Stan Lee is easily the most famous real-life person associated with the history of the Marvel Comics superheroes prior to the establishment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and his cameos in the MCU films are among fans' favorite recurring gags. But the latest such scene from Ant Man and The Wasp - however unintentionally - may leave some fans wishing the filmmakers had gone with a different punchline.
The scene in question is typical of the now-expected Stan Lee cameo in tone and placement: During one of the film's major action sequences involving a chase where various cars and other objects rapidly shrink and grow in size to evade one another, an elderly man is seen attempting to enter his parked car when it suddenly shrinks - appearing to vanish from sight - right in front of him. A close-up reveals that the elderly man is being played by Stan Lee; who responds with an exasperated deadpan of: "Well, the '60s were great - but now I'm paying for it."
The dialogue is evidently meant to imply that Lee's latest character believes himself to be suffering the residual effects of youthful drug abuse, but that's not what's likely to trouble some fans. Rather, it's the more specific association of Lee himself with memory and/or reality-perception problems, as the beloved comics creator has recently featured in the news in a series of tragic and increasingly desperate-sounding reports of deteriorating mental health and elder abuse allegations.
While the 95 year-old Lee has been in declining health for some time, he is believed to have deteriorated rapidly since the death of his wife Joan B. Lee last year. Over the last several months, news has come to light of a complicated and bitter legal battle involving Lee himself, his daughter, brother Larry Lieber and a "memorabilia collector" named Keya Morgan who had previously been entered into a business venture with the aging comics legend, but has now been accused of involvement in (among other things) an attempted "abduction" of Lee and isolating him from his family. Allegations of falsified contracts and elder abuse have also been levied in multiple directions, with the prospect of Lee suffering from diminished mental faculties and age-related dementia as a contributing factor.
As such, it's not difficult at all to see how some fans could find themselves less amused than usual with regards to what was surely an innocently-intended joke, though most would likely also agree that it's not entirely fair to hold such reactions against the film itself Lee is said to have shot five different MCU cameos in a single day at one point in 2016, two years before these issues came to light, so it's unlikely that anyone creating the scene could have known that his declining mental health would be an unhappy news item in 2018.
On the contrary, the not-so-subtle counterculture reference is very much in line with the often irreverent tone of Lee's cameos in the MCU and elsewhere, which have seen him pop up as a everything from a Casino worker (Black Panther), strip club DJ (Deadpool), unwitting food-poisoning victim (The Incredible Hulk), "Hugh Hefner" (Iron Man 2) and even an implication that his various incarnations across the Marvel Universe are actually - somehow - the same person: In Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2, he appears as an "astronaut" holding court with the cosmic beings recognized by comic fans as The Watchers.
It's possible that any appearance by Lee, at this point, was going to feel sad under the circumstances - regardless of context. The stark change in his appearance and public demeanor following the passing of Joan in 2017 had been long noted by press and convention attendees, especially given that Lee's high-energy and relative good health for a man of his age had been often remarked upon in years past. It's understood, sadly, that the day is not far off when theaters filled with MCU fans worldwide will shed collective tears and unite in final (likely standing) applause when the title card for "In Memory of Stan Lee" fades into view for the first time. Still, no one could have predicted that the winter of Lee's life would be clouded by this kind of pain and darkness. With the recent passing of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, Lee is now the last surviving member of the original Marvel "founding class," and by varying accounts now finds himself fought over more like property than a person.
Fans, friends and colleagues of the Marvel legend will, of course, continue to hold out hope that the situation will be resolved in a way that is best for Lee's interests - the most recent developments having involved a Los Angeles judge reaffirming a restraining order to prevent Keya Morgan from regaining control of Lee's business and personal affairs. For now, it's unfortunate that an otherwise clever moment in Ant Man and The Wasp would be tainted (however slightly) by accidental association with its subject's real-life personal struggles; after all, the last thing anyone wants is for a Stan Lee MCU cameo to make people feel sad! But those concerns must, and do, come a distant second to whether or not the real-life Stan Lee is being properly cared for and protected.
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- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019