Which is trickier, saving the world from a megalomaniac with super powers or trying to encapsulate the incredible career of the most famous creator in comics, Stan Lee?
The new documentary “With Great Power: the Stan Lee Story” tackles the arduous task of revealing the secret identity of a man whose name appears on over a billion comics around the world.
The team who put the film together -- writer and co-director William Hess, a Belle Chasse native, co-writer and director Nikki Frakes and producer and co-director Terry Dougas -- took six years to complete the massive project. As fans of Lee’s characters know, sometimes big things have small beginnings.
“The idea popped into my head because Stan’s office was right down the street from ours in Beverly Hills. He was literally three blocks away,” Hess said.
The recent surge of interest in comic books made Lee a prime target for a documentary, and Hess and Frakes knew what they were getting into. Their research took them all over the country in search of interviews and archives. They spoke with actors, comic book artists and even some of Lee’s co-workers from the good old days in the famed Marvel Bullpen where his greatest creations -- including Spider-man, The Hulk and Iron Man -- were born.
“We had over 300 hours of footage and thousands and thousands of documents, so it was challenging,” Frakes said.
Although they were bona-fide experts by the time they finished making the film, neither Hess nor Frakes identified as comic book nerds. However, they felt that this allowed them to approach their subject with a more balanced perspective.
“What we wanted to do was tell the story of Stan Lee, not the story of his creations. In that sense, we were able to focus on who he is. So instrumental for me was seeing him behind the scenes. What is he like at home?” Frakes said.
Hess agreed that their film would be very different from a documentary made by a long-time fan of Lee’s. He and Frakes wanted to give Lee the same treatment he gave his superhero creations -- namely, a warts-and-all approach.
“We weren’t going into it lopsided. As far as we could, we tried to be objective and illustrate his weaknesses as well as his strengths,” Hess said.
Frakes and Hess got a good peek at the man behind the myth during their many interviews. They met Lee’s wife, Joan, who he claims he has spent his lifetime trying to impress. They learned that Lee still tries to set aside time to write every day, that he likes to lead with a joke and that he is surprisingly grounded.
“He’s a humble guy. That’s what’s really nice about him in the end,” said Frakes. “He really takes time and attention for every single person that he crosses paths with, and that’s not something that you get all the time in Hollywood.”
Hess remarked that Lee does a good job of not taking himself too seriously.
“When people ask him if he’s still involved with Marvel, he says, ‘Yes, I’m the chairman emeritus. And if you find out what that means, you let me know,’” Hess said.
The documentary also shows just how long and hard Lee fought to get Marvel’s characters into movies that did them justice, and the slow climb to the top of the box-office mountain that those characters now enjoy. Hess, who channeled some of his own experiences in the often-cutthroat film industry into the satirical film “Bill the Intern,” said that knowing Lee struggled to make it in showbiz was inspiring.
“It’s just kind of strengthened me because you see that it’s all about perseverance. Stan pushed and pushed. It is good to see if you’re a filmmaker trying to do your own thing. Don’t give up,” Hess said.
Fans who assume that Lee’s career has been nothing but a string of unmitigated successes can peruse a gallery on the DVD that lists over 500 characters created by Stan Lee himself. Hess points out that of all those characters, only about 20 are well-known. Frakes agreed that Lee is an inspiring figure, a man whose passion and dedication are unmatched even to this day.
“I do think he’s the great American success story. He came from nothing and he worked and worked and worked, and it wasn’t an overnight success. He was in his mid- to late-40s before he really became a phenomenal success,” Frakes said.
Like the man himself, Hess, Frakes and everyone who put in long hours to finish “With Great Power” can be satisfied with a job well done. The documentary has been well-received, winning awards at film festivals in Long Island, N.Y.; Atlanta; Nevada; and several other places.
“I think it’s great that he’s alive and still kicking and that he can enjoy seeing the biography, because it’s a look back for him, too,” said Hess.
“It was a lot of hours, but it was worth it, and being with Stan was something that we’ll remember forever.” Frakes said.
Frakes is currently working on a couple of new shows that she can’t talk about just yet. Hess is working on a new documentary called “King Cake: A Mardi Gras Story” which he hopes to complete in a shorter amount of time than “With Great Power.”
The DVD and Blu-ray, which contain over 90 minutes of bonus footage, is available at Best Buy and Amazon.com. Digital copies are available on Netflix, itunes, YouTube, and other sites. More information about the film can be found at http://www.withgreatpower.biz/