There is something about superheroes that speaks to us, inspires us, and motivates us. Many of these superheroes whom we have come to love can be attributed to one man: Stan Lee.
When news of American comic book writer and Marvel co-creator Stan Lee’s passing broke on November 12, tributes flowed in from every corner of the Internet. This is no surprise as Stan Lee has been credited for creating many of the world’s most popular superheroes, including the X-men, many of the Avengers, Daredevil, as well as my personal favorite, Spiderman. His creations have made a major impact on the entertainment industry from Marvel’s comic book sales to the many film and TV adaptations in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, Marvel’s most recent Avengers film, Avengers: Infinity’s War, was the highest grossing film of 2018.
So what is it about Stan Lee’s creations that have entertained and inspired millions of fans worldwide?
One of Stan Lee’s defining talents was to tap into our deep desire to witness sacrificial acts of heroism. In a 2016 interview with The Big Issue, he was quoted as saying, “The world always needs heroes, whether they’re superheroes or not. Since time immemorial there were stories and legends about evil power who had superpowers, and some human being had to find a way to conquer them. It seems to be part of the human condition.”
We celebrate when Spiderman saves Mary Jane from a villain. We get emotional when Iron Man seemingly sacrifices himself to save New York at the end of Avengers. We are inspired when Wolverine saves other humans, even when those same humans are trying to exterminate his fellow mutants. We love seeing Thor use his supernatural powers to battle against evil forces threatening to take over the Nine Realms.
But perhaps Stan Lee’s greatest contribution was to create superheroes with flaws and personalities that all of us can relate to. As he said, “I thought it would be great to do superheroes that have the same kind of life problems that any reader—that anybody—could have.”
In The New York Times’ obituary, the writers noted that: “Under Mr. Lee, Marvel transformed the comic book world by imbuing its characters with the self-doubts and neuroses of average people, as well an awareness of trends and social causes and, often, a sense of humor.”
The Hulk has major anger issues. Daredevil struggles with his dark, violent tendencies. Iron Man has a gigantic ego. Years of violence and unforgiveness has built up to self-destructing resentment in Wolverine’s soul. Even Spiderman is prone to rash decision-making. But in spite of their flaws, they always triumph over the evil powers at the end of the day.
Stan Lee’s characters give us hope that we can all be superheroes in our own ways. As he himself said, a hero is:
[…] someone who is concerned about other people’s well-being and will go out of his or her way to help them—even if there is no chance of a reward. That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real superhero.
This reminds me of what the Bible says in Philippians 2:3-4. As believers, we are called to put the needs of others above ourselves, doing nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.
We can be “superheroes”, but the difference is this: we do not draw strength from ourselves.The reason we can now love and serve one another—regardless of our flaws, limitations, and circumstances—is because we are image-bearers and recipients of God’s love (1 John 4:7).
Christ has set the ultimate example to show us what this looks like: He “made himself nothing” (Philippians 2:7) and chose to come down to earth as a human in order to become one of us. He allowed Himself to be tempted in every way so that He could empathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15) and show us a different way to live.
Stan Lee might have been closer to the truth than he realized when he said: “There is only one who is all powerful, and his greatest weapon is love.”