Robert Downey Jr. may be making his eighth appearance as Tony Stark this year in Spider-Man: Homecoming (and has two further performances at least to come in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers 4) and Samuel L. Jackson is seven movies into a whopping nine-picture deal, but they're far from being the most prolific performer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That honor goes to Stan Lee, the legendary comic writer and Marvel editor who created most of the characters now dominating the box office. He's appeared in every one of the series' fifteen movies and its various TV shows (as well as many more cameos in other Marvel productions made by different studios), in the process becoming as essential a part of the formula as quippy humor and post-credits scenes.
His latest cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 might just be his best yet. Like all of his bit-parts, it comes completely without warning and causes a ripple of giddiness throughout the audience; as Rocket, Yondu and Kraglin are zipping through space trying to find Ego, turning into live-action Tex Avery cartoons as they go through 700 travel-gates, they pass by a space rock where Lee is sat recounting adventures to a circle of Watchers. It's reprised in the film's final post-credits scene, where the aliens have enough and zip away.
Ostensibly this brings the Watchers, an essential part of the Cosmic Marvel Universe, to the big screen, but that's not why it's so great. Even before the MCU there was a fan theory that all of Lee's random cameos were linked, something that's only intensified over the past decade with the continuity-driven shared universe, and this latest development would seem to point directly at it being true.
The Unifying Stan Lee Theory
As a refresher, here's a complete list of each of Stan Lee's cameos:
Iron Man - Hugh Hefner Lookalike
The Incredible Hulk - Old Man Poisoned by Hulk-blood-contaminated soda
Iron Man 2 - Larry King Lookalike
Thor - Truck Driver Trying to move Mjolnir
Captain America: The First Avenger - 1940s General
The Avengers - Skeptic in New York
Iron Man 3 - Beauty Pageant Judge
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Train Passenger (1x13)
Thor: The Dark World - Mental Hospital Patient
Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Smithsonian Exhibit Security Guard
Guardians of the Galaxy - Xandarian Pervert
Agent Carter - Shoeshine Customer (1x04)
Netflix's The Defenders - New York Police Officer (seen in photos)
Avengers: Age of Ultron - Lightweight Veteran
Ant-Man - Bartender in Luis' Story
Captain America: Civil War - FexEx Delivery Agent
Doctor Strange - New York Cab Rider
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - Watcher Spy
It's worth pointing out that in only three of the movie ones does he have direct interaction with a main character, yet in a whopping twelve he reacts to or is somehow impacted by the seismic events going on around him.
The cameo theory is essentially that in each of his appearances, Lee is actually the same character and, rather than being a bystander, he is in fact a highly aware being monitoring the various Avengers (one alt-theory posits that he's just a regular guy with many jobs and a spaceship, but the grander idea actually makes more sense). This has seen him intrinsically linked to the Watchers, with many suggesting that he's actually Uatu, the member of the species set to monitor Earth.
In a nutshell, the Watchers are the oldest species in the universe and have long-since evolved beyond actually partaking in its development. Similar to how the immortal Ego grew tired of life (but less maniacal), they choose to monitor and catalogue everything that happens. Uatu is the Watcher for Earth and has on occasion broken his prime directive, but only at the direst of moments.
Within Lee's roles thus far, there's been nothing to explicitly work against this - his position tangential to the story is ideal for a Watcher and any spatial or time-based rifts are rather light when we're dealing with the Cosmic side of Marvel - and so it's been quite easy to take as a jokey running idea. However, it was never expected that Marvel would ever actually confirm it.
What Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Reveals
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 takes all of the elements of the cameo theory and the Watcher comic lore and mixes it together to reveal that while Lee isn't Uatu or even a Watcher, he is an operative for them; he's credited as "The Watchers’ Informant", making him a spy of sorts. And make no mistake, this Informant is linked to the rest of the MCU. During the in-movie cameo he's not just sat telling endless stories, but recounting a very specific time he was a Federal Express agent - the exact profession he had in Captain America: Civil War. Kevin Feige has since commented on the whole theory and that Civil War quote specifically, officially canonizing what could easily be read as a James Gunn joke.
Extrapolating from that influx of information, this makes it clear that throughout the movies Lee has been there to keep tabs on The Avengers, feeding information back to the Watchers. How active a role he has within their wider goals isn't made clear - it's likely (and more humorous) that he's rather useless and instead of seeking out the heroes he just keeps accidentally finding himself next to Thor's hammer, interviewed about them on TV and getting poisoned/fired by their exploits - but its confirmation all the same.
This isn't the only time on screen where Lee's been more than a random person - Fantastic Four cast him as mailman Willie Lumpkin while sequel Rise of the Silver Surfer broke the fourth wall and had him as himself denied entry to Reed and Sue's wedding - but it is the first it's been done with a sense of greater cohesion and actual meaning.
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) release date: May 05, 2017
- Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) release date: Jul 07, 2017
- Thor: Ragnarok (2017) release date: Nov 03, 2017
- Black Panther (2018) release date: Feb 16, 2018
- Avengers: Infinity War / The Avengers 3 (2018) release date: Apr 27, 2018
- Ant-Man & The Wasp (2018) release date: Jul 06, 2018
- Captain Marvel (2019) release date: Mar 08, 2019
- The Avengers 4 / Untitled Avengers Movie (2019) release date: May 03, 2019