By the early 2000s, when films based on Marvel Comics really began to take off thanks to blockbusters like X-Men and Spider-Man, Stan Lee had long since transitioned from the role of Marvel writer and editor to the role of Marvel evangelist. He rarely wrote for the company anymore, but he was always more than happy to show up at conventions and tell tales of Marvel's Silver Age brilliance and how he co-created so many iconic characters with the likes of Steve Ditko. He was also always more than happy to show up onscreen alongside the characters he once wrote.
Lee passed away Nov. 12, 2018 at the age of 95, but not before his career got an amazing second life on the big screen. Lee has always been one of the most recognizable and widely known creators in comics history, but when his cameos in Marvel blockbusters began, he somehow gained even more adoring fans. Sitting in a theater during a Marvel movie, waiting for Stan to appear, became a kind of joyous ritual for both lifelong comics readers and fans who were just there for the movies. Whenever he finally showed up, as a FedEx driver or a mailman or even as a guy watering his lawn, the audience immediately erupted into a mix of laughter, applause and gasps of recognition. Even if he was just onscreen for a few seconds, a Stan sighting was always special.
So, in honor of his distinguished cameo acting career, here are some of Lee's best cameo appearances from two decades of Marvel movies.
Stan Lee had already made three Marvel movie cameos by the time Hulk came around, but Ang Lee's take on the big green guy marked his first speaking role in a live-action feature film based on one of his characters. As a security guard at Bruce Banner's lab, Lee gets to talk about the facility's lax security, and he does it alongside fellow legend and former Hulk Lou Ferrigno.
Fantastic Four (2005)
Whether you like the movie or not, Lee's cameo in Fantastic Four is a particularly special one in his long career of film appearances, because he's playing a character he co-created. Lee appears briefly in the film as Willie Lumpkin, the Baxter Building's mailman and one of the most beloved supporting characters in the Fantastic Four comics. There's something very heartwarming about Lee playing one of his characters, addressing one of his other characters in Dr. Reed Richards.
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
(The scene in question starts at 2:50 in the above video.)
Yes, the first Fantastic Four franchise gets two entries, but they were the First Family of Marvel. Plus, Lee's cameos in these films are true bright spots. He got to play Willie Lumpkin in the first film, and in its sequel he gets to play himself, all dressed up for the wedding of Reed and Sue, only to be turned away because he doesn't have an invitation. This is particularly amusing if you're a fan of classic Marvel comics, because it mirrors a scene in Reed and Sue's comic book wedding in Fantastic Four Annual #3. In that massive issue from 1965, Lee and his co-creator Jack Kirby show up, as themselves, for the wedding of their creations. They're not allowed in.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Lee has cameos in all three of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films, but in the first two he has almost no lines and just pulls people out of the way of disaster in very, very brief shots. Spider-Man 3 is different, and even a little moving. As Peter Parker walks through Times Square, admiring the many tributes to Spider-Man, he pauses for a moment to look at one particular sign. Lee walks up and stands beside him for a moment, then says: "You know, I guess one person can make a difference. 'Nuff said."
The Avengers (2012)
By the time The Avengers rolled around, we'd all grown used to waiting to spot Stan Lee in every Marvel movie. It was like a ritual. You watch, you wait, and then you applaud. His cameo in the first film starring Earth's Mightiest Heroes is memorable in part because we were kept waiting for almost the entire movie, to the point that you almost wonder if his cameo was left on the cutting room floor for some blasphemous reason. Then, finally, with just moments to go, there he is on a S.H.I.E.L.D. console screen, telling a TV camera just how little he buys the whole "superheroes in New York" thing.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Lee's cameos in Marvel films tend to get a laugh, sometimes because they're funny and sometimes just because the audience has that moment of joy upon seeing him. His Winter Soldier cameo is the former, as the Russo Brothers give him a genuine laugh line as a museum security guard who realizes Captain America's vintage suit has gone missing on his watch.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
After a very brief cameo in the first Avengers film, Lee gets a bit of an expanded role for the sequel. This time, he plays a World War II veteran (which Lee was in real life, though he wasn't at Omaha Beach) who gets the honor of being invited to a party at Avengers Tower, presumably by fellow veteran Captain America. After talking to smack to Thor about his Asgardian booze, Lee gets the rare chance to both play drunk on camera and slur his signature catchphrase.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Once again, Marvel makes us wait until the very end, but we still get a little Stan, and it ends up being one of Stan's funnier cameos. As a FedEx man dropping by the upstate Avengers facility, he knocks on the window and delivers a wonderful, one-letter-off mispronunciation of Tony Stark's name. From there, Don Cheadle's Rhodey takes over, and a hilarious moment develops.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe grew increasingly more complex and interconnected, Stan Lee kept showing up in every single film, always unmistakably looking like Stan Lee. Because he kept appearing throughout time and space in this universe that supposedly has its own controlled continuity, a fan theory developed that he's actually the MCU's version of The Watcher, observing key moments in Marvel history while always cleverly disguised as a guy who looks like Stan Lee. With Vol. 2, writer/director James Gunn put this fan theory to actual use, showing Lee sitting on a planet surrounded by three Watchers, telling them stories from his travels (including his brief stint as a FedEX driver). It's a great nod to the fans, and it's so entertaining that Gunn even revisited it for a post-credits scene.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
If you go back and read the comics from the early days of the Marvel Universe, as Lee and Kirby and Ditko and their other collaborators were really shaping it as a fully formed place, you'll see the level of glee they take in building their version of New York. Some of that glee simply came from the fact that it actually was New York. DC had Gotham and Metropolis, fictionalized versions of the Big Apple where they didn't have to play by the rules, but the House of Ideas wanted to ground their characters in a place people knew. Doctor Strange lived in Greenwich Village, The Baxter Building was in Manhattan and, of course, Spider-Man was a kid from Queens. Homecoming embraces that sense of place, from a neighborhood bodega to the drawbacks of trying to swing from webs while in the suburbs. It also embraces that old '60s Marvel convention of having Stan, Jack and the gang just kinda show up around NYC, if only for a panel or two. This cameo, in which Lee is playing an old man yelling at Spider-Man for being a "punk," evokes that same feeling.