Excelsior! A Celebration of the Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible & Uncanny Life of Stan Lee -
January 30th - TCL Chinese Theatre - Hollywood, CA
Longtime friend and filmmaker Kevin Smith hosted “Excelsior! A Celebration of the Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible & Uncanny Life of Stan Lee” at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on Wednesday night. Lee, who died on Nov. 12 at age 95, helped create some of the most iconic superheroes in history for Marvel Comics, including Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Panther, Dr. Strange, and the X-Men.
“I remember Stan meeting [‘Spider-Man’ star] Tom Holland for the first time,” Sean Gunn, one of the stars of “Guardians of the Galaxy” told Variety. “The thing you have to know about Stan is that he was always f—ing with people all the time. He never stopped doing it. He said, ‘Tom, everyone tells me that you’re the perfect Spider-Man, but I can’t see it.’ Tom’s face fell and Stan laughed. He looked around and winked at the people who knew he was messing around.”
Smith first met Lee while filming “Mallrats” in 1995 after writing a small role specifically for the comic legend. A short meeting about how inaccurate the character was to Lee’s actual persona soon led to a 23-year friendship.
“He never gave me any advice, which was so awesome because that’s what a friend is. He doesn’t tell you how to live your life. He just enjoys the life that you live,” Smith told Variety. “He never gave me advice, but he gave me so much more than that. That man lived the life, where I was like, ‘I’m gonna borrow that, gonna borrow that, gonna borrow that.’ He was never like, ‘Kev, be like me.’ I just chose to be like him.”
The celebration began with a police flag-raising ceremony outside the TCL Chinese Theatre and a salute by Veterans in Media & Entertainment to Lee, who served in World War II. The veterans group presented a memorial flag to his daughter, J.C. Lee.
Inside, Smith hosted several star-studded panels to remember the impact Lee had on so many people’s lives and careers. Without Lee’s early comics, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller wouldn’t have had the inspiration for their Oscar-nominated film.
“Our first encounter with him was at eight years old reading comic books. We first met him when we were 20 years old and snuck into a Comic-Con after-party and ran up to him. Any other person would’ve totally been calling security over,” Miller said. “Reading his notes to the readers in those pages was the first time we felt part of something bigger. He made ordinary people feel extraordinary. To me, that’s his legacy.”
In the final pages of many of his comics, Lee penned “Stan’s Soapbox,” letters he wrote that spoke to the reader in a humorous, honest way. Few other creators developed such a direct relationship with their legions of adoring fans.
“He had such a personality that came across the pages,” “Star Wars” star Mark Hamill said during a panel. “He put a human face on what it was like to work for a comic company. He had catchphrases, like ‘Excelsior,’ and ‘Stan’s Soapbox.’ You really felt like you knew him. He branded that company. He was the figurehead. He was the guy, Stan the Man.”
“Stan’s Soapbox” also united fans of all backgrounds and championed respect, equality, and diversity. One of the most famous letters from 1969 that condemned bigotry went viral following his death. Wu-Tang Clan member and filmmaker RZA repeated Lee’s words to a hushed audience.
“Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But unlike a team of costumed supervillains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them — to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are,” he read. “Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill out hearts with tolerance.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti honored him with a posthumous key to the city. The one-of-kind key was made from solid brass and wood from a fallen tree in the San Fernando Valley, where Lee spent a lot of time.
“Whether you’re lucky enough to be born here or smart enough like Stan Lee to come here, this is indeed a City of Angels. This is a place where we have heart, we have spirit — things Stan Lee was all about,” Garcetti said during the ceremony. “Whether you’re a woman, or a person of color, or LGBTQ, or a religious minor, or a senior, we start thinking of everyone as an underdog. Stan Lee did things to give us a place where we felt ourselves.”
The panels were punctuated with montages of Lee’s cameos in dozens of superhero pics, personal videos of him signing autographs while singing, and tributes from other celebrities. Seth Green remembered meeting his wife during an encounter with Lee, and Laurence Fishburne recited “The Raven,” Lee’s favorite poem. Other panelists included Felicia Day, Tom DeSanto, Avi Arad, Amy Pascal, and Joe Quesada. Video tributes from Dwayne Johnson, David Tennant, Ming-Na Wen, Mike Colter, and Doug Jones also played.
he next panel brought out the big stars who had shared the screen with Lee throughout the years, including Mark Hamill, Laurence Fishburne, Clark Gregg and Felicia Day. Hamill offered the best impression of Lee’s unique voice, as he channeled the comic creator's response to how he remained so youthful into his nineties: "Well, Mark, I like to get up early in the morning and work very, very hard all day long." Hamill implored the audience to accept that everyone has had a personal relationship with Lee and that, "If you saw him, you also know him. He was who he was."
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actor Clark Gregg noted of Lee's work, "I feel carried by his work. I feel inspired by it." Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer actor Doug Jones, who portrayed the Surfer (Lee's favorite character to write for), appeared by video clip to quote Silver Surfer No. 3 in a tear-jerking moment, "If die I must — let it be as I have lived — soaring swift and silent — striving for the right — no matter what the cost!"
Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti
Perhaps the biggest moment of the night came with the appearance of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who detailed Lee’s love affair with L.A. before running through a catalogue of his own nerdiness, including a proclamation that no one could offer him enough money to let go of his complete collection of original copies of the Wolverine comic series. Garcetti then stated, "Stan Lee was a mensch who always fought for the underdog," before presenting Stan’s former company, Stan Lee’s POW! Entertainment, with Garcetti’s third-ever "Key to the City," carved from a fallen tree and engraved with Stan’s image and catchphrase, "Excelsior!"
Lee, known for his unorthodox methods of community building and progressive values, found an ally in RZA, who expressed that the Wu-Tang Clan was partially inspired by the comic creator's work, allowing themselves to take on their own superhero names. The room was silent while he recited a famous 1968 passage from Stan’s Soapbox, a passage that Stan would sometimes insert between the pages of his comics, decrying bigotry in all its forms: "Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today." Laurence Fishburne returned to punctuate this silence with a stirring live rendition of Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven," a favorite of Stan Lee’s; for a moment, the whole world seemed to stop for the haunting poem.
The night was rounded out with several panels of Lee’s comics collaborators, including Joe Quesada, Marv Wolfman, George Perez, Bill Sienkiewicz, Jeph Loeb and Stephen Wacker. Each recounted their personal experiences with Lee and how he either inspired them or took personal time out of his day to make them feel special and invited to the comics community. Quesada, former editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, emphasized how much he strived to live up to Lee's ideals when running the company himself, suggesting that, when Marvel adheres to Stan’s fan-oriented principals, then the company is doing its best.
However, it was Wacker, who sat in Stan’s former seat as the editor of the Amazing Spider-Man comic, who addressed the elephant in the room head on: Bill Maher’s recent derogatory comments about Lee's legacy and the value of comic art. After a night where Lee was consistently compared to Shakespeare, Wacker said that perhaps everyone understood that there were more "important" things in the world, and in art, than comics and pop culture, but that this kind of escapism and joy "is what we are fighting these fights for," before ending the night on a resounding "Excelsior."
Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images
On and on the night stretched, with panel after panel sharing their stories of Lee, as if to say that, if the night never ended, we would never have to truly let the creator go. Approaching midnight, Kevin Smith assured the crowds, "Don’t worry, we only have a week’s worth of panels to go," before launching into his final story of the night.
Smith shared a story about a time that he invited the elderly Stan to his home, spending a spirited afternoon together. Yet, just before seeing him off, Stan tripped precariously at the top of Smith’s stairs, a situation that could have seen him gravely injured. Smith’s mind went to thoughts of the headlines the next day, remarking, "I broke Stan during my time with him!"
However, at the last minute, it was his road manager, Max Anderson, who swooped in for the save, catching Stan in his arms and immediately bouncing him back to safety. Smith called Max up on stage to a round of applause, where a teary-eyed Max told the crowd, "Stan isn’t looking down on us, he’s here with us. Inside all of you."
Moments later, the crowd was singing the Spider-Man cartoon theme song, shouting "Excelsior" and heading home, given one final task by Max Anderson: "Share your stories, that’s how Stan lives on."
“Stan’s greatest creation was himself. We love all the superheroes that Stan was responsible for, but we don’t get to meet those superheroes unless we met the character of Stan Lee,” Smith said. “If Stan wants to live forever, this is how it begins. Sometimes I lament because I honestly think I’ve met the best f—ing human being in my life, and now he’s gone. He meant the world to everyone in this room. We’re talking about someone who didn’t have to touch personally to touch personally. This is a guy who lives in everybody’s hearts.”
Legion M, a fan-owned entertainment company, the consultancy Agents of Mayhem, and Lee’s POW! Entertainment production group helped produce the tribute. Proceeds from ticket sales benefitted the Hero Initiative, a charity that assists comic creators with health expenses.