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How We Almost Didn’t Have the ‘Stan Lee Cameo’ in Modern Marvel Films

When the 95-year-old patriarch of Marvel Comics and modern American mythology Stan Lee passed away this week, people from all walks of life took to social media to honor what he meant to them. Everyone from Alice Cooper to the Wu-Tang Clan, from Jake Tapper to Jake Paul, actors, writers, artists, musicians, Sen. Ted Cruz, and monster truck drivers all offered condolences on his passing. People who knew him well will offer better elegies than I could write. Like many young nerds, Stan Lee was the voice of my animated childhood. “With great power comes great responsibility,” might be the greatest phrase ever written. Leave it to those who knew him best to talk about what he really meant. One such eulogy, as part of Kevin Smith’s Fatman Beyond podcast revealed that the legendary Stan Lee cameos almost never happened.

The story comes from Tom DeSanto, the producer and screenwriter who is largely responsible for both X-Men and X2: X-Men United. During the portion of the podcast where members of the audience speak, Tom told a story about how that first Stan Lee cameo almost didn’t happen. First, some context. Before the first X-Men film, superhero movies were not really the blockbuster powerhouses they are today. Just a few years earlier, the second of Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies seemingly killed not just that franchise, but the willingness to take on any superhero properties. Thanks to Avi Arad, however, 20th Century Fox purchased the movie rights to Marvel’s mutant characters.

For five years the film languished in development hell, specifically trying to find a script. Acclaimed writers like Joss Whedon and Michael Chabon all took swings at it, but in the eyes of the executives they all struck out. Eventually, the film got going in the fall of 1999. Stan Lee, then the “Chairman Emeritus” of Marvel Comics, was trying to branch out into new media. Trying to cash in on the internet boom, he created an online site with a new comic property starring (no bullshit) the Backstreet Boys. The Dot-Com bust ruined the company and fraud by one of Lee’s partners meant he was out millions. Meanwhile, he had soured on Marvel, feeling as though he wasn’t seeing enough of the profits in a company that continued to use his name. He took his battle to court.

Nonetheless, DeSanto and the rest of the filmmakers were insistent that the film feature a cameo from Stan Lee. They arranged it, but right before filming on his scene was set to begin, Lee tried to back out. He told DeSanto that Marvel, or more specifically the executives involved, did not want him there. DeSanto replied, “Stan, you are Marvel. You have to be in this movie.” Still, Stan didn’t want to travel to Vancouver where much of the film was shot. However, there was a two-day shoot at Paradise Cove in Malibu, so they convinced him to come out for that. He went, most likely, because as Smith noted in his movie 90-minute tribute, Stan Lee loved to be in the movies.

Stan Lee showed up on the set, and folks on the film were warned to not really talk to him because of the legal trouble. This was a directive precisely no one listened to. DeSanto said Stan’s arrival on the set was like “Jesus” descending from the heavens. Everyone who could be was there, and they all wanted to meet him. In the film, the cameo is wordless. Stan just looks stunned at a naked Senator Kelly-fish that emerged from the ocean. DeSanto said he was a little miffed that he didn’t have a line, vowing to never do a wordless cameo again. (He did, though.) What really made the moment awesome, DeSanto continued, was that after the shoot. Stan talked with every extra, crew member, and anyone else who wanted to say hello or snap a photo. He was as gracious and lovely and kind as you could ask.

While it seems impossible to fathom now, this could have just been a one-time thing. Until X-Men the only other Marvel movie to feature a cameo from Lee was the television movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk where Lee was a juror. This also was a silent, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance. A number of Marvel movies, such as The Punisher, Blade, and Howard the Duck, did not feature cameos from Lee. (Though, worth noting, none of these characters were his creations.) The next big Marvel movie to hit — and remember this is before they had a movie studio — would be Sony’s Spider-Man. And Stan almost wasn’t in that one.

Sam Raimi is known for directing two of the best films in the Spider-Man canon, in part because he was a big fan of the character. He first tried to meet Stan Lee when in New York directing his first horror film. He took a bunch of posters over the Marvel offices expecting to just walk in and see Stan Lee. Of course, he didn’t get that meeting. But after he directed the cult classic Darkman, Lee reached out to him. They had lunch and, eventually, worked up a story for a Thor film. They pitched it to Fox in 1991, and the studio refused because they said comic books don’t make good films. He revealed all this to The Hollywood Reporter, and he also admitted he didn’t want Stan Lee in his movie.

Raimi said that Arad, a producer on all of the pre-MCU films, insisted that Lee be allowed a cameo role. The director declined saying, “No, I know Stan, and he can’t act.” Yet, Arad was insistent and specifically cited that they “did it for X-Men” and were “doing it here.” Now, Raimi said it’s one of his favorite bits in the movie. It is another non-speaking role, but it does require some acting. Stan’s character sees the Green Goblin terrorizing a crowd, snaps out of it, and pulls a little girl away from falling debris. He then rescued an adult woman from falling debris in the sequel. In his third film, Stan’s cameo is arguably the best moment in the entire film.

After X-Men and Spider-Man went on to become mega-hits, perhaps filmmakers saw Stan Lee as a kind of good luck charm. It’s also possible that the MCU films would have included cameos even if the others didn’t, but luckily by the time they came around the cameo felt mandatory. In fact, the only modern film based on Marvel characters that hasn’t featured a cameo from Lee was Josh Trank’s 2015 Fantastic Four. The film bombed and was critically panned. In fact, after Lee’s passing, Trank took to social media to say that he “let Stan Lee down.” But, he shared a note from Lee wishing him well, saying that they “stayed in touch.” And he probably did. Kevin Smith tells an incredibly heartfelt story about how Stan Lee became his friend and loved him like a son.

Like Danté, Shakespeare, and H.G. Wells, Stan Lee is immortal now. Generations hence, the humans that have saved the world from the perils that plagues us now, will know him and his characters. If movies don’t become the radio dramas of the early 20th Century, fans will know his face and that iconic voice. But for no fewer than five generations of dreamers, nerds, and outsiders, Stan Lee shaped an entire universe in his image (or, the image he aspired to). A human being, complete with flaws and graces, Lee now goes on to become like the characters he co-created: a legend.

The entire two hours is worth a listen, but if you want to hear the cameo story, skip to about an hour-and-forty-minutes:

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