It’s safe to say that Marvel fans embraced the newest stone in the family gauntlet this April, as Avengers: Endgame earned the title of highest-grossing worldwide opening at $1.209 billion … and that’s just the beginning. Endgame and the power of the mighty Avengers have already broken record after box office record and there are still months of theater run time to shine. You might say Marvel’s Avengers have made a record out of shattering records. But besides insanely fit actors and breathtaking movie magic, why are superheroes on everybody’s lips?
When I was little – seesaw and swing set little – there were lots of big words I didn’t understand, words like ‘humility’ and ‘courageous,’ but it was a little word I heard one night on the news about a man rescuing a child that vexed me most; the news anchor called the brave man a “hero.” When your height is less than your age words like that tend to be meaningless, and before seeing those images on the news that day, the best tool I had for visualizing a “hero” was an old copy of Uncle Wiggly’s Story Book and the prosopopoeial imaginings of Beatrix Potter.
As I grew up, family and friends told me anecdotal stories and the word “hero” took on a connotation of saints and religious figures: the selfless martyrs of the world. You know, that handful of ancient people who refused to live for themselves and were essentially deities. But, for me, those storied figures lived in their stories alone with their literary mythos glued to the page. My mom would read to me about angelic figures in her signature tinkling, queenly tone, but, though I loved the sounds and pictures, I always knew they were as close as I’d ever get to understanding a “hero.” Somewhere around the mystic age of five, however, I stumbled upon two unique implements of magic for learning about heroes: digging through my big brother’s comic books while he was at school and Saturday morning cartoons from 9:00-11:00.
These new titans of my attention gave me something more understandable than all the previous religious stories and furry protagonists combined: they gave me The Uncanny X-Men. A comic about a band of social rejects with extraordinary abilities, the X-Men acted as a collective on behalf of the rest of humanity – the same hateful group that spurned them in the first place. As confounding as these “superheroes” were for my new-age mother and hard-nosed father, they could not have been any more relevant or clear to me. Almost immediately, my nubile mind teased out inklings of lessons and heroic traits from the mutants’ adventures: these colorful figures were mostly estranged teenage outcasts – never judge a book by its cover; they were stronger together than alone – teamwork and collaboration are the ways of the most effective X-Men; these heroes protected the same people that hurt and bullied them – self-sacrifice and responsibility aren’t conditional options for heroes, they are requirements; each X-Man was starkly different from the others, but it never mattered what they looked like, only what they could do and the content of their respective characters – tolerance and respect, any skin-deep judgments are unheroic.
I read the sprawling, vibrant boxes of remarkable X-Gene powers and watched the explosive clashes of these mutants on the screen. I rolled around the living room pretending I was Wolverine or Gambit, launching my waifish form at threatening, unsuspecting pillows. I wanted to join the “hero” ranks and be as brave as the man from the news and as strong as Colossus. I wanted to be as good a leader as Cyclops and as wise as Professor X. I decided if I could be noble enough and meet the hero standard of worth – if I could get a grip on my fears and fight for the helpless – I just knew I could be an X-Man, too. What I didn’t realize back then was that I was learning about heroism directly from a hero – a hero named Stan.
In 1939, Stan Lee wandered into Timely Publications (what we know today as Marvel Comics) and started his journey to the top of the industry – one he was destined to define. At seventeen, Lee was just a 20 kid with a dream and too naive to understand the task that lay ahead of him, an archetype he’d later borrow for many of the characters he would go on to create. He saw the heroism differently than anyone else in his field because, to Lee, heroes weren’t born, but made. Lee knew the world needed a better class of hero to look up to and learn from because the perfect, one-dimensional heroes of old were unrelatable to everyday folks. They weren’t real. To Lee, regular people were as defined by their flaws as they were by their strengths. He realized normal people had problems and fears and they became heroic when they overcame those adversities. Through his revelations, Lee brought to light a truth that would define his career – heroes were just ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances.
From his unique approach came countless creations, beginning with The Fantastic Four. People resonated with these real, relatable heroes who showed anger, humor, and complex emotions, but always exhibited extraordinary grit. Lee wove meaningful life lessons into his heroes that made them both endearing and modern mythological characters, designed to teach careful readers how to be more heroic. When he created the likes of The Incredible Hulk, Lee gave us a commentary on the rage that burns beneath the skin of every human and sowed into his good work a how-to manual on deploying the willpower we all possess to tame our childish impulses. Lee taught us about equality through Peggy Carter, a woman in a sexist time and environment that wasn’t afraid to stand up and fight for her independence and power. He explored humility and redemption when he gave us The Invincible Iron Man, the story of a billionaire womanizer who was humbled by life and had to problem-solve his way to a new heroic mindset – Lee’s answer, perhaps, to the mass of entitled, wealthy misogynists and warmongers in the world.
Many of Lee’s heroes were staple archetypes for millions of readers and watchers growing up, but most of these heroes were adults – I was only eight. That is, until I stumbled onto another of Lee’s teachings, The Amazing Spider-Man. To many, Peter Parker was Stan Lee’s most real, true-to-life, relatable hero – so, naturally, his story was a tragic one. As an orphaned teenage boy, Peter was raised by his aunt and uncle who were pillars of goodness in a cruel and dangerous world. Peter’s adolescent self-centeredness, however, caused the death of his uncle. Despite the gift of his amazing powers, life didn’t let up, and young Spidey was subjected to the pain of tremendous guilt, abandonment, financial burdens, senior citizen care, piling homework, social expectations, and, of course, a compounding list of villains and enemies that wanted him dead at any cost. The poor kid was a snowball in hell, but in his darkest hour he relied on two lifelines to stay as cold as he could: his biting sense of humor and Stan Lee’s oft-referenced advice, “with great power there must also come — great responsibility!”
From the very first time I read Spider-Man until I was a young teenager dealing with some very real burdens of my own, in a world far from fiction, I referred to Lee’s sketch of a teenage hero as a wellspring of hope, inspiration, resourcefulness, and selflessness. That same wall-crawling fantasy character helped me through tough times, as I suspect he did for so many millions of kids suffering from neglect, abuse, bullying, or just looking for a role model. The lines between real heroes and fictional ones faded more every time one of Lee’s imaginary heroes helped a real kid find bravery in his or her own heart. Inspired by Lee’s characters and moral subtext, entire generations have found strength and guidance as they reach, risk, strive, and face fears each day in the real world. Tired nurses taking on extra shifts are heroes. Overworked teachers pouring energy into struggling students are heroes. Pilots triple-checking every detail in the cockpit before their last flight of the day are heroes. Doctors calling patients to check on their well-being during their lunch break are heroes. Uber drivers getting passengers home safely are heroes, and every person that chooses to dig deep and do the right thing when anything else would be so much easier are heroes. You are a hero. And thanks to the late Stan Lee, the concepts of bravery, sacrifice, humility, loyalty, accountability, and generosity are dominating the box office because he taught us that nothing is cooler than being a hero. It’s been many years since I ran around my childhood home fighting evil and wrestling those pesky couch pillows, but I still use Lee’s characters, words, and metaphors to communicate with students, athletes, and even my niece and nephew about digging for their inner hero. I will never forget, and I hope you won’t either, why all of these Incredible, Invincible, Fantastic and Amazing heroes still resonate with so many – it’s because the man who created them was one of them: The Irreplaceable Stan Lee. Excelsior, Hero – and thank you!
By Hanif S. Ali