Stan Lee has been a real life superhero for decades in the eyes of comic book fans worldwide, and even the general public has come to know and love the co-creator of Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Avengers thanks to his multiple appearances on television and in the ever-growing stable of Marvel Comics-based films. And on the latest episode of “Ultimate Spider-Man,” titled “Stan By Me,” Lee himself was transformed into a super hero!
In the episode, Lee’s recurring character of Stan the Janitor character — known for literally getting up on his soapbox at times — helped Spider-Man, Mary Jane, Harry Osborn and Principal Coulson defend Midtown High from the rampaging Lizard. Unbeknownst to Mary Jane, Harry and the majority of the student body, their school is actually run by S.H.I.E.L.D., a secret Spider-Man tries to maintain even as Dr. Curt Connors’ alter ego tears through the campus. Enter Stan the Janitor. Armed with a high tech mop, skateboard and sick fighting skills, the powerless Stan shows that a regular human can do a pretty good job at this hero thing.
And Spidey can use a good example because his attempt to cure Dr. Connors backfires, making it even more difficult to get his mentor back to normal. Stan’s kind words at the end of the episode — which not only find him revealing that he’s one of the original S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, but also shouting out Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko — help, but he’s still got a long, hard road ahead of him.
CBR News had the chance to talk about the episode with Producer Cort Lane and “The Man” himself for our latest installment of UNMASKING “ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN.” Over the cours eof our conversation, we talk about everything from Stan’s natural acting ability and his character’s secret origin to what this episode means for Spider-Man and the rest of the season.
CBR News: Stan, you’re very outgoing and seem like a natural entertainer. Has appearing on the cartoons and in the movies been a natural extension of your personality?
Stan Lee: Well, I hope so, although I must be honest — when I do a cameo in a movie or a voiceover in a cartoon, I am just doing what the director tells me to do. I have nothing to do with what it is that I’m doing. I show up, if it’s a voiceover for a cartoon, the director says, “This is the script I want you to read,” I read it, I hope he won’t yell at me and I get the hell out of there. So, it’s all a case of what I’m told to do. I’m a guy who carries out orders perfectly.
The character you play in this series is based on your persona. Do you think the writers nailed your voice with the dialog?
Lee: Oh, absolutely. In fact, not only did they nail it, it is my voice because I play the role. If anybody else did it, I’d have been very unhappy. It was a lot of fun. The cartoons are great and I think any young kid is going to love them. If they don’t care for me, they don’t have to worry because I only appear for a very short time. [Laughs]
Cort, the writers really nailed Stan’s way of speaking. Was that a fun challenge for them?
Cort Lane: Yes, but it’s hard to write as well because he’s just so verbose and uses so much alliteration and is just so clever and exciting. Nobody talks like that. I love that his first line is, “Are your pulses pounding?” because that sort of bombastic, exciting, alliterative stuff is what makes him so unique. If you notice in the episode, Spidey starts talking like him, too — that was intentional!
It’s apparent that Stan came in and was game to do all the dialog and brought that huge Stan Lee energy we’ve all come to know and love.
Lane: Stan is unbelievably game. This is probably obvious to anyone who watches him in media appearances, but it is hard to describe how open and enthusiastic he is every time he does something like this. Honestly, he would read anything we gave to him, but we were trying to represent his persona and hopefully doing it well makes him extra fantastic when he does it. He loves having fun in the booth. He told us once that if he hadn’t gone into comic books, his dream was to be in the theater. He loves performing.
This is the first time we’ve seen a story set in Peter Parker’s high school since we’ve started UNMASKING, which means we haven’t yet discussed how Peter behaves around his ‘civilian’ froends. That said, how does Peter act differently around Mary Jane and Harry as opposed to his super-powered pals?
Lane: There really are two versions of him. Peter Parker is a regular kid, a little bit of an underdog, but when he puts on the mask — and I think this has always been true with Spider-Man — he’s more extroverted, really quippy an funny. That reflects in his relationships as well. He’s more outgoing and sarcastic with his other S.H.IE.L.D. trainees and so the relationship can be a little more snarky and contentious as a result. With Peter Parker interacting with Mary Jane and Harry, sometimes they feel a little sorry for him. They also don’t understand, and we touch on this in the beginning of the episode, why they don’t see him as much as they used to. In the pilot, that’s even an issue because he’s already started being Spider-Man. The further he gets into this Spider-Man life it makes it harder to maintain his regular relationships, which we cover with Aunt May and the kids periodically.
Harry is directly related to Spider-Man through his dad and all that’s gone on between them. Was turning Mary Jane into something of a budding journalist a way to connect her more directly to Spidey as opposed to his alter ego?
Lane: You’re absolutely right. The easy answer is “yes,” because we knew we weren’t going to play up the romance. It’s just not what our core audience wants to see for him. But, Mary Jane is such a spunky, cool character that we needed to find a way to involve her in his life. Her interest in journalism seemed like an easy solution. It worked out well particularly in the first Hulk episode [“Exclusive”].
Considering your version of Spider-Man is dealing with a lot more than just high school, it seems like a good way to go. Plus, MJ is voiced by animation superstar Tara Strong, so it’s got to be good getting her on the show more often.
Lane: Yeah, we were missing her a bit, and that’s one of the reasons we structured this episode like we did and did not feature the other young heroes, so we could get some MJ time.
Stan, what was it like for you seeing a cartoon version of yourself getting to play superhero alongside Spider-Man?
Lee: It’s a great feeling. It’s a funny feeling. It’s just a kick. I’ve done that sort of thing before. I was a cartoon in one of “The Simpsons” episodes, and I’ve been a cartoon in a few other things, but in “Ultimate Spider-Man” I’m actually playing a role as a the member of the cast. I have my mop and I have my pail of water and that’s my full equipment, you know. I have to stay in character. I say to myself, “How would a janitor, say this,” and I try to speak just like a janitor. Like the way Marlon Brando would when he played a role, I imagine myself as that character. The directors, of course, are tremendously impressed with how perfectly I portray this janitor. [Laughs]
Speaking of the actual recording process, do you enjoy getting into the booth with people like Spider-Man actor Drake Bell, Tara Strong and the rest?
Lee: The funny thing is, I’m always a little nervous about it because there I am in a studio doing a role with professional actors who are incredibly talented. I figure, “Oh, God — let me not embarrass myself too much.” But they’re very kind and they don’t laugh at what I do and they say very, “Very nice,” when I finish. They make me feel good, and then I escape real fast before anybody says, “Boy, that was really corny.” Or, “Why are we using that amateur in the show?”
In the episode, we discover that Stan has a history with S.H.I.E.L.D. as one of its first agents. Was that idea around in the early stages of creating the show, or did it develop along with the series?
Lane: To be honest, we did come up with it during Season One, but not with his first appearance. We did toy with the idea that Stan was sort of omni-present, which was in and of itself odd. He would just pop up anywhere, and then, as we started to explore that idea, we realized he’s part of S.H.I.E.L.D. We just had to bide our time and wait until we could tell all of the story of Stan. There is an important lesson here for Spidey as he becomes more engaged with S.H.I.E.L.D. and a better hero, that you don’t have to be super to be a hero, a lesson he learns from MJ, but especially with Stan in this episode. Which is important as he becomes the ultimate Spider-Man along the course of this season. Stan is such an important part of Spidey’s creation that we didn’t want him to be just a cameo — we wanted him to have a big role in the series. He cameos all the time, and this was an opportunity to do something special.
Stan, what did you think when they first told you that your character was actually one of the original members of S.H.I.E.L.D.?
Lee: Oh, I loved it. I love S.H.I.E.L.D. and I love seeing Sgt. Fury who’s now Col. Fury. I love that whole concept. To think that I’m a part of this. You know, when you realize you’re a part of something bigger, it’s such a thrill. [Laughs]
You must feel like that a lot considering all the characters you’ve created.
Lee: Yeah, but you know, no matter how often I do it, it’s always a kick. The cartoons are so wonderful. They’re so cleverly written and beautifully acted. I think the animation is just great. I almost wish that I were an 8, 9 or 10 year old kid so that I could be watching them like that and getting the enjoyment that they must be getting out of them.
Cort, do you have any fun stories of Stan recording this episode?
Lane: We had him mention in the dialog that he is the member of S.H.I.E.L.D. who coined the named S.H.I.E.L.D.: Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. The minute he was about to read that line, he was like, “Well, you know, originally, it was Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division back in my day…” So that was a crack up because, A, he remembered this detail and B, he instantly reminded us that this isn’t really what it is.
What do you think the odds are of getting a Stan the Janitor action figure complete with super-mop and skateboard?
Lane: [Laughs] You know what? I have a brainstorm with Hasbro soon, and I might bring it up. There was a Comic Con exclusive of Stan from “Super Hero Squad Show” one year. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
At the end of the episode, Stan looks at a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent we can’t quite see and says, “Thanks Steve.” Is that a reference to someone?
Lane: That was a reference to Steve Ditko.
This episode also saw the return of the Lizard, one of the villains Peter feels responsible for creating. He attempted to bring Dr. Connors back, but actually made it worse. How will this play out in the rest of the season?
Lane: In this case it goes horribly wrong and Curt Connors becomes even further away, if you will. He does feel defeated, but Stan reminds him about the nature of heroism and it makes him feel better about the situation. It keeps the story moving and is going to be even harder to cure the Lizard. That’s one of the core themes of the season, he feels the deep responsibility particularly for Connors. He blames himself because Connors became the Lizard trying to save him. It won’t be very easy to see this storyline resolved and that will be interesting because all of our key players will be together — Norman, Ock and the Lizard — as those storylines come together.
Do the remaining episodes of the season all lead up to the huge finale we’ve been talking about, or will there be a few more one-offs?
Lane: Our next episode is “Game Over.” That actually is its own thing, because it’s a team-up with Captain America and Wolverine, who are very different characters and have extremely different relationships with Spider-Man. He has something to learn from each of them. It’s interesting to see Wolverine and Captain America debate about Peter and what kind of hero he is. That’s a fun story. Then we get into a series of stories that lead us into the finale. It really picks up with Norman’s story, and we also see another story with Peter in his salvation mode trying to cure the Sandman which is related to his frustration that he hasn’t been able to help Curt Conners yet.
Stan, we’ve seen a lot of different versions of Spider-Man over the years, with “Ultimate Spider-Man” the latest that kids can see on a regular basis. What do you think makes the character so accessible to different generations?
Lee: I think, first of all, he’s a teenager. I think that helps kids to relate to him a great deal. Then, he’s got an interesting personality. He’s different when he’s Spider-Man than when he’s Peter Parker. And he has a superpower that we just don’t see anywhere else. He can shoot webs, swing on the webs, use them as weapons, he can climb on walls like an insect and stick to the ceiling. He’s got a costume which is really terrific. I don’t know if you’ve thought of this, but the costume he wear covers him completely. You see no skin at all. Now, because of that, any youngster can imagine that he is Spider-Man. It could be a black kid, it could be an Asian kid, it could be anybody of any skin color. They could imagine they’re Spider-Man because he’s all covered up and he could be anybody. We didn’t do that purposely, but it’s certainly worked out that way. I think it’s been a great thing in Spider-Man’s favor in attaining worldwide popularity.
Disney XD’s “Ultimate Spider-Man” airs on Sundays at 11:00 AM.