Nobody will ever mistake comic book icon Stan Lee for a great actor, but more people have doubtless seen his movies than even the most popular entries on the most recent Sight & Sound poll of best-ever movies. That’s neither a dig at that esteemed ranking of great movies nor some kind of grandstanding for man whose cinematic career consisted entirely of tongue-and-cheek cameos in superhero movies. It’s merely an acknowledgement of the man’s extensive reach into the pop cultural pantheon, and that his every absence in every Marvel movie going forward will be a painful little reminder that he’s no longer with us.
I’m sure that there’s a few already-filmed cameos of him whose movies have yet to be released (we’ll doubtless see him in all three of Marvel’s 2019 offerings). Even after that, there will doubtless be easter eggs hidden in the peripherals of these films: photographs framed on the walls and tiny dedications to “Uncle Stan” sprinkled here and there. And if that Once Upon a Deadpool (2018) movie doesn’t do some eleventh hour reshoots to have the character directly acknowledge the man’s passing, than I fail to see the point on the character at all. But here, from the twenty movies in the expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe – the franchise built from the bottom up by the indelible mind of Stan Lee – are the man’s best and most memorable on-screen appearances.
20 . Iron Man 2 (2010)
The problem with Stan Lee in Marvels Phase 1 is that the company simply didn’t know what to do with the man. The comic book author had made cameos since the old Incredible Hulk TV series (where he played a juror), and had been prominently featured in numerous recent Marvel films to that date (where he played everything from a background beach bum in the first X-Men to the Fantastic Four’s mailman), so pre-Disney Marvel fit him in wherever they could, with no real idea of where he fit into their cinematic ambitions. This is most evident in the fist two Iron Man movies, where he stood in for real-life celebrities that he just so happened to bear a passing resemblance to. And, while fun, it was not the best we’d get from the man.
Although he could hardly be called a great actor by any means, Stan Lee could carry a scene with his distinctive appearance and madcap screen presence. His appearance in The Incredible Hulk… wasn’t that. Like his other early MCU appearances, he really wasn’t given anything to work with – by way of either dialog or notable on-screen actions – and was relegated to a virtually mute plot point en route to General Ross tracking down the elusive Bruce Banner.
18 . Iron Man (2008)
Although this cameo suffers from all Phase 1’s niggling missteps with Stan Lee – from his wordless mugging to his use as a stand-in for somebody he kind-of / sort-of looks like – it at least doesn’t relegate the man in the background while doing so. In his first MCU appearance, Stan Lee plays a pipe-smoking Hugh Heffner at a party that Tony Story is also attending. His a fun little appearance: nothing special, but the start of a great string of on-screen appearances.
17 . Thor (2011)
By the time Thor came around, Marvel had evidently learned that Stan Lee had more to offer the comics publisher cum movie studio than just his pretty face. Here, Lee plays a desert dwelling bumpkin who rips the bed off of his truck when he uses it to try to pry Mjolnir from its New Mexican resting place. For the first time, he feels like a real character – with words and everything – and stands far and away as his best Marvel appearance at that time.
While Stan Lee has always had something of a roguish sense of humor, he was still basically everybody’s favorite grandpa: a kindly, well-meaning old man (even if you still got the impression his youthful hijinks were a fair bit wilder than he’s letting on). Because of this, so many of his best and most memorable appearances – in the MCU or otherwise – play him against his usual, sanitized image: either showing him off as a drunk, a letch or some half-crazed madman. And while Guardians of the Galaxy returns him to his mostly mute Phase 1 origins, Rocket’s commentary regarding him and the woman he is with paints him as a dirty old man out cheating on his wife, which is an incendiary aside during his and Groot’s hunt for Peter Quill in the Xandarian plaza.
In direct contrast to his understated appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy, last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming feels like his most gregarious outing. In an extended scene that almost goes on for too long, Lee finds himself in a shouting match with a struggling Spider-Man after foiling a “robbery” that ended up inconveniencing and annoying the nearby apartment complexes. It shows off Lee’s New York roots better than virtually all his other cameos, though, and so feels like some authentic find among all the artifice.
Sometimes Stan Lee is the least interesting part of his cameo. It’s an odd sentiment, but true, as sometimes the scenes and situations that the man is put into are far and away funnier (or more meaningful) than they ever needed to be in the first place. Take, for instance, his appearance in Thor: The Dark World, a densely packed scene where Lee punctuates a joke at Stellan Skarsgard’s character’s expense. The brief sequence is crammed in with plot-relevant exposition, carefully furrowed away easter eggs (which imply the MCU’s connection with its mainline comic book equivalent, Marvel’s Earth-616) and more. When we finally get to Lee’s appearance as a mental patient who just wants his shoe back (which was being used as a prop for the exposition dump), it’s funny, but only one of many great elements from that short moment.
While I can’t say that I love this particular cameo as much as everybody else seems to (the internet seems to have propped it up as the man’s all-time best movie appearance), I can’t deny how much fun (or how badly needed) this little bit of levity was needed after the heavy fallout from the events of Captain America: Civil War. Appearing as the FedEx man delivering Cap’s final words to Tony – and flubbing the name (Tony Stank) for a good laugh at the same time – it’s proof positive of what a great comedic actor he was (if only in small doses), and what an uplifting touch his simple presence lent to these movies.
There’s no secret to this cameo: it’s just simple, straightforward good fun. Stan Lee appears on a bus, reading a book, oblivious to the plight of the titular Doctor Strange as the good doctor crashes into his passenger-side window, laughing all the while. It’s a nice bit of levity in an action-packed scene and a bit of a pallet-cleanser before things get even more intense for our intrepid protagonists.
11 . Black Panther (2018)
Same goes for Stan Lee’s appearance in this year’s Black Panther. Showing up in a casino where a three-way fight is about to break out, Lee chastises Agent Ross for his unfortunate string of luck and makes a show of safeguarding his chips from him. It’s a great laugh and really the only place the Lee could have reasonably shown up in the Africa-set film and make even a modicum of diegetic sense.
While it’s true that Stan Lee is often best used when playing against type, a whole other strata of his best work leans heavily into that same idea: the idea that this man is Stan Lee, that this is his world (and we’re all just visiting) and that he’s had to deal with a comic book crisis or two in his day. His dismissive, grumpy, old man affectation is perfect for these kinds of roles, and the added shot of meta humor takes these appearances to a whole other level. I mean, come on, haven’t you ever seen an alien invasion in the skies over New York before?
We’ve already covered two of the three best genres of Stan Lee: against-type scoundrel and Deadpoolian meta-commentator. With Thor: Ragnarok, we’re introduced to the final best version of the Marvel godfather: utterly insane (and possibly psychopathic). Stranded on Sakaar (which is basically the Planet of Junk from 1986’s Transformers: The Movie), Thor is captured and prepped to fight the Hulk. Before then, however, he needs to get his head shaved, and guess who shows up as the barber? Lee laughs at Thor’s pleas to leave his golden locks alone, asks him to sit still (after all, his hands aren’t nearly as steady as they used to be) and dives in with a comically over-the-top array of blades jutting out from his hands. It’s utter insanity, and utterly perfect.
Lee’s Phase 1 appearances might not have generally been anything to write home about, but that doesn’t mean that they were all a complete wash. Near the end of that cycle, he started getting more of a presence in front of the camera: with bigger bit parts and a few lines of dialog to spice things up. Thor was the first film to make better use of the man, but Captain America was the first to make great use of him. Playing a bit more tongue-and-cheek than ususal, Lee appears as an upper-brass military man who jokingly comments how he thought Captain America would be taller when some nameless aid rushes out to tell the congressmen honoring Cap that his guest of honor is a no-show (too late, as it turns out).
While not his best, most obvious or even most memorable appearance in the MCU, his cameo during the film’s denouement carries perhaps more emotional weight than any of his other appearances. You go the whole movie waiting for “Stan the Man” to show up (it is, after all, a party entirely in his honor) and get nothing for a solid two and one half hours: so long, in fact, that I had long since given up on him being there at all. Then during a last-minute montage of people the world over celebrating the newly formed Avengers for saving the planet, we see him: a disgruntled old man playing chess in Central Park. He scoffs incredulously, dismissing the very idea of superheroes existing, before turning back to his game. It’s a bit of meta humor, yes, but also a quiet acknowledgement of everything that the man had worked for and how it has come to dominate the popular consciousness. It’s a touching tribute to one of the fathers of the Marvel Age, and singularly encapsulates everything that the man stood for (even if his character is much more suspect of it).
Although Guardians of the Galaxy was a bit cheekier about the idea, and Deadpool (2016) blew the concept hilariously out of portion, Iron Man 3 was the first appearance of the dirty Stan Lee that we all know and love. Rather than a cheating old letch or a strip club DJ, he plays the judge of a Christmastime beauty pageant who enthusiastically greats one of the gorgeous contestants with a perfect 10 rating. Especially given his more limited appearances at the time, its riotously funny and considerably more risqué than you would expect for what had recently become a Disney franchise.
It’s interesting to contrast the typical Stan Lee appearance in film with the typical Stan Lee appearance on TV, since Marvel has made a point to cast their iconic figurehead in anything and everything that they ever commit to the screen. On TV, he’s seemingly always a background character in an important (if unappreciated) position of authority, like Ultimate Spider-Man’s Stan the Janitor or Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H.’s Mayor Stan. The movies use him very differently (as we’ll discuss more in depth further on down the list). But this amusing little tidbit from what is arguably the very best movie of them all, where he plays an ineffectual night watchman who’s sure he’s going to be fired when Captain America steals back his vintage WWII uniform.
I’d doubtless change my mind depending on the mood you catch me in on any given day, but dirty old Stan Lee is easily my favorite Stan Lee. From drunkenly mumbling “Excelsior” to nakedly eyeing the ladies competing at a beauty pageant, he’s most fun when playing against his lived-in, grandfatherly type and letting loose in the way that we all assume he must have at some point in his life. Though a fun and entertaining movie in its own right, there wasn’t all that much that was memorable about the most recent Marvel movie, Ant-Man and the Wasp. But in an all-time-best gag, Stan Lee’s car gets shrunk down right before his eyes by an errant shrinking disc. He sighs and rolls his eyes, bemoaning “well, the 60’s were fun but now I’m paying for it.”
Doesn’t matter what the word on the street is, Age of Ultron is one of the best (and certainly the most underappreciated) of the 20 MCU movies thus far. It’s a worthy film that holds its characters to task in ways that would be more thoroughly explored in Civil War, with Ultron acting as a dark mirror to the well-meaning paranoia of Tony Stark. But just before everything goes all dark and deconstructive, we’re treated to one of the best scenes in the entire MCU: not a grandiose battle nor a fist-pumping origin story, but a simple house party where all the characters hang out together and have a good time. And, of course, Stan Lee made it on the guest list, as a ballsy WWII veteran (which the man was in real life) who goads Thor into giving him a drink out of his Space Viking flask, only to be drunkenly carried out a few moments later.
2 . Ant-Man (2015)
Presenting a clever twist on the “silent Stan Lee” trope, Ant-Man and the Wasp plays Lee’s appearance up for more laughs than usual when he shows up at the culmination of the film’s very best gag. Throughout the film, the loquacious Louis fills in other characters to the word-of-mouth stories he’s heard buy cutting away to the scenes he’s describing, but dubbing in his colorful, circumlocutorous voice in for the people actually doing all of the talking. And wouldn’t you know it, Stan Lee just so happens to be a bartender and middle-link in Louis’ story.
For years, there had been a fan theory on the internet that Stan Lee wasn’t playing a dozen different characters across as many different MCU movies, but rather only one character: Uatu, the Watcher. Living on “the Blue Area” of the moon where there is inexplicably oxygen, this character watches all the happenings of Earth’s mightiest heroes, recording it in detail and reporting back to his fellow Watchers scattered across the universe. It was a popular theory, of course, but more of an obsessive fanboy’s pipe dream than anything you’d expect to see confirmed in any official capacity by Marvel and Disney. Low and behold, though, that that’s exactly what we got in James Gunn’s resplendent Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. We see a space suited out Stan Lee, not a Watcher himself but speaking to a group of them, recalling all of his previous MCU cameos (with a special shout out to “Tony Stank”). It was the hardest I had ever laughed in a Marvel movie and nearly threatened to derail the whole proceedings, but ultimately slotted in perfectly with the manic, high-concept tone of the piece. And then there were those last words, shouted as the Watchers turned their backs on him and started walking away: “Hey, you were supposed to be my lift home. How will I get out of here? […] I got so many more stories to tell.”