The latest Marvel sequel, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”, opens today, looking to cash in early and then develop “legs” as the actual summer segment commences. This follow up to the very successful opening entry is also expected to print money for Disney/Marvel, but there is an additional level of intrigue. Enter super comics figurehead, Stan Lee.
Many with even a passing interest in the Marvel cinematic universe are aware of the regular appearance of Stan Lee cameos in each new Marvel release. This began in a TV movie: “The Trial of the Incredible Hulk”, and he has since appeared in all of Marvel’s theatrical titles. There is a popular theory among fans that rather than being random anonymous appearances Lee is actually portraying the same character in each offering, serving as some type of through-thread in the MCU. This theory was recently given some credence by Marvel President, Kevin Feige.
During a press junket stop for the new film the executive not only gave lip service to plausibility, he detailed how Stan Lee’s appearance in GOTG2 may prove it true. From ScreenRant:
Yes, we always thought it would be fun. Stan Lee clearly exists, you know, above and apart from the reality of all the films. So the notion that he could be sitting there on a cosmic pit stop during the jump gate sequence in “Guardians” was something very fun – James had that idea and we shot that cameo and loved it so much, you know, you see it a couple of times in the movie. It wasn’t in for a long time and we put it back in towards the end of the process where he references that time he was a Federal Express agent – we thought it would be fun to put that in there because that really says, so wait a minute, he’s this same character who’s popped up in all these films.
In the scene in question Lee is shown having a discussion with a trio of Watchers. These are characters (created by Lee himself in the comics) who oversee all matters in the universe, but sit in a passive position. Lee is telling them of a time when he was a driver for Federal Express, which is a direct callback to his cameo in “Captain America: Civil War”.
Time to have a nerdgasm for some, but allow me to turn fanboy wet blanket and apply some analysis to the canon. Like cover-up theories, these cosplay conspiracies normally rely on cherry-picked evidence while dispatching any contradictory data. If Stan is a Watcher yes, he would have the power to move across the universe. This would then give him the ability to insert himself in all the scenes where he appears. But does this actually hold up?
To measure the veracity of this new “confirmation” let’s take a look at Stan’s appearances and determine if they live up to the hype. They will fall into one of three categories: Plausible, Disproven, or Neutral.
THE TRIAL OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK – Bruce Banner is brought to court, represented by Matt Murdoch (aka Daredevil). Lee appears as jury foreman, and when Banner turns to Hulk he flees with the others. – Grade: N
X-MEN – Magneto turns a Senator into a Mutant, and the newly created member emerges from the ocean onto a beach. Lee is among the gawkers, standing motionless at his hotdog stand in an apron. Grade: N
SPIDER MAN (2002) — During the battle between Spider Man and Green Goblin Lee is in the panicked crowd, grabbing a young girl to get away from falling debris. Grade: N
DAREDEVIL – In a flashback scene the young Matt Murdoch, already blind, is standing on a curb. He uses his walking stick to prevent Lee, reading a newspaper, from stepping out in traffic. Grade: N
HULK – In this derided title Lee’s brief seven second walk-through is a high point. He plays a security guard along with Lou Ferrigno, talking about the need for more security. I suppose you can suggest he was overseeing plot-related protection issues…? Grade: P
SPIDER MAN 2 (2004) – Another battle (between Spider Man and Doc Ock), another scene of Lee beneath the carnage. Also, another rescue — the spry senior pulls a woman away from falling debris. Grade: N
FANTASTIC FOUR (2005) – Lee plays the mailman, Willie Lumpkin, delivering in Reed Richard’s building. This is a theory-busting role, as Lumpkin was actually a character in the Fantastic Four comics. Grade: D
X-MEN: THE LAST STAND – As Professor X and Magneto visit the then child Jean Grey in her home anti-gravity occurs outside. Cars begin to hover, a lawnmower floats away, and as Stan Lee is watering his garden he watches the water from his hose travel upward. One argument; I’ll grant he appears the same in this flashback scene set decades earlier. Grade: P
SPIDER MAN 3 (2007) – In Times Square Peter Parker looks at a light up sign declaring Spider Man is getting the key to the city. Stan Lee approaches and says, “ I guess one man can make a difference. ‘Nuff said.” Seems random, and cryptic. Maybe something a Watcher would say??? (Uh, no) Grade: N
FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER – At the wedding of Reed Richards and Sue Storm we see the tuxedoed senior being asked for his invitation. “I should be on that list – I’m Stan Lee!” So, he’s not a Watcher then. Grade: D
IRON MAN – One of his most notable appearances is among the shortest. At a gala Tony Stark is walking up and taps a man in a velour jacket on the shoulder. “Look great, Hef,” he says in passing. From between two blondes Lee turns and removes a pipe from his mouth. Grade: N
THE INCREDIBLE HULK – Bruce banner fled the country and worked in a bottling plant in Brasil. A drop of his blood got into the soda batch. As a general is told of a man who drank some of the product we cut to a scene of Stan taking a bottle from the fridge, sipping, then dropping the bottle. A Watcher would have known better! Grade: D
IRON MAN 2 – Tony Stark is working through an event crowd as the camera represents the first person point of view. As Stark is glad-handing he approaches Lee, who is introduced as Larry King. Grade: N
THOR – Thor’s hammer has landed in a field in New Mexico. A crowd has gathered to try to lift the hammer, Excalibur-style. A chain is fastened around it and a pickup truck attempts to drag it free, but the entire bed is shorn off the truck. Lee leans out of the cab and asks if it worked. Grade N
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: During an appearance of the title character Stan is in the audience as a general. This is the 1940s, and he again appears the same. Now a Watcher may have been able to travel back in time, but could they pose as a general without notice? Grade: N
THE AVENGERS – During a news report montage Stan is seen saying to the camera, “Super heroes? In New York? Gimme a break!” Grade: N
THE AMAZING SPIDER MAN – During a battle at Peter Parker’s school library with The Lizard, Stan is wearing headphones and is oblivious to the carnage behind him, nearly getting brained with a table. Grade: N
IRON MAN 3 – As Tony Stark is stranded in Tennessee he hides in a news van during a beauty pageant, where Lee is a judge. Stark is there randomly, and they have no interaction. Grade: N
THOR: THE DARK WORLD – Dr. Erik Selvig has been placed in an asylum, where he tries explaining theorems to the inmates. Stan asks for his shoe that was being used as a prop. Grade:N
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER – Needing a fresh uniform Cap breaks into a museum. Lee is working as a night watchman and states out loud, “I am so fired!” when he sees the uniform missing from a display. Grade: N
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 – Late to his graduation due to crime fighting Peter Parker web slings on the scene. In the audience is Lee, who spies the arrival and says, “Hey I think I know that guy!” That is NOT a very Watcher thing to say. N
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – Rocket Raccoon is scanning a crowd of people, using a device to analyze individuals. In one shot he focuses on Lee and defines him with derogatory assessments. I’ll allow that his appearing in this universe could be interpreted as theory-credible. Grade: P
BIG HERO 6 – This surprises some people that the Disney animated feature originated in Marvel, though not technically part of the MCU. In a closing credit sequence the character Fred discovers a secret room in his mansion with hero costumes. His estranged father comes in – Stan – and alludes to discussing the family secret. Could this be a nod to Watchers? Could it??? Grade: P (highly doubtful, but I’ll allow it.)
THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON – In a bar scene out of uniform Avengers are gathered. Thor offers a drink from a tiny flask that he states is not intended for mortal men. At a nearby table Lee says “Neither was Omaha beach, Blondie! Stop trying to scare us – C’mon.” After taking the potable the next shot is Stan being carried out, as he slurs, “Excelsior”. A great bit, and not at all related to the theory. Grade: N
ANT MAN – Michael Pena is relating a story about a gorgeous woman he once met. In a rapid-fire patter he describes things as we cut to a bar scene. Pena mentions the bartender agreeing, and we see Stan serve a drink and mouth the words, “Crazy super fine”. Lee appearing in a flashback involving a non-hero character is rather non-Watcher. Grade: D
DEADPOOL – The production enjoyed their time at the Vancouver strip club No. 5 Orange – it even earned a product placement in the famous opening credits scene. In maybe my favorite cameo Lee is an octogenarian strip club DJ. Grade: N
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR – Here is the Federal Express appearance he mentions. Lee comes to the door of the manor and says he has a package for Tony “Stank”, a nice callback to the previous times Stark misidentified Lee. I’ll suggest this was a cover, as Lee possibly delivered a crucial item courtesy of The Watchers?? (Conspiracy theorizing is so tedious.) Grade: P
X-MEN APOCALYPSE – At Comi-Con Stan Lee pledged this cameo would be different than all his previous movie appearances. In it rockets are fired across the country, and in a 3 second spot Stan is at his front door, watching them launch. That’s it?!?! Grade: N
DOCTOR STRANGE – In the scene where Manhattan is being physically transformed Lee is on a bus, reading “Doors of Perception”, by Aldous Huxley. Citizens are thrown against the bus windows, as he is laughing, oblivious to the mayhem. Grade: N
So, how likely is this “confirmed” theory? Not bloody likely. Using the most generous of conspiracy standards I could only get a handful of instances that may qualify Stan Lee as perpetuating a Watcher persona — with just as many that are discounted outright.
In truth Fiege gave the proper way to assess Lee’s appearances in all the films; with select exceptions he mostly exists above and apart from the reality displayed in the films. He should be enjoyed as such. To invoke a phrase from another cultural item – just repeat to yourself it is just a show, you should really just relax.