Spider-Man, the Hulk and Iron Man are among the most colorful comic-book characters, but they've got nothing on the man who created them. Pop-culture icon Stan Lee — an old-school showman with endless enthusiasm who pioneered the concept of making superheroes more human and relatable — has never shied away from the spotlight. That said, the Marvel Comics maestro was a little surprised when he was approached about the documentary With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story, premiering Friday at 8 p.m./ET on Epix, a premium channel and on-demand service. "It's a little bit embarrassing," he says. "I think it makes me out to be a little bit better than I am. I saw it months ago, and they may have edited it since then. But it just seemed that it was so much about all the good things about me [and perhaps] they could have said something bad. I guess when you think about it, there's nothing bad you can say about me! You gotta say that I said that with a laugh so they don't think I'm the most outrageously conceited guy in the world — which I well may be."
The film follows Lee's rise through the ranks at Timely Comics — which became Marvel — and his introduction in the 1960s of a new wave of heroes, including the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, whose personal lives were filled with angst and conflict. Says Tom DeSanto, exec producer of the first two X-Men movies and one of dozens interviewed in the film: "Stan was really the first comic-book writer to make the human being behind the mask more important than the mask itself."
Lee's popularity is based on more than just the creation of so many iconic superheroes. He developed a cult of personality that made him a household name even to those who don't read comic books. At Marvel in the '60s he introduced the Merry Marvel Marching Society fan club and the Stan's Soap Box letters column, both of which helped build a strong connection with readers. "I tried to personalize everything. I figured if the fans knew me then Marvel wouldn't be seen as a cold company, but it would be a friendlier place," he says. "So for example, we did letters pages and if a guy would sign his letter 'Charles Smith,' I would answer by saying, 'Hi Charlie.' I tried to make everything informal, and the readers got into the spirit of that. I wanted them to feel that we're not just people selling them comics, we're friends and we're all enjoying the same stories together."
And at age 89 Lee has seemingly mutant-like energy. In addition to his trademark cameos in all the Marvel movies (including The Avengers, which opens May 4), he has a recurring role, as Stan the Janitor, in the new Disney XD cartoon Ultimate Spider-Man, and continues to develop new content through his POW! Entertainment company. "Most people say, 'Gee, I can't wait to retire so I can do what I really wanted to.' Well, I'm doing what I do I want to do," he says. "I feel like I'm retired and now I'm allowed to do all the things that are fun. I enjoy my work, I don't consider it work, it's just something that I love to do."
With Great Power airs as part of Epix's Marvel Heroes Weekend, which also features several recent Marvel box-office blockbusters, Thor (Friday, 9:30 p.m./ET and Sunday, 6 p.m./ET), Iron Man 2 (Saturday, 8:30 p.m./ET and Sunday, 3:45 p.m./ET) and Captain America: The First Avenger (Sunday, 8 p.m./ET).