For an 88-year-old, Stan Lee sure gets around. Not that this is news to anyone who’s been to a Comic-Con in the past decade or watches talk shows with any degree of regularity. From what we can gather, the only thing Lee loves more than adding exclamation points to his comics is appearing on-screen.
While his appearances used to be limited to what he could talk himself into, Lee's been seemingly everywhere this decade — ever since the explosion of Marvel properties being adapted into movies. Well, everywhere for about 15 seconds a movie.
With buzz anew about his upcoming cameos in Captain America: The First Avenger and The Amazing Spider-Man, we decided to republish this list of our top 10 favorites among his many cameos.
Stan Lee’s first cameo wasn’t great, but that's less his fault than a result of the material he had to work with. The Trial of the Incredible Hulk is a made-for-TV movie from 1989 that looks, if anything, worse than you’d think even a made-for-TV movie from 1989 could look. Lee’s part in the movie is playing the most visible of many jurors who are shocked by the transformation and subsequent violence of the Hulk. Lee, however, primarily looks shocked by the bad acting and non-existent special effects.
More than a decade later, Stan Lee returned to The Hulk and tried to give Ang Lee’s 2003 adaptation a helping hand. And believe us, it needed it. Here, Lee walks out of a building and rants about its security (oh, obvious foreshadowing, what would we do without you?), greeting an intrepid young Bruce Banner along the way. Unfortunately the cameo wasn't much of one — it’s just noteworthy in that, unlike many appearances, for once Lee was given a few lines. Irrelevant, rambly lines, but lines nonetheless.
In Fantastic Four, Lee switched it up a bit by playing a credited role. Director Tim Story cast everyone’s favorite senile comic writer as Willy Lumpkin, the heroes’ longtime mailman. Lee fits the role like an old glove and provides a nice dose of fan-service to the group's hardcore audience, but he doesn’t do much else. And for anyone who isn’t a huge fan, it’s hard not to wonder why they let Lee wander onto the set and where they got that goofy mailman outfit. Fortunately, this appearance set up his cameo in a later movie, and that payoff is worth a middling appearance here.
Lee appeared in the first X-Men movie as well, but not in a big enough way to make it on the list. Two movies later in the franchise he returned with a small but memorable part as an old man baffled by his telekinetically rising water. It’s a great moment not just because the effect looks great, but because Lee genuinely seems to be a baffled old man. Needless to say, it was the role he was born to play.
Lee’s completely unprovoked, suspension-of-disbelief shattering appearance in Spider-Man 3 epitomizes what most of us think of the man. Despite his unfortunate habit of screwing collaborators out of royalties — and his not creating anything worthwhile for the past 30+ years — Lee seems like a pretty nice old man. It’s hard to fathom what exactly he does anymore, so as far as we’re concerned wandering around Times Square and offering obvious, mostly inane advice to whoever happens to walk by seems about right. ‘nuff said.
The Hulk’s reboot five years later features Lee triggering much of the movie’s plot by drinking a soda laced with the Hulk’s gamma-infused blood. It’s a nice change that for once the filmmakers have given Lee an important, if brief, part. The only downside is that the clip’s a tad creepy, due to how spot-on it seems like this prediction of the writer’s death may be...
It’s unclear in Iron Man if Lee is supposed to be playing Hugh Heffner or not. He’s got the pipe, the smoking jacket, the beautiful women fawning over him, and certainly enough years behind him to play the part. On the other hand... Wait, what? Heffner’s not a character, he’s a person. Hmmm, is Lee playing himself as an octogenarian playboy? We may not be sure exactly what’s going on here, but the clip's a good gag that bodes well for his upcoming cameo in the sequel.
We admit, the actual content of Lee’s cameo in Princess Diaries 2 isn’t particularly great. It is, however, almost epically insane in every way conceivable. To begin with, why is Stan Lee in THIS movie? He had nothing to do with it, it’s not even vaguely comic book-related, and most people who watch the movie won’t even know who he is. But then there’s the even bigger question: Why does he communicate in a poorly acted Three Stooges vernacular? Whoever thought up this appearance is either brilliant or nuts... Since we suspect Lee himself may have been behind it, it may be a little of both.
Lee's Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer appearance tops all previous Marvel cameos with its self-reflexive charm. Remember, Lee already has a character in the Fantastic Four’s universe (mailman Willy Lumpkin). Rather than reprise that role, here he appears as himself, attempting to enter Sue Storm and Reed Richards' wedding. Not permitted in, he protests the entire time that he’s Stan Lee... So we’re left wondering. Is he supposed to be Willy Lumpkin attempting to trick his way in? Or is he actually Lee somehow existing in a comic book universe he created? Doesn’t matter, it’s funny either way.
As much as Rise of the Silver Surfer tried to top it, though, the greatest Lee cameo remains his appearance in Mallrats. It bridges the gap between Lee as a "somewhat senile glory-hound" and Lee as "the comic book guru of a previous generation." In a movie all about comics, it’s a capper. Sure, Mallrats may not be a great movie, but this is still a great scene. That Lee claims to have slept with more women than Mick Jagger is just the cherry on top.