The Saban Theater in Beverly Hills, California, last night was the scene of a glowing tribute to Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee, with friends from the publishing, TV, film, and online world all paying their respects to the 94-year-old comic book legend who changed the course of pop culture history.
In introducing the icon, host Chris Hardwick described Lee as the "Hugh Hefner of nerds" and said that Lee "legitimized the nerd community by leaps and bounds" with his groundbreaking creation of the Marvel Universe and characters like Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and countless others.
Lee himself, frail but still energetic, quipped his way through the lengthy (two-hour-plus) show and seemed in good spirits despite the sad passing of his wife of nearly 70 years, Joan, last month. Early in the program he had trouble reaching down to tie his shoe, with Hardwick dropping to one knee and happily doing it for him.
While Marvel movie heavyweights like Robert Downey Jr., Kevin Feige, and Chris Evans were absent, the evening featured a mix of short personal appearances and video messages from a wide range of personalities, as well as short animated videos highlighting aspects of Lee's life and career.
Among the talents delivering messages via video were Hulk actor Mark Ruffalo, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 star Karen Gillan, Iron Man director Jon Favreau, Robot Chicken co-creator Seth Green, Guardians director James Gunn, and NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, who spoke about how Lee's work was an inspiration for scientists and space explorers. Lee snapped in typical fashion, "So why don't they give me a free ride ... and then leave me?"
Guardians cast members Michael Rooker and Pom Klementieff were there in person for their brief stage appearances, along with one-time TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno, Rogue One star Alan Tudyk, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, TV producer Kenneth Johnson, comics writer Marv Wolfman, and Dancing With the Stars host Tom Bergeron. Lee made a point of standing to warmly embrace each guest — although he zapped a few as well with his personal brand of sarcasm.
Rooker and Lee fired off a joking barrage of insults at each other; when Rooker recalled how he wanted to meet Lee to see "what the hell he was doing right," Lee shot back, "Staying away from you!" When producer and longtime Lee friend Michael Uslan — who produced the 1989 Batman film starring Michael Keaton — appeared to read an emotional letter to his childhood hero, Lee fired off, "He's connected to DC but he can still stay on the stage."
Everyone invoked Lee's creativity and his invention of "flawed and human" superheroes as having an impact on them personally. Perhaps the most powerful moment came when Wu-Tang Clan member The RZA read a 1968 editorial that Lee wrote denouncing bigotry and racism (which Lee reposted last week in the wake of the events of Charlottesville) and explained that the world he read about in Marvel comics each week was filled with diversity and without bigotry. Lee responded in a rare serious moment, "Wouldn't that be the greatest world?"
The evening did have some hiccups, with mic snafus providing fodder for a running joke for Hardwick. Nevertheless, the general feeling of love and admiration for Lee and his accomplishments was genuine and pervaded the house. Kenneth Johnson perhaps summed up Lee best when he said, "No one is more funny, more creative, more intelligent and more in tune with what's in people's hearts than this man."
Lee, Hardwick, and McFarlane later capped off the night by standing together to deliver Lee's trademark phrase: "Excelsior!"