Stan in the place where you live

As much as I've always loved superheroes, I've always felt there was something just a little off-putting about Marvel head honcho Stan Lee, the person. And it isn't a righteous indignation thing about not giving his collaborators their due credit; Stan has relented on that score in later years, and Jack Kirby's dead now.

No, there's just something about him that feels really cheeseball, from the way he tends to address audiences as "True Believers" and is prone to exclamations like "Excelsior!" Also, it's not hard to run into Stan Lee if you live in L.A., as I did for many years. The guy attends any and everything he's invited to.

That said, many of the characters he created are indeed classic. I'm not sure how much imagination it takes to create a hybrid of spider and man, but will definitely grant that the Incredible Hulk (comic-book version; not so much Ang Lee's movie) is the best modern take on the classic werewolf/Mr. Hyde mythos. And how many Westerners would be familiar with Norse mythology were it not for Lee devoting a comic book to Thor? (As a kid I never could stand all the "thee's" and "thou's", though)

And after spending an hour with Stan Lee yesterday, at a guest lecture at UC Irvine, I have to say that he's actually better in large doses. Equal parts arrogance and self-deprecation, he's like an enthusiastic grandpa who's dying to be asked about his wartime adventures, except that the wars are all ones he made up himself.

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Standing onstage in a pastel-green sweater and tan slacks, Stan "the Man" quipped that he felt "like a condemned man waiting. No-one gave me a last dinner!" Given an hour to talk, he had prepared no speech, but much like Tobey Maguire in SPIDER-MAN 2, was jumping headlong into it not knowing if there'd be anything to support him in mid air or not. [strained metaphor, but SPIDER-MAN 2 screened immediately afterward.]

Lee's appearance was for a class; I'm not sure which one, exactly, because they never said. Additional tickets were sold till every seat in the room was filled.

But enough with the intro, and on to the highlights of Lee's talk. Opening remarks went about 15 minutes before it turned into a Q&A.

-First line: "Thank you, culture-lovers!"

-Second line: 'Did you see the Iron Man movie?" In case you haven't, Lee cameos as himself appearing at a concert in downtown L.A., where Tony Stark mistakes him for Hugh Hefner. Lee was originally supposed to respond, "Aww, that's okay, I get that all the time!" but the line was cut, even though director Jon Favreau wrote it just for him.

-Lee's cameo in the upcoming new Hulk movie involves going to the fridge, drinking from a bottle, then dropping the bottle on the ground and saying "Wow" (presumably as the Hulk goes by). Director Louis Leterrier made him do several takes.

-Says America didn't originate superheroes -- El Cid, Odysseus, Robin Hood and such were among the originals -- but that the superhero comic book is an American art form.

-Jack Kirby "could not draw a dull panel." How they worked was that Lee would tell him the story in broad strokes, Kirby would go home and come back the next day with it all drawn in panels, at which point Lee would add dialogue and captions. "If I had to write a script, that might have taken me a whole day."

-Question from a science major: If Lee could have the ability to teleport anywhere without dying, or to manipulate matter into any form he wanted, which would he pick? "I'd go to a psychiatrist!"

-"Superman, the only thing he ever worried about was whether Lois Lane would find out he's really Clark Kent. Here, lemme show you how that works [takes off glasses]. 'Oh, where'd Stan Lee go?'" Jokes that Thor's flight is more realistic than Superman's, because Thor throws his hammer and hangs on, while Superman has no visible means of propulsion.

-Do comic books appeal to girls? Stan says lots of girls will read books for guys, but not vice versa. Says the movie versions have brought in more female readers. Iron Man always got more fan mail from females than any others.

-Movie screenwriters don't ask him for help; he wants plausible deniability if the movie turns out badly.

-"A comic book editor is like God - he can kill people, and bring them back to life."

-Which chracter of his did he relate to the most? "Whichever one I was writing at the time!" Adds that given their special powers "it's very hard to relate to any of them!"

-What was the most thrilling experience of his life? "Being here today."

-Why are so many Marvel titles set in New York? "I lived in New York." Wanted to use real locations that he knew. Doesn't like the fictional cities of the DC universe.

-What does he think of the recent "Marvel Civil War" storyline, in which superheroes are forced to unmask by the government? "I thought it was great, one of Joe Quesada's best ideas." But how about specific plot points? "Confession: I don't have time to read the books."

-"Everything I write is a political statement -- very subtle, and you have to read between the lines." Has a new book out called ELECTION DAZE, with photos of Bush, Clinton, etc. augmented by comedic captions from Lee. Used to do this over images of Universal monsters, and says those books were best sellers back in the day. Also did one like that with celebrities, but issue #3 was to have JFK on the cover, and he was killed before it came out; that was the end of that.

-Favorite Marvel movies are Spider-Man, X-Men, and Iron Man. Least favorite is the little-seen direct-to-video Captain America live-action movie starring Matt Salinger.

-Fan asks "Why are you so awesome?" Lee: "I can't help it."

-Lee nearly left comics at one point, but then was asked to create a counterpoint to DC's Justice League. He came up with the Fantastic Four, and never looked back. But as a teen, he wanted to be an actor. Also wanted to be in advertising. "I LOVED advertising." Says the first thing he would read in any magazine was always the ads, and he treated Marvel a bit like a product, with catchphrases, key-words, branding [this is part of why I find him so cheeseball sometimes, and it's interesting to hear him cop to it].

-Advice on getting into comics today? "It's very difficult." Says it's nearly impossible for writers; you need to be published somewhere else first, because people like Stephen King and the creators of LOST are among those writing comics now. But editors will always look at art samples -- just be sure that what you can do is better than what's being put out already. He can't believe how bad some of the submissions are.

-TV show "Who Wants to be a Superhero" took up too much of his time. If there's a season 2, it'll have to be without him. However, there will be a UK spin-off with kid superheroes that he filmed an introduction for. Should be on the BBC next year.

-Does he have writer's block ever? "I can always think of something...I'm my biggest fan: Whatever I wrote, I liked."

-Differences between Marvel and DC? "How much time have you got? We tried to do more human interest, get into their personal lives more...I don;t read the books lately, I'm sure they've gotten a lot better."

-Boxers or briefs? "At the moment, boxers, but I do look adorable in briefs."

-Favorite X-Man? Professor X. Says he relates "because I'm losing my hair [and] I'm incredibly wise." Also fond of Beast, because he plays against type.

-Students used to ask him about the origins of Dr. Strange's incantations, citing literary precedents, but Lee just made them up entirely. Says that proves there are no original ideas.

Thus ended the lecture with a standing ovation. On to SPIDER-MAN 2 in another building.

I imagine you've probably all seen the movie and I don't need to really "review" it as such. Amusingly, or rather, not, this print had an old trailer attached, for the unfunny-looking CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS. Years from now, old prints of SPIDER-MAN 2 will be the only evidence we have that such a thing ever existed.

Anyway, Spidey holds up pretty well. The most tedious parts, surprisingly enough, are all the talky scenes with Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), who on the one hand adds some heart, but on the other tries too hard to jerk the strings of said heart. I love the scenes where she's in peril and fighting back against Doctor Octopus, but could do without all the Serious Talks with her nephew.

Mostly of note, however, is how so many of the minor actors have already gone on to bigger things. Soon-to-be Laura Bush-impersonator Elizabeth Banks as Betty Brant, LOST's Daniel Dae Kim as a lab assistant, DEATH PROOF lap-dancer Vanessa Ferlito as Mary Jane's best friend, and The Daily Show's Asif Mandvi as Peter's pizzeria boss.

Also, it must be noted that for a scientific genius, Doctor Octopus is an idiot in many ways. The idea that, rather than create simple appendages for hazard conditions, he had to go ahead and give them mechanical brains of their own that could easily overwhelm his mind, save for a tiny easily destroyable blue chip on his back is just a tad preposterous.

And when your master scheme involves building a device that can easily turn into a giant super-magnet...don't work in buildings and/or rooms made entirely of metal! Dumbass.

Regardless, much love to Alfred Molina as Doc Ock. And Sam Raimi. Too bad he had to follow it up with such a badly conceived part 3.

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