Mild spoilers for Black Panther.
Black Panther steps well beyond the Marvel formula, but that doesn’t stop it from containing all the classic Marvel Cinematic Universe hallmarks: the trademark humor, post-credits scenes, and, of course, a cameo from the one-and-only Stan Lee. And this isn’t just any Stan Lee cameo either – it may be his most self-aware appearance yet.
Stan Lee cameos pre-date the MCU by almost twenty years (his first one was in 1989’s The Trial of the Incredible Hulk), but it’s as part of the shared universe that they’ve become truly ubiquitous. Evolving from blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gags, recent movies have really tried to set up their game: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 confirmed the long-gestating fan theory that Lee is actually the same character in each film and connected to the all-seeing Watchers, while Thor: Ragnarok had him actually integrated into the story. But the latest entry does something even more interesting.
Stan Lee turns up in Black Panther in the South Korea sequence, just before Klaue unleashes sonic-canon hell and Ryan Coogler gets to show off his action-directing skills. T’Challa confronts Everett Ross in the casino, placing some chips down on the roulette table to appear inconspicuous. He wins, but when he doesn’t care for his winnings, Stan Lee turns up to claim the chips for himself, saying “You know what? I think I’ll just take these, bring them over here, and hold onto them for safekeeping.”
While it’s obviously a humorous gag moment, there’s actually more going on here. The stealing of what’s not earned links directly into the thematic backdrop of Black Panther; the whole film is exploring the long-standing impacts of colonialism, and the scene in which Lee cameos involves Klaue and the Vibranium he took from Wakanda two decades ago. However, this being done with Lee has even deeper meaning.
Stan Lee is, of course, known for creating the panther’s share of Marvel’s most iconic characters – Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Hulk, Iron Man, Black Panther – and for having an essential hand in many more (while he didn’t create the Star Spangled Avenger, his first published work was text filler on Captain America #3, and he was responsible for resurrecting Steve Rogers to join The Avengers). He’s had an unrivaled influence on the comic book industry, one that justifies his recurring cameos.
But, as some may know, there’s a more complicated side to it. Essential co-creators to nearly all his most iconic characters were Jack Kirby and/or Steve Ditko, yet those writer-artists who brought Lee’s ideas to life were often ignored. Now, the balance of truth is much debated, but what’s unavoidable is that Lee downplayed his collaborator’s involvement in developing these heroes to an extreme degree, in some cases wholesale hiding their role in actual creation. He, essentially, claimed their work as his own and subsequently profited from that success.
The Black Panther cameo feels like a sly jab at that controversy, showing Lee once more stealing something that didn’t originally belong to him. How knowing this is – either on Coogler, Marvel or Lee’s part – isn’t clear; it’s unlikely that Stan would willingly court this sort of controversy, and Black Panther isn’t one of the characters that typically falls into this discussion. Nevertheless, it’s a very up-front scene that at the very least shows some acknowledgment by some Marvel-related party that the claims exist.
With Stan Lee’s cameos all seemingly trying out new twists on the standard walk-on, all eyes are on Avengers: Infinity War for what’s been cooked up next.
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