This summer when the movie houses are filled with people going to see The Avengers, there’s going to be a secret history to that team that no Marvel movie will ever show: the story about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Although Stan Lee makes jovial appearances in nearly all of the Marvel movies to date and into the foreseeable future, the true story behind the creation of the Marvel heroes is a story arguably more fascinating than the comic stories themselves. The idea of a movie about comic creators might seem boring to some, but just thing how Mad Men made the advertising business so appealing and what a period piece about comic creators would be like.
And it wouldn’t be the first.
Over the years there have been other movies that have sought to tell the stories of the medium’s unique storytellers, from Crumb to the award-winning American Splendor more recently. But with the ascent of comic book movie from novelty hits to a bankable pool for stories for the big screen, it’s time those people behind the camera tell more stories about the men and women behind the comics.
And the story of Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and the creation of Marvel Comics as we know it is riveting.
Set in the early 60s, it’s a story about a middle age artist considered past his prime, and a nephew hired out of nepotism to lead a languishing comic company. Just one small part of a opportunistic publishing empire that considered comics an almost vestigial part of its publishing line, Marvel comics’ sole full-time employee, editor Stan Lee, was considering quitting publishing all together and starting over. But after seeing the early success of DC’s relaunch of its superheroes after the genre fell by the wayside early in the post-war era, Lee partners with a journeyman artist several years his senior to create a different kind of super-hero. A Fantastic kind.
In the span of under ten years, Lee and Kirby partner to create a series of successes from the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and the X-Men that proved to be pillars to the company for decades to come. But in the seat-of-the-pants production style that had artists breakdown a story based on simple notes from the writers and work-for-hire contracts that didn’t consider the long-term viability of the characters, it created small cracks in the business and the friendship of the people involved that turned into giant fissures after the characters became the most successful stories in the medium’s history. This is a story of the friendship and the partnership between Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, how it changed comics and ultimately changed them.
This is a story with no explosions or car chases. It’s a story told through nuance, direction, and understanding complex friendships and business relationships as they change over time. We’ve all seen stories about rock bands hitting big and the weight of success causing friction with those friendships, and this is that. It’s also a period piece, and it needs a director that can balance all of that. And I think that needs Steve Soderbergh.
Best known perhaps for his Ocean’s Eleven remake franchise, Soderbergh has expanded his horizons in recent years with a number of challenging films in different genres. I was one of many who sighed when Soderbergh was edged out of directing Moneyball, and I feel this story as a similar vibe but with more heart given the super-sized personalities of Kirby, Lee and the other denizens in comics at the time. Soderbergh could balance that all, while also carrying on the film as a nuanced period piece opening up the over-looked professional of comic creating to the world at large.
Jack Kirby – Michael Imperioli: While Imperioli is best known as a television actor and frankly isn’t Jewish, I think he possesses the acting chops and similar visual aesthetics and mannerisms that would make him an ideal person to play the King of Comics. I could readily see him hunched over a drawing board, cigar in hand, drawing away, and also trudging up the steps to Marvel’s offices to meet with Stan.
Stan Lee – William H. Macy: I admit that Macy’s a little old to play Stan Lee in the 60s here, but there’s no one better suited to play the piece and I think Macy could, with a little help, be a convincing younger man to Imperioli-as-Kirby. Lee has a unique circus ringmaster kind of vibe, and Macy seems ideal to embody that boisterous personality with verve and conviction.
Martin Goodman – Michael Nyqvist: An overlooked player in the make-up of the Marvel universe, it’s Martin Goodman that owned the company and put the pieces into place for things to happen. A consummate businessman who had no compuction about racing to every trend and spectacle, I’d give the role to a outsider to Hollywood: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s Michael Nyqvist. I’d enjoy to see what he’d bring to the piece, and working as a behind-the-scenes machinator prodding Lee and Kirby into business.
Roz Kirby – Maggie Gyllenhaal: Roz’s role became more pronounced to the public as years went on for Kirby and with his convention appearances, but Roz was, and will always be, Kirby’s wife and principal confidante. It’d be interesting to see Jack’s relationship with Roz on its own and as Jack’s relationship with Lee soured.
Flo Steinberg – Lizzy Caplan: You can’t call yourself a hardcore Marvel fan if you don’t know who Flo Steinberg is. She was a “Girl Friday” for Lee and the other denizens of Marvel’s offices as they expanded, and had a youthful exuberance that seemed to change it away from being a mere boys club early on. After seeing Caplan in Party Down, I think she could easily inject some pedestrian humor into the relationship between Lee and Kirby and be an ideal character to at as a vantage point for the movie-goer trying to understand this world.