The Summer of Stan Lee: Why older superheroes are all the rage

Superheroes dominate movie screens each summer. But, look a little closer at your favorite blockbuster, and see if you can spot a real-life legend in the background. 95-year-old comic-book creator Stan Lee has appeared in every Marvel movie release from 1995’s The Trials of the Incredible Hulk to this year’s Ant Man and the Wasp. And, he just popped up again. This time poking fun the Marvel-DC Comics rivalry, and himself, by providing the voice and likeness for an older mustached-man who shows up to do “a super-subtle cameo” in Teen Titans Go: To the Movies, the DC Comics animated adventure, which opens July 27.

“Stan Lee’s delightful cameo appearances add a human touch to these big-budget franchises while also reminding us that older adults remain relevant,” says assistant professor Caroline Cicero, an expert on aging and popular culture at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. Lee’s popularity can also help to shine a light on serious issues, like the allegations of elder abuse and financial fraud that have played out in court and the media over the past year, she added.

Writer and director Scott Derrickson cast Lee as a chuckling bus passenger in his 2016 megahit Doctor Strange.

“At age 95, Stan Lee is witty, active, and in my experience, always kind. He’s a true legend. A timeless artist,” said the USC School of Cinematic Arts alumnus. “Stan Lee’s creative legacy was long-ago secured by becoming the imagination behind many of the most renown comic book characters in American history. But with the unprecedented popularity of Marvel movies, he is perhaps the single most influential artist in pop culture history.”

Earlier this year, Lee also appeared as a casino gambler in the box office record-crushing Black Panther, and Cicero notes he was not alone among mature actors. Forest Whitaker’s Zuri, Angela Bassett’s Ramonda, and tribal elders played by Isaach De Bankolé, Connie Chiume, Dorothy Steel, and Danny Sapani, all displayed the wisdom and influence of older people in their Wakanda community.

“Aging characters and their concerns rarely drive the story in Hollywood’s big-budget commercial movies, but when they do appear, they typically exhibit familial and mentoring legacies, provide through-lines to earlier films and connections to origin stories,” said Cicero, noting that this connection is especially strong in Star Wars the Last Jedi.

“Palpable regret and sincere nostalgia and longing endure when Mark Hamill and, especially, the late Carrie Fisher appear on screen as Luke and Leia,” she said.

Action figures can be found beyond fiction this summer. The acclaimed film RBG depicts Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a real-life role-model with rock-star status at age 85. The documentary John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls showcases heroism in a different way, highlighting McCain’s struggles, from being a POW in Vietnam and undergoing the ever-toxic political climate to the diagnosis of his brain cancer. Won’t You Be Neighbor? about the beloved television personality Fred Rogers, has been an unexpected hit, striking a sentimental chord with critics and viewers alike.

Cicero says the success of these films should encourage other filmmakers to spotlight older adults.

“We all age,” she said. “These actors and individuals represent all of us.”