess match – a moment which perfectly encapsulates the fun absurdity of the alien invasion plot. In a pivotal moment for the franchise, a Lee cameo has never been so welcome.
The Amazing Spiderman (2012: Dir: Marc Webb)
The Amazing Spiderman series – consisting of two films before Sony decided to loan the character back to the studio that created him so he could join The Avengers on their planet saving endeavours – doesn’t generally get a lot of love. However, Lee was reportedly a fan of Andrew Garfield’s take on the character he created and has cited his cameo in the first film as one of his favourites, calling it “the funniest one you will ever see.” He plays it straight as a librarian who, wearing giant headphones, is completely unaware of the carnage taking place behind him as Spidey battles it out with the Lizard. The best Lee cameos come when, like in the Avengers, they riff off the ridiculousness of superheroes frolicking around as everyone else goes about their daily lives and this appearance is the prime example.
Hulk (2003: Dir: Ang Lee)
Ang Lee’s standalone Hulk movie starring Eric Bana introduced us to the CGI green guy, though it’s often forgotten due to Edward Norton and later Mark Ruffalo taking up the mantle as part of the MCU. It contains a double whammy cameo sure to excite Hulk fans the world over as Lee is joined in his cameo by original Hulk Lou Ferrigno, last heard of on this list literally tearing up the scenery in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. Both play security guards, with Lee deep in conversation with his buddy in a blink and you’ll miss it appearance. Given that Lee created Hulk alongside longtime collaborator Jack Kirby (who passed away in 1994) in 1962, it’s great to see him walk side by side with the first onscreen iteration of the character, especially seeing as both played a part in paving the way for what came next.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015: Dir: Joss Whedon)
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) scaled up, they began to have more fun with Lee’s cameos, as is exemplified in the Avengers second outing where he appears in a small group of military veterans with an exclusive invite to an Avenger party. We first see him deep in conversation with Thor, before he later dismisses the God of Thunder’s claims that 1,000 year aged booze is “not meant for mortal men”, retorting “neither was Omaha beach, blondie.” It turns out however that even the great Stan Lee can’t handle otherworldly alcohol, as we see him later being helped out as he slurs his favourite catchphrase “excelsior” as we all giggle into our popcorn. A staple of the MCU has been the ability to maintain a lighthearted and often humorous tone in the face of ever-worsening circumstances, so getting Lee in on the action makes it all the funnier.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014: Dir: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo)
Lee exemplifies his impeccable comic timing as the Smithsonian’s security guard, who discovers that Captain America has stolen back his old suit. He channels the energy of everyone who has ever found themselves on the cusp of big trouble as he gapes at the empty mannequin: “Oh man, I am so fired.” Another example of how Lee’s cameos need not be long to be effective he gifts fans a laugh out loud moment that barely clocks in at half a minute. Lee has cited Captain America as particularly close to his heart – despite being created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby – due to the hero being at the heart of his first published story, released in Captain America Comics #3 in 1941 and entitled ‘Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge”
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016: Dir: Bryan Singer)
One of Lee’s more understated cameos, Bryan Singer’s fourth directorial entry into the X-Men franchise deserves a spot due to featuring his beloved wife Joan by his side. They appear in each others arms among the civilians witnessing supervillain Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) start to bring around, well, the apocalypse as he lifts the world’s nuclear weapons into the air. It’s particularly poignant in light of Joan’s death in the summer of 2017 after 69 years of marriage and two children together, one of whom sadly passed away at only three days old in 1953. The pair reportedly met when Stan arrived to pick up his blind date – he said he never met his intended date as he fell in love with Joan on the spot when she answered the door, with the couple marrying two weeks later. A great love for a great man, it’s wonderful to see the pair share the screen together in one of his trademark appearances.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017: Dir: Taika Waititi)
Another hilarious MCU cameo sees Lee pop up on the alien planet of Sakaar waving around a highly threatening looking “hair-cutting” device at the God of Thunder, presumably keen to exact revenge on the Norse God for getting him so thoroughly drunk a few short years before. Lee never lost his sense of humour and this is most evident as the writer, well into his nineties at this point, gets right into the occasion: “now don’t you move, my hands aren’t as steady as they used to be.” With the MCU at this point 17 films in and yet to run out of steam, it’s little wonder Lee is proud of the legacy he had a direct hand in creating and fans will never tire of the sense of fun he channelled into his speaking appearances.
Spiderman 3 (2007: Dir: Sam Raimi)
“You know, maybe one man can make a difference – ‘nuff said” – Lee tells Peter Parker how it is in a touching moment that has added impact given he later told the Chicago Tribune in 2014: “I used to think that what I did was not important, “People are building bridges and engaging in medical research, and here I was doing stories about fictional people who do extraordinary, crazy things and wear costumes. But I suppose I have come to realize that entertainment is not easily dismissed.” Lee used the webslinger to push censorship boundaries, such as the successful 1971 storyline where Peter’s best friend Harry Osborne becomes addicted to pills, which challenged the rigidity of the Comics Code Authority (established in 1954). In increasingly divided times there is one thing we can all still agree on – Stan Lee made a difference and this cameo serves as a nice reminder of that.
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 (2017: Dir: James Gunn)
Guardians of the Galaxy was another big deal for Marvel’s cinematic universe. The alien invasion of New York in the explosive third act of The Avengers as well as the very existence of the Thor films already confirmed that we were not alone in this particular universe, but it was the dawn of the Guardians that really upped the ante in terms of intergalactic action. The team’s second outing riffed on the long speculated theory that every Lee cameo was somehow connected, with MCU head honcho Kevin Feige noting that he exists both “above and apart from the reality of the films.” We see Lee talking to some watchers on a random planet as the guardians shoot through at high speed, his line referring to his appearance in Captain America: Civil War where he was a FedEx delivery man. As if the cameo couldn’t get any better, it’s capped off with a post-credits scene where spacesuit clad Lee pleads with the watchers as they walk away: “Hey, you were supposed to be my lift home. How will I get outta here? Aw gee, I had so many more stories to tell!”
Honourable mention: Mallrats (1997: Dir: Kevin James)
Whilst not a Marvel entry, Stan Lee’s surprise appearance in Kevin James’ classic brand of slacker comedy merits a mention on account of being one of his personal favourite on screen appearances as well as being full of Marvel nods, a particular highlight being when he doles out advice about “the one that got away” with reference to some of his most famous characters. Lee plays a fictionalised version of himself who appears at several points throughout the film in what is a testament to his impact across the entire entertainment industry. It was not his only non-Marvel related came, with other outings including appearing in animated form in the superhero themed Disney outing Big Hero 6 (2014)
“We must fill our hearts with tolerance” (Stan’s Soapbox: 1968)
In a 2010 tweet Lee defined his beloved catchphrase “excelsior” as meaning “upward and onward to greater glory.” To cast an eye upon his long and varied legacy suggests little doubt that is exactly how his memory will live on as future generations continue to adore and unite around his work. As he told us in that inspirational Stan’s Soapbox from 1968: “Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill out hearts with tolerance,” a message we must keep alive in increasingly troubled times. He had reportedly already filmed cameos for several upcoming Marvel films, giving us some more time to enjoy his onscreen antics, though the appreciation for his great contributions will surely outlive us all. Until then, “excelsior” to the great Stan Lee – may he rest in peace.