It’s hard to know where to begin when throwing a tribute to the one and only Stan Lee. And at 4+ hours it’s even harder to know when to end. No one wants to say goodbye.
Excelsior! A Celebration of the Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible & Uncanny Life of Stan Lee was a wonderful celebration of our gone but not forgotten Generalissimo, hosted by Stan’s friend Kevin Smith. The event boasted many activities inside and out of the legendary Chinese Theatre over the course of the afternoon and evening. As POW!’s Staff Writer, I didn’t have any writing to do on site, so I helped set-up for the event and assisted in the press box on the red carpet. I unfortunately missed much of the courtyard performances, military proceedings, and readings, but was able to sneak away to observe one powerful moment outside the theater.
It was important to not only acknowledge Stan’s creations and accomplishments over his long and storied career, but to also recognize that he was not alone in his achievements. In a moving gesture, Stan’s friend and collaborator, Batman producer Michael Uslan, brought relatives of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko onto the courtyard stage to honor Kirby and Ditko as co-creators, friends, and colleagues of Stan. Uslan then proudly read the names of all those who had worked with Stan in the famous Marvel Bullpen and beyond. It was an awe-inspiring moment, and one that anyone whose lives were touched by the group’s creations could reflect upon.
Once the public courtyard festivities were finished, fans moved inside the theater for the main event. There they were greeted with a screening of the documentary With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story, as well as never-before-seen home movies and candid clips of Stan goofing around with his staff.
The ever-entertaining emcee Kevin Smith entered the theater and clued the audience in on what he had in store for everyone. He opened by telling amusing anecdotes and emotional remembrances of his friend Stan.
The evening’s panels kicked off with the Sony Pictures contingent of Avi Arad, Amy Pascal, Phil Lord, and Chris Miller. Avi Arad’s insights were particularly fascinating since he shared an office with Stan during the 1990s and got through the tough times of the Marvel bankruptcy together. Amy Pascal was refreshingly frank in her reminiscing. She spoke of Stan’s brutally honest critiques of early cuts of the Spider-Man movies and how much it helped them craft the films into the box office successes they became. And finally, producers of the critically acclaimed Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, shared hilarious stories of sneaking into Comic Con parties just to meet Stan, and pitching television show ideas to him at his POW! Entertainment office.
The next panel consisted of Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill; Ant-Man and the Wasp’s Laurence Fishburne; Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Clark Gregg; actress Felicia Day; and X-Men producer Tom DeSanto. Mark Hamill talked of doing voice work on Marvel animated series with Stan and the fun they had playfully ribbing each other between takes, while Laurence Fishburne told of his childhood love of comic books and hearing Stan’s voice through his writing. Clark Gregg relayed stories of Stan’s cameos where he would always try to turn one-liners into scene-stealing monologues. Felicia Day recounted barging into Stan’s office to pitch him her web series and how shocked she was when Stan personally called her a week later with words of encouragement. And finally, Tom DeSanto detailed Stan’s first big Marvel movie cameo in 2000’s X-Men. He ended the panel by dropping a piece of little-known trivia – that Laurence Fishburne was set to play Beast in the first X-Men movie before budget cuts nixed the part.
In addition to speaking on a panel, Fishburne also recited a poem that Stan was famously fond of: Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” The stylized language and almost musical quality of the piece influenced Stan in his own writing and poetry, constantly striving for unique linguistic flairs. Fishburne’s deep voice was commanding yet soothing during the reading, reminiscent of his portrayal of Morpheus in The Matrix films, and the dark, quiet theater created a surreal supernatural atmosphere. The passionate recital was a major highlight of the evening and a worthy inclusion in honoring The Man.
The panels continued through the night, ending with a group of Stan’s comic book industry contemporaries with head of Marvel television Jeph Loeb, Marvel VP of Creative Development Steve Wacker, artist Bill Sienkiewicz, and industry legends Marv Wolfman and George Perez. Jeph Loeb had the crowd rolling with laughter after telling a story of the time he approached Stan in a bathroom outside the Marvel offices as a kid. Steve Wacker told tales of being Stan’s last editor at Marvel when he wrote a series of Spider-Man comics a few years prior. Finally, Marv Wolfman and George Perez spoke about working with Stan as their boss and peer during the 1960s and 70s.
After four hours the event came to a close with an audience sing-along to the original animated Spider-Man series theme song. It was a rousing moment where Stan’s fans joined together to say a final goodbye. The song ended with a collective cry of ‘Excelsior!’, and suddenly it wasn’t a goodbye after all, but a charge forward to the bright future ahead, just as Stan always lived his life.
-Steve Voccola, POW! Staff Writer