WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Captain Marvel, in theaters now.
For decades, Stan Lee has graced virtually every Marvel superhero's big screen outings with a cameo of varying importance. Outside of the Marvel cinematic Universe, he might show up in a brief scene as Spider-Man swings by, deliver mail to the Fantastic Four or silently sell hot dogs on a beach in X-Men. In the MCU, though, his roles took on more heft as they went on, resulting in fan theories as to how they might actually tell their own meta-story.
Lee's Captain Marvel cameo, one the the last filmed before his death in 2018, provides us with his most intriguing appearance to date and leaves us questioning exactly who -- or what -- he really is in the MCU. It's a meta moment that breaks the fourth wall in order to truly fashion the comic book legend as a man, yes, but at the same time, something more.
In Brie Larson's debut outing as Carol Danvers, when she's hunting Skrulls on Earth, she ends up on a train trying to suss out who's human and who's a shapeshifter. As she does this, she spots Stan reading the script to Kevin Smith's Mallrats -- the mid-90s comedy where Lee made a cameo and offered sage advice on love and life to Jason Lee's Brodie Bruce. This isn't Stan appearing as a strip club DJ like in 2016's Deadpool, or as a talk show host in 2008's Iron Man. This is Stan Lee appearing as, well, himself.
So, what does it mean? Is Stan, in fact, a universe-traveling observer who jumps into comic book movies and assumes various roles? This theory first took root thanks to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, where the post-credits depicted Stan as an old man from Earth sharing various stories with the Watchers. In fact, many believed Stan was actually a Watcher who just appeared in all these movies as different people, documenting superhero adventures in his mind. Now, it appears that his real identity is Stan Lee, and not some fictional character created for the films.
He's playing himself as he traverses different movies, observing, gathering intel, and then being a talkative informant for the Watchers. It's no wonder he hasn't aged significantly since his cameo in Captain America: The First Avenger, the first MCU movie on the timeline, where he was depicted as a General in 1943 when Chris Evans' Steve Rogers went off into battle.
Subsequently, we'd see him as a truck driver in 2011's Thor trying to pry Mjolnir from the ground in New Mexico, in 2012's The Avengers commenting on Earth's Mightiest Heroes being a hoax on TV, to 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy when he was on Xandar trying to romance a lady, and even as a barber on Sakaar, in 2017's Thor: Ragnarok.
Basically, just like the stories and characters he helped create, Stan is immortal in the MCU. He appears everywhere and anywhere, and as he takes note of what's transpiring, he also manages to leave some joy in the lives of the audience who'll remember him and his contributions to comics forever.
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck from a script they wrote with Liz Flahive, Carly Mensch, Meg LeFauve, Nicole Perlman and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Captain Marvel stars Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Jude Law as the commander of Starforce, Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson, Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser, Djimon Hounsou as Korath the Pursuer, Gemma Chan as Minn-Erva, Ben Mendelsohn as Talos, Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau, Algenis Perez Soto as Att-Lass, McKenna Grace as a young Carol Danvers and Annette Bening as the Supreme Intelligence.