By Geoff Olson
Software makers used to drop“ easter eggs” into Macintosh programs – frivolous extra features for users to find. In a similar fashion, for over a decade filmmakers have been tucking surprises into a string of CGI-heavy superhero flicks.
You may have recognized Stan Lee in his brief cameos, including a hot dog vendor in the first X-Men, a security guard in The Hulk, and a redneck truck driver in Thor. In the Avengers he appears as a chess-playing man in a park who tells a TV interviewer he doesn’t believe superheroes are real.
Stan Lee is no actor – at least not in the professional sense. For decades he was Marvel Comics’ Manhattan-based chief editor and writer. Beginning in the early sixties, he and his bullpen of artists turned out a string of superheroes with problems more mundane than mythic. Spiderman struggled with high school neurosis, billionaire Iron Man inventor Tony Stark had a heart condition, and The Fantastic Four’s Ben Grimm was a seething pile of self-hatred known as “The Thing”.
Hitting the zeitgeist like a bullseye, Lee found a young audience in the millions. Kids glommed onto his company’s mix of purple prose, imaginative artwork, and adolescent power fantasies.
For an introverted, underweight youngster living in an airbase town in Ontario, it was like something went off in my head – and my parents had the good sense not to discourage my choice of reading material. I learned about “antimatter” in the pages of The Fantastic Four, and first encountered Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias in The Avengers. Lee had me constantly running to a dictionary.
Unlike DC comics, Marvel chose to challenge its audience rather than condescend to it, expanding its readership into teen and adult territory.
“The comics page was a more personal and intimate interface than the cinema screen. It lacked the intimidating lustre of the movies, and the images could be slowed down, rewound, fast-forwarded and studied in detail,” noted author and comic writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book, Supergods. But the archetypal sweep of Lee’s story lines, with their dynamic rendering by Kirby and company, had to wait for the digital age to do them cinematic justice.
That’s where my adult ambivalence comes in. The simplistic struggle of good versus evil seemed right for 12-cent stories stamped onto 20 pages of cheap newsprint – “fiction suits” for boomer kids to safely explore the moral dimensions of life. But today? Perhaps it’s because Stan Lee’s output had such a huge impact on me as a kid, I unrealistically expected more from Hollywood than men in Day-Glo unitards clobbering evil-doers with foreign accents.
Needless to say, these wide-screen superhero sagas aren’t meant for the likes of me. They are engineered primarily for a 16-to-25-year old male demographic, with stripped-down dialogue that translates smoothly for the increasingly influential Chinese market.
The scripted action has more in common with first person shooter games than a subversive art form. While Stan Lee’s Silver Age stories challenged young readers to think outside the box, most big-budget superhero films entice consumers to vegetate inside the cineplex, with product as disposable as plastic 3D glasses.
Unlike the highly inventive Pixar films, with their “plums for moms” (jokes and references meant for adults), Marvel Studios seems content to hammer the audience into slack-jawed submission with special effects, and regurgitate its intellectual property in paint-by-numbers sequels. There are the imaginative exceptions from the Disney subsidiary, such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But by and large, militarism fits in easily with the messianic themes; Hollywood filmmakers with Pentagon-approved scripts find access to billions of dollars worth of military equipment and personnel at little or no cost.
The arc of the Marvel universe from a psychedelic era cottage industry to a flag-waving entertainment Borg can’t all be laid at the doorstep of Stan Lee, however. That would be like blaming Saint Paul for megachurches or Christian rock. The retired Lee is now an icon rather than prime mover. So considering that I owe the man my early inspiration to write and draw, my favourite Marvel Studio moments are still the “easter eggs”- the brief scenes where I recognize the affable, self-promoting New Yorker, still sharp as a tack at 91.
The Vancouver Courier, Nov. 21