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'Mallrats' and the decades-old origin story of Stan Lee's first major big-screen cameo
The story of Stan The Man's appearance in Kevin Smith's View Askewniverse.
At a certain point in the early 21st century, seeing Stan Lee pop up in a movie based on a Marvel Comics superhero became not just expected, but almost required, like the film wasn't complete without a one-liner or a big knowing grin from the guy who co-created the Marvel Universe itself back in the 1960s.
From the debut of X-Men in 2000 until his death in 2018, the legendary Stan The Man appeared in almost every film, and most TV series, derived from Marvel's characters, even if they starred characters he didn't have a major hand in creating. He was the MCU's good luck charm, earned cheers from the theaters full of fans, and seemed to enjoy every appearance as a kind of victory lap for the decades he spent as a superhero story evangelist. If you just started paying attention to pop culture in the last 20 years, a Stan Lee cameo feels like the most natural thing in the world.
But that wasn't the case back in 1995, when Kevin Smith set out to make his second feature film, Mallrats, now streaming on Peacock. A hangout comedy about a group of New Jersey young adults who have nothing better to do than spend their day at the local mall, the film used the comic book fandom of one of its main characters to heavily feature Lee in an extended cameo before it was cool, giving The Man a cult classic role that has since been referenced in the MCU itself. But it almost didn't happen that way.
Like his first feature, Clerks, Mallrats features characters who spend an entire day musing on life and pop culture while pondering their futures, specifically their romantic prospects in the wake of a pair of breakups. The protagonists, best friends T.S. (Jeremy London) and Brodie (Jason Lee), come together after their respective girlfriends Brandi (Claire Forlani) and Rene (Shannen Doherty) dump them, and Brodie in particular is shaken by the way Rene tore down his life of hanging out in his mother's basement, reading comics and playing Sega. As he spends the day working to get Rene back, Brodie struggles with his own feelings about his romantic future, until he meets Stan, who just happens to be doing a signing in the mall's comic book store that day. One anecdote from the comics legend about his own romantic regrets, and Brodie is motivated to win his lady back no matter what it takes.
Back in 2020, reflecting on the film's 25th anniversary, Smith explained that he had no illusions of getting Stan Lee himself to appear in the film. The original script featured a famous comic book creator talking to Brodie, but it was a guy named "Stan Miller," a fictional character whose name combined Lee's with that of another comics legend, Frank Miller. Mallrats producer James Jacks actually knew the real Stan Lee, though, and opted to try and get him for the film. According to the Mallrats DVD commentary, there was some question over whether or not that might actually happen, so big names like John Waters and an up-and-coming Quentin Tarantino were floated as possible celebrity cameos to play the character of "Stan Lee."
In the end, Lee agreed to play himself, but there was one major problem. Lee's monologue in the film, which you can hear in the clip above, was entirely based around the idea that he was a relentless playboy who slept with so many women that even Mick Jagger couldn't keep up with him. In real life, Lee was happily and devotedly married to his wife Joan, and was worried she wouldn't take kindly to a story in which he suggested she wasn't his one true love.
Smith's solution to this problem actually came from Lee himself. While discussing the role, The Man suggested that after giving his speech to Brodie, he should have a brief moment with T.S. that would reveal it was all a plot by Brodie's best friend to get him to come to his senses, and the moment would end with Lee revealing he'd made the story up to make a point.
"He said, 'Is it possible that after I talk to Brodie, I talk to his friend and tell him I was only kidding?,'" Smith remembered. "I was like, 'Absolutely, man.' So my first one-on-one discussion with Stan Lee was essentially about how he never wanted to hurt his wife's feelings. It was incredibly f***ing sweet."
So, Lee did the scene — with cue cards, according to Smith's commentary — and a cult movie moment was born. It wasn't the first time Lee had played himself in a live-action role — he did something a bit similar in a film called Ambulance five years earlier —- but it was the most impactful of his early film appearances, and it eventually paid off in a big way, at least in Smith's eyes.
See, Mallrats was initially a critical and commercial disappointment when it arrived in 1995, compared unfavorably to Clerks and met with shrugs from moviegoers. Like many such films, it eventually found its audience on home video, and today ranks among Smith's most beloved movies. Reflecting on the film in an interview with Yahoo! in 2020, Smith discussed how Lee's cameo made the film an oddly on-the-nose prediction for pop culture's future.
"We got this incredibly lucky break with the explosion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because suddenly a Stan Lee cameo became de rigueur for every one of those movies that made almost half a billion to a billion dollars, and anyone who had movie trivia was like 'Oh, he was in Mallrats! He did that cameo thing in Mallrats," Smith recalled. "And Brodie was a character who, in 1995, was fringe. [In] 2020, Brodie is the internet. He's everybody."
He continued, "The pop culture landscape shifted in such a way that Mallrats looked prescient."
And in the end, the attention Smith gave Lee back in 1995 was paid back with a moment in the '90s-set Captain Marvel, when Lee appeared reading a script for Mallrats, presumably preparing for the role of a lifetime.
"In 1995, I was in a position to be like 'Ladies and gentleman, Stan Lee,' and years later Stan Lee became so f***ing huge that he was able to be like 'Ladies and gentlemen, Mallrats,'" Smith said. "Incredible how the world shifted and benefited Mallrats."
Mallrats is now streaming on Peacock.