WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Sony's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, in theaters now.
Sony's animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse marks not only the first on-screen performance by Stan Lee seen by audiences since the death of the legendary comics creator in November, but also his best.
Although Lee has famously appeared in dozens of films and television series, from 2000's X-Men and 2002's Spider-Man to 2018's Avengers: Infinity War and Venom, the cameo encapsulates his legacy like no other cameo has. It's a bold claim, to be sure, but entirely justified.
Lee's role occurs within the first half-hour of Into the Spider-Verse, right after the death Peter Parker (voiced by Chris Pine), the Spider-Man from Miles Morales' universe. With New York City in mourning, Miles (Shameik Moore) wrestles with living up to expectations as the hero's chosen successor.
But Miles has to become Spider-Man to save the city from Kingpin's plans, and so, he heads to a memorabilia shop to purchase a Spider-Man costume, a hot seller as everyone heads to the funeral. When Miles brings a cheap, flimsy, one-size-fits-all Spider-Man costume to the cashier, it's none other than Stan Lee.
Recognizing they're both grieving, the old man says, "I'm going to miss him. We were friends, you know." Miles responds by saying he’s not sure whether the costume will fit, but he's quickly offered wise words from the man: "It always fits, eventually." The camera then pans to the left, revealing a sign that screams in bold text, "NO RETURNS OR REFUNDS. EVER."
His words are inspirational, not only to Miles but also to the audience. It's a message of hope, reminding us that when the expectations feel too great, ignore the negatives and focus on the positives. It's short but sweet, and Miles takes those words to heart, and heads to Spider-Man's funeral and begins to believe in himself.
Unlike some of Lee's previous cameos, as a Hugh Hefner wannabe or a DJ in a strip joint, his role in Into the Spider-Verse is all substance. It's an emotional gut-punch because, because is words are a great substitute for for the too-frequently referenced "With great power comes great responsibility."
When Lee and artist Steve Ditko, who also passed away this year, introduced the web-slinger in 1962 in The Amazing Fantasy #15, no one could have predicted the hero would become such a universally loved character. Into the Spider-Verse touches upon one of the reasons for the character's popularity shortly after Lee's cameo, when Mary Jane Watson says in a speech, "We are all Spider-Man."
Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse stars Shameik Moore, Brian Tyree Henry, Jake Johnson, Mahershala Ali, Hailee Steinfeld, Liev Schreiber, Luna Lauren Velez, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage, John Mulaney and Kimiko Glenn. The film is in theaters nationwide.