The mysteriousness of Stan Lee’s Marvel movie cameos — where he can be a humble Earth bus driver, a Xandarian citizen taking in the sights, or a deep-space astronaut spinning yarns to a rapt gaggle of Watchers — is a frequent source of fan delight and speculation. Is he an immortal? A cosmic force? A Watcher?
But Lee’s posthumous cameo in Captain Marvel raises questions of equal magnitude all on its own. The appearance gives the late comic book titan a role he has never before taken up in a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and it’s a perfect nod to the film’s ’90s setting.
Excuse us if we go galaxy brain.
But first, some vital details
Captain Marvel is the first MCU movie to hit theaters since Lee’s death at the age of 95 — and Marvel Studios marked the occasion with a new title card logo and animation, replacing the usual images of Marvel heroes with clips of the writer in his Marvel Universe cameos.
But Lee’s cameo in Captain Marvel is not his first posthumous cameo in a Marvel movie. He voiced a quite moving cameo in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which hit theaters on Dec. 14, 2018.
And Captain Marvel won’t be his final posthumous cameo, either. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige confirmed on the red carpet of Captain Marvel’s Los Angeles premiere that Lee completed filming on one more Marvel Studios film before his death — likely this April’s highly anticipated Avengers: Endgame.
Now, on to the Captain Marvel cameo itself.
[Ed. note: This post will contain spoilers for Captain Marvel.]
In Captain Marvel, Stan Lee plays... himself
Lee’s cameo happens in the first act of the movie, while our hero storms after a Skrull agent through an LA Metro train. Lee appears as a passenger on that train, where he is hard at work practicing a line read from the film script in his hands. He and Captain Marvel share a knowing nod.
(Yes, Stan Lee’s cameo is one in which he’s prepping for another cameo. That’s brilliant.)
The line? “Trust me, True Believer.” The movie, whose name we can see clear as day on the script cover: Mallrats.
The Mallrats connection
Mallrats is filmmaker Kevin Smith’s second feature film, released in October of 1995, making it contemporaneous with Captain Marvel’s sometime-in-1995 setting.
Late in the film, the comic book-obsessed Brodie Bruce (Jason Lee) has the encounter of a lifetime when he casually runs into Stan Lee outside a lingerie store at his local mall. While Brodie tries to grill him about minute comic book details, Lee relentlessly turns the conversation towards romance and eventually gives Brodie some pretty solid (if not actually autobiographical) advice about how he needs to make time for his girlfriend if he wants to keep her.
This is Lee’s most famous film cameo outside of a Marvel project. If you’re used to his MCU appearances, this Lee feels remarkably subdued. And while his subject matter may not be the highest of drama, he shows a real knack for playing the romantic advisor — even while Brodie is peppering him with questions about superhero genitalia.
Lee’s presence in Mallrats, and Brodie’s love of his work, are a result and reflection of writer-director Kevin Smith’s well-known love of comics. That is, Lee is in Mallrats because he co-created virtually every major pillar of the Marvel Universe.
Which raises the question: If Mallrats exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Stan Lee exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Stan Lee still has a cameo in Mallrats in the Marvel Cinematic Universe...
What is Stan Lee famous for in the Marvel Universe?????
It could be that he’s famous for making comics.
It’s a little-known fact that a comic book publisher called Marvel Comics does exist in the Marvel Comics Universe. The in-universe Marvel Comics has its own in-universe Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and all the other Marvel Comics creators, and it licenses the lives and likenesses of Marvel Universe superheroes and then prints them in comic book form.
But in order to license the story of a superhero, that superhero has to exist. And Captain Marvel is set more than a decade before Tony Stark will become Iron Man, Bruce Banner will become the Hulk, or Thor will be cast down to Earth. Lee can’t be famous for bringing their stories to the masses.
He could potentially still be famous for revitalizing licensed Captain America comics for the comics-reading audience of the 1960s — maybe that’s even where Coulson’s Captain America trading cards came from. But without the rest of the MCU, it seems unlikely that Lee would be as beloved. No offense to Steve.
So, what is Stan Lee famous for in the MCU if not for making comics? Humor me with a What If? scenario.
In the MCU, Stan Lee is famous for writing novels
One of the great fables of the comics world is that Stan Lee was close to quitting Marvel Comics when he co-created The Fantastic Four. Publisher Martin Goodman asked him to do a superhero book in the style of DC Comics’ newly popular Justice League of America, and Lee wasn’t initially very interested in doing a series of flawless, all-American heroes in spandex.
The story goes that his wife, Joanie, suggested that he write the sort of superhero story he’d like to see. Since he’d been thinking about quitting, he had nothing to lose if Goodman didn’t think it was up to snuff. And so, with Jack Kirby, Lee created a series of flawed, all-American heroes in spandex. The rest is history.
Lee has spoken often about going through a phase in his life where he struggled with feeling that what he did for a living wasn’t important or impressive. It’s not a stretch to propose that what he’d intended to do, after quitting Marvel, was to keep writing, but in a more socially accepted format: prose.
Folks, I propose to you that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Brodie Bruce is obsessed with contemporary popular literature, and particularly the work of prolific author, Stanley Leiber, who happens to be riding the bus just as Kree warrior Vers attacks a Skrull on the LA Metro. Think about it.