In September 2017, 14 months before he died, it became public knowledge that Stan Lee had pre-taped cameo appearances for no less than five upcoming Marvel Studios movies when Lee’s personal manager spilled the beans during a convention appearance. At the time, the news prompted concerns that Lee—94 years old at the time—was being exploited by those around him, with people treating him more as a brand or fictional character than an actual, living human being.
Perhaps everyone should have taken that as a sign of things to come.
Last week, news broke that Marvel has signed a 20-year deal with Stan Lee Entertainment, which controls the name and appearance of the comics writer, who died in 2018, to use his iconic name, voice, likeness, and signature across a wide number of applications—including, but not limited to, films and television shows, theme parks, merchandise, and undefined “experiences.” Andy Heyward, CEO of Genius Brands—one of two companies behind Stan Lee Entertainment—said that the deal “really ensures that Stan, through digital technology and archival footage and other forms, will live in the most important venue, the Marvel movies, and Disney theme parks.”
Let’s be clear about this: During his life, Stan Lee was entirely complicit in transforming himself from a person into a brand. It goes back to the earliest days of Marvel, long before he was invited to cameo in seemingly every movie even related to superhero comics, when he’d portrayed himself and other Marvel freelancers and staff as wisecracking caricatures in editorials and comic strips alike; when he stepped away from directly writing or editing the comics in the mid-1970s, a company-wide edict was put in place so that every issue would begin with a logo featuring a version of his signature reading “Stan Lee Presents.” After a career that included cocreating Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Avengers, the X-Men, and even Willie Lumpkin and Hedy Wolfe, Stan Lee’s greatest work was, almost certainly, “Stan Lee.”
There is, nonetheless, something astonishingly ghoulish about the idea that Lee will be trapped in an afterlife selling Marvel products for at least the next two decades, despite the obvious jokes to be made about it being how he spent his time on Earth. The resurrection of Lee differs from the digital recreations of actors like Peter Cushing or Carrie Fisher in Disney’s Star Wars movies, or posthumous holograms of dead rappers showing up at Coachella. Each of those cases, as creepy and unnecessary as they may be, were celebrations and recreations of their subjects’ work, using literal pieces of said work to build the digital performances.
This, by contrast, is simply an extension of the yearslong transformation of Lee into little more than a corporate puppet, trading on fan nostalgia and past goodwill to reassure audiences that what they’re watching onscreen has the seal of approval of the original generation of the self-described House of Ideas—except, now, with even less agency or input than Lee was able to offer when he was alive.
Lee’s death in late 2018 was sad, yes, especially for those who actually knew the comics maestro personally—but it did bring an end to a difficult, tragic period of his life. In his final years, accusations of Lee suffering elder abuse started circulating even as his public profile grew arguably bigger than it had ever been before. The many Marvel stans—pun intended—who were genuinely thrilled to see him on the big screen in each successive MCU installment didn’t recognize the true Stan Lee, but instead saw a character as fictional as any other citizen of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Stan Lee that will “live on” in the Marvel movies and Disney theme parks was never truly alive in the first place. The real Stan Lee deserves better than being remembered as a programmable mascot, ready to advertise whatever the brand demands.