There was no way for the makers of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to know that their Stan Lee cameo — out of the dozens and dozens the celebrated comics creator made — would be the first (in a Marvel film, at least) to hit screens after his death.
So it’s pure coincidence, then, that the cameo they crafted for a dimension-spanning movie about how anyone can be Spider-Man is perhaps the best one-scene encapsulation of Stan Lee’s legacy ever put to screen.
[Ed. note: The rest of this article contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s Stan Lee cameo, but not really for the overall plot.]
The cameo occurs within the first half hour of the film, shortly after the death of the Peter Parker of Miles’ home dimension, as New York City mourns its beloved homegrown superhero. But Miles mourns a little differently. Thanks to a chance meeting and a dying-breath request, Miles knows that he’s the only person who can save Brooklyn. He has to become Spider-Man.
So he goes to get a Spider-Man costume, which, given the aforementioned citywide mourning, is not in short supply. If you’ve spent any time in New York City, you’ll recognize the sort of shop he enters immediately. Manhattan Island, particularly in the touristy areas of Midtown, is littered with small shops full of plastic tchotchkes featuring the Statue of Liberty, or the American Flag, or a yellow cab, or “I❤️NYC” or some combination of all four.
Also, a bucket full of $4 umbrellas that will immediately invert themselves in the slightest breeze, but I digress.
Miles brings his cheap, one-size-fits-all, ties-in-the-back Spider-Man costume to the old man behind the cashier’s counter — who looks just like Stan Lee, of course.
“I’m going to miss him,” the old man says, in Stan Lee’s voice, “We were friends, you know.”
Miles tells him that he’s not sure if the costume will fit. The guy behind the counter smiles sagely, and says:
“It always fits, eventually.”
And then the camera pans slightly to the left, revealing a sign that screams in bold text: “NO RETURNS OR REFUNDS. EVER.”
The duality of Stan
The first thing about Stan Lee that’s worth talking about is his creativity and love of story. But I would argue there’s something else that was equally important to the endurance of his legacy and the success of his characters and Marvel Comics.
Stan Lee was a hustler. I’m not using that term pejoratively. As good as he was at selling a story, Stan was good at selling the idea of the story. He could sell the glamour and excitement of simply existing in proximity to the idea of superheroes — it was a key part of what endeared readers to “the Marvel Bullpen.” Lee created Marvel Comics as a brand as much as he helped create the characters within it.
Not every creative type has the charisma — or the energy — to be the salesman Lee was, nor should every creative type have to be in order to find success. Lee’s career is dotted with rifts, feuds, and fallings out between him and former collaborators who felt overshadowed, uncredited, or left behind by Lee and Marvel Comics.
In the early ’70s, Jack Kirby split with Marvel Comics (over a number of legitimate reasons, including resentment of Lee) to write a series of comics for DC known collectively as The Fourth World. In one of them, Mister Miracle, he introduced the character of Funky Flashman, a blistering takedown of the man with whom he created the Avengers and the Fantastic Four.
By the late ’70s, Kirby would be back at Marvel again.
The man, or the mask?
As the comics industry mourned Stan Lee’s passing last month, many shared their initial skepticism with Lee’s public persona and the myth that had agglutinated around it. But no one who had actually met him walked away doubting the sincerity of his love for his work, his collaborators or his fans.
At the same time, there’s no doubting the rifts he left in his wake. Stan Lee created the Marvel Bullpen and equipped every Marvel employee with a snappy nickname in the letter pages. He also left a trail of disgruntled artists and writers through comics history.
“It always fits, eventually,” says Stan Lee in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, meaning: Stories, hope, flights of fantasy and devil defeated — those are for everyone. Heroes are for everyone, and anyone can be a hero.
And then the camera pans to the left to say: But make sure I get my cut.
It’s a great punchline, certainly, and I don’t read it as a mean-spirited dig — more of an acknowledgment of reality. Was Stan Lee the playful magic man of Marvel Comics? Or the glory hound always looking for the next best opportunity?
The answer, of course, is that he was both. And we have both sides of his legacy to thank.