Sometime in the future, there will be a new Marvel movie that doesn't have a Stan Lee cameo, and fans will realize that one of the most important creative icons of our time is really gone.
Stan Lee cameos are as traditional to Marvel movies as after-credits bonus scenes and third-act laser beams in the sky. Whenever he popped up on-screen, Lee always had a mischievous twinkle in his eye that betrayed a young heart, and even though the man was 95 years old when he passed this week, I think we all kind of assumed he’d be around forever.
It’s hard to think of anyone more synonymous with the world of comic books, having built the vast Marvel stable back in the 1960s alongside artist Jack Kirby, giving the world iconic characters like Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and the Uncanny X-Men. A track record like that makes it easy to stack him alongside other 20th-century titans of imagination like Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling and George Lucas.
At the same time, you could argue that Lee belongs with a different group of peers, more contemporary guys like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. The tech-heavy 21st century has birthed the age of the geek, ruled by obsessive pop culture overlords, and even if he did his work 60 years ago, Lee’s disciples are bearing his creative fruits today.
For those of us who weren’t raised on comic books — a major strike on my otherwise respectable nerd cred resume — we got to know the Manhattan-born Lee as his creations made their way to the big screen. Back in the 1970s and '80s, well-known DC staples like "Superman" and "Batman" laid the groundwork for quality comic-to-movie transitions, but the Marvel juggernaut of the last decade has elevated the genre to a place where even an obscure no-name series like "Guardians of the Galaxy" is now a beloved favorite.
At the same time, Lee became a staple of the convention circuit, dropping by multiple events in Salt Lake City to pose for pictures, sign autographs and give hardcore fans a chance to meet their hero. While often thrilling for his fans, those interactions became important to Lee, as well.
“The enthusiasm of the convention-goers is so exciting, it’s like nourishment,” he told the L.A. Times in 2014. “When you go there, and you realize that all these people are really involved and really care about the things you’re doing, you can’t get tired.
“It’s like getting a tonic every time.”
The passion that Lee's fans had — and have — for his work spilled over to love for the creator himself. Thanks to his many cameo roles, he became as much a part of Marvel lore and mythology as any of his characters. Whether watching a celebrated pop-culture hero like Spider-Man or a more insider character like Deadpool, you could always count on Lee’s grinning mug to make a quick and funny appearance. Over the years, Lee appeared as a World War II general in the first “Captain America,” a quippy bartender in “Ant-Man,” and — going way back — as a juror in a 1989 Incredible Hulk TV movie.
For now, though, his most appropriate cameo might be from 2017’s “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2,” when Lee appears with a group of robed space aliens with comically large, bald heads. Hailed in Marvel canon as the "oldest species in the universe," the Watchers are a group of impartial observers, a kind of celestial surveillance squad, and Lee is spinning them yarns about his time as a FedEx delivery man (referencing his cameo at the end of “Captain America: Civil War”).
The scene led to speculation that Lee's cameo self might actually be Uatu, a Watcher (that Lee dreamed up) assigned specifically to Earth. It's a theory that, in light of his passing this week, works. As fans reflect on the life and passions of their departed hero this week, the thought of Lee looking down on us from somewhere on high feels comforting. Excelsior, indeed.