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Stan Lee: Heroes for all

Julian Schmid, a doctoral researcher in Warwick’s Department of Politics and International Studies, looks at Stan Lee's legacy from a cultural and political perspective.

After Stan Lee’s passing, the director of Avengers: Infinity Wars, Joe Russo, quickly confirmed that Lee would have a last cameo in the upcoming Avengers film to be released in mid-2019. This will not only be the last of Lee’s dozens of appearances in Marvel films but fittingly, also the end of phase three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe whose success has underlined the surge of superhero characters, many of which were created by Lee, in the past decades.

Nuanced characters

Lee’s characters, from Spider-Man and Iron Man, to the X-Men and Fantastic Four, were seen as a reflection of Cold War anxiety embedded in an American context. Against the backdrop of the nuclear arms race, superheroes with special powers (more often than not acquired through a catastrophe or accident) would rise to greatness to protect regular people and save the world. However, Lee always aimed for more complexity than that, creating characters that showed nuances beyond merely fitting into a good-evil duality. Serious issues such as civil rights and anti-discrimination were expressed through the mid-1960s issues of The Uncanny X-Men and Black Panther.

One of Lee’s major abilities, aside from an extraordinary talent for inventing original stories with fascinating characters, was his skill over decades to weaving them into political and social themes and narratives of their time. In doing so, he contributed to the rise of the Golden Age of Comic Books and the whole genre being seen as an entertainment product not just for young people but for adults too. The films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the great re-launch of the comic books (Marvel NOW!) enjoy popularity throughout all age groups; the superheroic characters appear on merchandise products, T-shirts, stickers, tattoos, in video games, music and on social media.

Political and social potential

But the characters Lee created are by no means only part of an exclusively American cultural and political context. Captain America (not an original creation of Stan Lee), Spider-Man, Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Daredevil, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Falcon, and many more enjoy vast popularity outside the borders of the USA. But observing the immense dissemination of specific narratives, images, symbols, and tropes mostly through the comic books during the Cold War and the films since September 11, 2001, it becomes clear that Lee's work has left the realms of being merely entertaining and escapist to unfold political and social potential. It is with good reason that in 2014 Barack Obama referred to military development by saying ‘We are building Iron Man.’

The work of Stan Lee has always been more than mere entertainment. It has been analysed from philosophical and psychological perspectives, found its way into film and media, historical and social studies and occasionally even serves as illustration for management and leadership guidebooks. Lee was drawing on themes of national identity that had already existed before his time. US identity was always strongly based on individual figures and characters, maybe expressed best by the focus on US presidents such as Washington, Jefferson or Lincoln. The admiration for these people goes beyond party lines of Democrats and Republicans but seems a uniting feature of national identity as their individual history was always narrated in a way that it was closely tied to heroism and sacrifice.

Polysemic heroes

During the SIlver Age of Comic Books and the creation of a variety of different superheroes and superhero teams, Lee, in cooperation with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and many others, not only relied on these themes, but developed his own assemblage of characters that would function as carriers of the very same elements of national identity and ultimately foreign policy.

These texts – comic books, films etc. – are always polysemic, that is to say they are interpretable in many different, and at times contradicting, ways. What this has achieved is that superheroes, now and then, are appealing to a variety of audiences not only socially but also politically. The question of whether Captain America, for example, represents Democratic or Republican ideologies can never be answered. Just as Washington or Lincoln – in how they are drawn as historic figures – move beyond party lines, Captain America and Spider-Man demonstrate features that make them appealing to virtually everyone who wants to engage with them – and probably also to those who don’t.

Nuff said

There is no reason to believe that Lee’s characters will vanish from public memory anytime soon. After his death, Lee has been touted as a ‘hero’ by countless voices on Twitter and elsewhere. The appeal superheroes have for millions of people underscores the importance of Lee’s work and the further – if sometimes problematic – political implications. His own agenda was based on the empowerment of the audiences he aimed to address; displayed best in Lee’s cameo at the end of Spider-Man 3 (2007), where he looks at Peter Parker and whispers says ‘I guess one person CAN make a difference… Nuff said.’

Published: 14 November 2018


julian_schmid.jpgJulian Schmid is currently in the third year of his PhD at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick, having previously obtained a diploma in Political Science from the University of Vienna.

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