It took me until Paul Walker died to become a Fast and the Furious fan. I’d seen the first movie when it first came out because a friend of mine at the time was really into cars. It really didn’t register with me, and that was that. It took me until 2015 to realize that not only did they keep the franchise running, but they were about to release the seventh movie in a franchise that most movie critics had come around on liking.
I had recently graduated from college and was simultaneously on my second, third and fourth jobs post-graduation. One of those three jobs was as a bottom-rung wage slave at a nearby AMC. After Furious 7 (2015) actually released into theaters, I’d catch bits and pieces here and there while going about my day. And one day, when getting ready to clean out an afternoon showing, I caught a little bit of the movie’s ending.
It wasn’t the big blowout action scene set across the sprawling cityscape. It wasn’t the climactic showdown between leading man Vin Diesel and villain-of-the-week Jason Statham. It wasn’t any of the crazy car stunts or street racing eye-candy. It was the last bit of the movie, just before the credits roll, when Dominic Toretto and Brian O’Conner shared a quiet moment on the road together, drove briefly in tandem, then followed a split in the road to their sperate destinations. And as the camera panned back and turned into the sun, the sky went white, and the words “For Paul” lit up the screen.
As I already mentioned, I was no fan of the franchise at this point. I basically wrote it off after that first so-so movie and never looked back. I had heard Paul Walker had died, but didn’t have any particular attachment to the man otherwise. I hadn’t seen the movie that preceded this scene, had no context for the split between the two men. I simply saw the scene, contextless, at face value, and it broke my God damned heart.
That one moment, at the end of Walker’s time with the franchise, made me a fan of the series. I went home, rented all six movies and marathoned them back-to-back. Afterwards, I bought my ticket to number seven and watched that to, and broke down at that final title card like when X-23 upturns Wolverine’s tombstone into an “X” at the end of Logan (2017).
I can’t even begin to imagine what seeing the words “For Stan” will do to me when they inevitably show up at the end of Captain Marvel (2019). And Avengers 4 (2019). And Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019). And X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019). And New Mutants (2019). And any other movie that owed even the slightest, niggling debt to the godfather of Marvel Comics.
That two-word placard will absolutely destroy me. What’s more, is that I know I am not going to be alone. I saw people bawling when I went to go see Infinity War (2018) opening night. Even knowing that we had at least one more movie this year, plus another two before they inevitably reversed Thanos’ triumph, I left in a blank-eyed daze. These characters meant something – not just to me, but to so many people – and watching their end come so suddenly, so unremarkably, so clumsily, that’s the kind of hurt that’s real, that stays with you deep in your bones.
I was never lucky enough to meet Stan Lee in person: no more than I was ever able to meet Peter Parker or King T’Challa. He was no more real to me than the characters in a movie, and yet that’s kind of the point. Because these characters are real, to me and others, just as much as my wife in bed as I write this or my old college buddies getting ready for work half a state away. And Stan Lee, despite having never met him, was just as real – just as meaningful – as any one of the dozens of characters that he breathed life into over the course of his career.
I have seen every single MCU movie in a movie theater since the very first Iron Man a decade ago. And in every single one of those, I saw Stan Lee. And I saw him elsewhere too: in X-Men (2000) and Daredevil (2003), in Spider-Man (2002) and Deadpool (2016). Growing up, I saw him as the ersatz god of Peter’s universe in Spider-Man: The Animated Series. Grown up, I saw him as an absentee father in Big Hero 6 (2014): in an amazing, post-credit addition that was, tragically, never followed up on. Having actually met the man or not, he was a constant presence throughout my life, and that’s why his absence now – and the genuinely crushing finality of those final words, “For Stan” – hurts so very, truly much.