Stan Lee dead at age 95: His secret to enduring superhero empire? Human emotions

Without Stan Lee, whose colorful existence was stuffed with larger-than-life superheroes who often had to fend off their all-too-human foibles as they battled bad guys, came to an end on Monday at age 95.

May we all fly so high and for so long.

The one-of-a-kind writer, editor and publisher began in the biz in 1939. The force behind such Marvel Comics staples as Spider-Man, the X-Men, Thor, Black Panther, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four already had influenced pop culture when his creations appeared in book form. But ever since the first official “Spider-Man” adventure swung onto the big screen in 2002 with Tobey Maguire behind the mask, Lee and his associates helped to open the floodgates to a frenzy of franchising that continues to consume the film industry today.

As an entertainment writer who focused mainly on covering movies for USA TODAY, I had only occasionally flipped through a Superman comic book or two in my youth — especially if it involved Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane. I wasn’t much drawn to make-believe mayhem and bulky men in tight suits. I quickly had to bone up on all things Spidey once Maguire’s boyish Peter Parker kicked off Marvel movie mania. But the scene that I most connected towasn’t the CGI’d-to-death clashes with the villainous Green Goblin. It was that kiss in the rain, the big, wet one that Maguire laid on Kirsten Dunst as dish-next-door Mary Jane while provocatively dangling upside-down and with his mask pulled away from his mouth. That bit of arachnid amour did it for me and it opened a portal that allowed me to see these supposed action extravaganzas as something else – namely, a love story.

So when “Daredevil” starring Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock, blind attorney by day, vigilante by night, opened on Valentine’s Day in 2004, I was prepared to declare that the secret weapon of the increasing number of comic-book heroes flinging themselves into theaters went beyond mere muscle but went straight to the heart. And it turns out I was right, since the actor ended up meeting his future and now ex-wife Jennifer Garner on the movie when she co-starred as Elektra.

I knew I would have to eventually have to speak to Lee while covering this subject. One of his more invaluable traits was that he was never shy when it came to publicity and self-promotion – hence all the cameos he did in projects tied to his comic-book empire. But when I got him on the phone and told him my theory that a large part of the appeal of these films was the fact that they often included a romance and therefore drew a date crowd, he laughed and said, “Oh, I have been really making love stories all these years.” But by then, I had learned that the first “Spider-Man” film drew a crowd that was 53% male, 47% female and attracted as many ticket buyers above age 25 as under.

When I brought up the fact that Affleck , who was just declared People’s Sexiest Man Alive, was the star of his latest superhero, Lee couldn’t protest too much. “I’m Mr. Emotion,” said the then-80-year-old Lee, who would go on to enjoy 70 years of married bliss with wife Joan before she died at 95 in 2017. “Romance is so much a part of my life. How could you be oblivious to it? My taste in music is old love songs from shows like ‘Gigi’ and ‘My Fair Lady.’ I’m sucker. Half of the movie of ‘Spider-Man’ was romance I loved it. The best part was the relationship with the girl. I wasn’t expecting the personal stuff to be so compelling.”

One could say that Lee taught generation after generation of adolescent boys how to woo a woman. Affleck, a longtime Daredevil devotee, told me that he and his childhood pals in Cambridge, Mass., used comic books to find clues about the mysteries surrounding the opposite sex.

“When you’re 12 or 13 and a boy, comic books are the only way to see how relationships might work between men and women. We’d lock ourselves in our room for two or three hours at a time. It was more than just seeing women in scant clothing and these unbelievable bodies. As in ‘Daredevil,’ there was a real element of romance.”

The truth behind Stan Lee’s amazing super powers as a purveyor of characters who still capture our imaginations? He, much like Hugh Hefner, knew the importance of the human touch to move us. And that the heart is the biggest muscle of them all.

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