Imagine the superhero genre without Stan Lee. It’s impossible. It’s unthinkable. In later years, with his slicked-back silver hair and shades, the New Yorker might have resembled your favourite wicked uncle. But as with the cast of characters he created for Marvel Comics, looks were deceiving. Inside the whirring ideas factory of Lee’s brain, new heroes and villains fizzed to life, entire multiverses formed and intricate story arcs flew onto the pages of Marvel’s classic ’60s comic books.
Even now, six decades later, the heroes he dreamt up – Spider-Man, Hulk, Black Panther and so many more – are woven into the fabric of popular culture, hijacking cinemas since the Marvel Cinematic Universe exploded with 2008’s Iron Man.
Of course, Stan Lee’s death in November 2018 was a black day, with the founding father of the comic scene departing at the grand old age of 95. But a spark that bright never truly goes out. With the MCU’s release schedule still bustling – future classics on the slate include Black Widow, The Eternals and a Venom sequel – Stan Lee’s Marvel legacy is a living thing. And as the great man approaches what would have been his 98th birthday, it’s high time to celebrate him with a countdown of his 10 greatest Marvel cameos.
While awaiting Tony Stark’s call-up to the Avengers, Peter Parker swings around New York, delivering vigilante justice with varying degrees of success.
After mistaking a commuter for a car-jacker, and setting off an alarm that disturbs the neighbourhood, Lee appears at an upstairs windows as a very convincing grouchy old man: “Don’t make me come down there, you punk!”
When Steve Rogers busts into the Smithsonian Institution to retrieve his Cap suit for the fight against Hydra, Lee’s hapless security guard doesn’t stand a chance. “Oh man,” he groans, noticing the newly stripped mannequin. “I am so fired…”
After Thor’s splashdown on the trash planet of Sakaar, Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster starts grooming him as a gladiator – starting with a short back and sides.
“Now don’t you move,” warns Lee’s demon barber, revving what looks like a garden strimmer, “my hands aren’t as steady as they used to be.” All Chris Hemsworth can do is whimper: “Please kind sir, do not cut my hair!”
Watching the citizens of Xandar through a scanner, Rocket Raccoon spies and sneers at Lee, here in character as a smooth-talking silver fox chatting up a woman a third his age. “Look at Mr Smiles over here. Where’s your wife, old man? What a class-A ‘prevert’…”
As every self-respecting MCU nut knows, Ragnarok wasn’t the first time Lee and Hemsworth had butted heads. Rewind to Ultron’s party scene at Stark Tower, and Lee’s war vet gets salty when Thor refuses to share his centuries-old liquor.
“This is not meant for mortal men,” puffs the Norse god. “Neither was Omaha Beach, blondie,” shoots back the old man.
He’d worked as a delivery boy in his youth, so no wonder Lee reprised the role convincingly for Civil War. Bringing a welcome flash of funny to a generally downbeat movie, Lee turns up as a Fed Ex driver holding a package for ‘Tony Stank’ – much to the billionaire’s bemusement and James ‘War Machine’ Rhodes’ utter delight.
While the touchdown of interplanetary jewel thief Thanos has Peter Parker’s schoolmates howling, their grizzled New York bus driver doesn’t miss a beat.
“What’s the matter with you kids?” complains Lee. “You never seen a spaceship before?"
As reality bends and New York shuffles like a Rubik’s Cube, Doctor Strange splats against the window of a passing bus – to find a flat-capped Lee cackling as he reads Aldous Huxley’s famously out-there psychedelic literary classic, The Doors Of Perception.
“That is hilarious!” he sniggers – seemingly unaware that something far stranger is happening inches from his nose.
As the Guardians pinball through a jump gate, screaming all the way, they disturb Lee mid-anecdote as he regales the alien race known as the Watchers (“Anyway, before I was so rudely interrupted…”).
Marvel boss Paul Feige told us more at a press conference: “Stan Lee clearly exists above and apart from the reality of all the films. So the notion that he could be sitting there on a cosmic pit stop was something very fun.”
Lee shot a stockpile of Marvel cameos before his death – raising hopes there could still be plenty more in the pipe – but according to directors Joe and Anthony Russo, Endgame was his swansong in front of the camera.
Lee couldn’t have asked for a better send-off, either, with the scene seeing him digitally de-aged and screeching past an army base at the wheel of an Oldsmobile, yelling: “Make love not war!”