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The biggest star of "The Avengers" doesn't blow up like a Macy's balloon when he gets angry: It's Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee. The New York born comic book pioneer, age 90, has lived long enough to see the birth of comics, confront censorship by the Comics Code of America, and get rich from the box-office resurgence of his babies "Iron Man," "X-Men," and "Spider-Man." Lee's artistic trademark: He's always in touch with the flesh-and-blood man behind the hero. Could that also explain why he penned a pamphlet on how to avoid VD when he was an army playwright alongside Dr. Seuss and Frank Capra during WWII?
Lee is all about keeping it real in a fantastic universe. Think you haven't seen Lee before? Think again. He's had numerous movie cameos alongside Iron Man, the Hulk, and Spider-Man — just look for his sarcastic zinger in "The Avengers," premiering in theaters May 4. To get pumped for the summer's first surefire hit, check the documentary about Lee's life and mind — and bossy wife! — "With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story" on EPIX.
I chatted with the nonagenarian mensch this week:
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Thelma Adams: What was your favorite costume in the movie adaptations of your comics?
Stan Lee: In "Fantastic Four," I was most impressed with the way the actor Michael Chiklis looked like the Thing. He was the Thing, the whole deal. And then, of course, Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man was terrific. And you couldn't be a better Iron Man than Robert Downey Jr. and Patrick Stewart as Professor X. We've been so lucky all of these characters have been done so beautifully.
TA: All great. But hasn't there been one less-than-super superhero?
SL: Well, um, I thought that Dr. Doom could have been done a little better. I thought the actor was great, Julian McMahon. But I just think that the interpretation wasn't exactly the way I had envisioned it.
TA: You pop up in so many of the movies, including "The Avengers," often as a man on the street. Do you have a favorite cameo?
SL: I loved them all, the one where I couldn't get into the wedding of Reed and Sue in "Fantastic Four." It was very funny. I was mistaken for Hugh Hefner [in 'Iron Man'].
TA: Do you make sure they're written into the script?
SL: I'm a big cameo freak, but they're never my idea. I get to the studio, and the director tells me what he wants. I'm just a hired hand. Alfred Hitchcock decided what he wanted to do, but I kinda like it this way. I never know what to expect when I reach the set.
See a clip from 'With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story':
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TA: If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
TA: That's a modest superpower. Why luck?
SL: Because if you have that, you have everything. The more I think about it, that would be the greatest power. If someone shoots at you, the bullet, it would miss you.
TA: That goes along with your image as a basic, down-to-earth guy. You were raised in the Depression. What would your parents think of how far you've come?
SL: How come you're not president of the United States? They were sure I would be.
TA: In the documentary, Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Nick Fury in "The Avengers," says that you "changed the face of comics." Do you agree?
SL: Any time somebody says something good about me, I'm not going to deny it. I've always been interested in the human being behind the mask, more than the mask itself.
TA: A long time ago, you changed your name to Stan Lee from Stanley Martin Lieber. You said you were saving your full name for the cover of the great American novel you would write. Do you still have that dream?
SL: I found out that I'm not a novel-writer type. Comics were good for me because I'm very impatient. I could write a comic book in one day. Staying with a novel day after day, week after week, I don't have the patience. It was just a silly dream. I'm quite happy the way things turned out.
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TA: Was the documentary your brainchild?
SL: No. It wasn't my idea. At first I thought they were joking. Then I started getting embarrassed. And then they started looking up old photos and old recordings, and now it's been going on for two years. I have no secrets any more from the world.
TA: Do you mean that now everybody knows that you were really Spider-Man — and you had trouble getting girls?
SL: Old news. It's the title that worries me a little. At first blush, it's saying that I'm powerful, but it's really that with great power comes great responsibility. By the way, the rumor is that James Cameron's worried that my documentary will do better than his "Titanic: 3D." If you see Jim, tell him he doesn't have to worry.
TA: I'll do that.
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