Excelsior! Stan Lee’s 10 greatest Marvel creations – and how he found humanity in superhumans

"I think everybody loves things that are bigger than life...I think of them as fairy tales for grown-ups"

After the sad passing of Marvel comic book legend Stan Lee aged 95, we take a look at some of his all time greatest creations.

Not only did Lee revive the fledgling comic book industry in the 1960’s, he created characters that were relatable and relevant, often tapping into political and social themes of the day. Lee wrote complex characters alongside sophisticated plots, ideas and themes. His dialogue didn’t patronise his new teenage audience like so many of the books of the time; he instead spoke to them – his was the voice for the outsiders, the geeks, the oppressed.

Speaking about his career choice, Lee said: “I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic-book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers. And then I began to realise: entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain people, you’re doing a good thing.

“…[Being a geek] has become a badge of honour. It’s geeks who really make or break a TV show or movie or video game. They’re the ones who are passionate about these things…A geek is really somebody interested in communication and entertainment and [finding] the best way to avail himself or herself to it..”

Here, we’ve picked 10 of our favourite Stan Lee creations, detailing their beginnings, their co-creator(s), why they’re awesome and what superhero power defines them. “Nuff’ said!”

Black Panther

Black Panther best picture oscars

Black Panther – Credit: Marvel

Year created: 1966
Co-creator: Jack Kirby
Who are they? Black Panther, aka T’Challa, is king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. He was the first superhero of African descent to appear in mainstream comics and paved the way for future characters including Falcon, Luke Cage and Blade. Black Panther has enhanced abilities thanks to consuming a heart-shaped herb from his home. He is a prolific fighter, wealthy, has access to incredible technology and is a sophisticated science-savvy geek to boot. 
Why are they awesome? 
Black Panther doesn’t conform to the stereotypes that dominated popular culture at the time of his creation, famously overcoming stronger characters. He’s one of the most intelligent and powerful characters in the Marvel Universe who uses his superpowers for good, fighting for justice and equality. Whilst the character is often politically associated with the Black Panther party, this is inaccurate as the character pre-dates the founding of the party in the US.
From comic book to screen: Chadwick Boseman first played the role of Black Panther in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War before the acclaimed Black Panther movie proved one of the biggest hits of 2018. The character also appeared in this year’s Avengers: Infinity War.

Daredevil

Charlie Cox (as Daredevil). Credit: Sarah Shatz/©Netflix/courtesy Everett Collection/Alamy

Year created: 1964
Co-creator: Lee worked on the project with artist Bill Everett and Jack Kirby. Written by Lee until issue 50 when Roy Thomas took over.
Who are they? Daredevil or “The Man Without Fear” hails from a working class background in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. After trying to save a man from the path of an oncoming vehicle, Matt Murdock is blinded by a radioactive substance that falls from a truck. Whilst he can no longer see, the substance gives him a heightened “radar sense”. Seeking out the men who killed his father, Murdock turns into “Daredevil” and uses his powers for good. He also finds time to graduate from law school too.
Why are they awesome?
Matt Murdock’s disability becomes his strength, not his weakness, as he overcomes countless hurdles. By day, he defends his clients as a lawyer and by night, he keeps the residents of Hell’s Kitchen safe from the forces of evil.
From comic book to screen: A movie starring Ben Affleck in 2003 was a critical flop but it fared much better as an award-winning series on Netflix and has since proven to be a firm fan-favourite.
Lee on Daredevil: “After the books were published, we started getting letters from charities for blind people…’we’ve been reading these stories to the people here and they love them, and they’re so pleased you have a superhero who is sightless’…that made me feel great!”

Doctor Strange

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange – Credit: Marvel

Year created: 1963
Co-creator: Steve Ditko
Who are they? Doctor Stephen Vincent Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, brings mysticism and magic to the Marvel Universe. Inspired by the story of Chandu the Magician – a story both Lee and Ditko loved – Doctor Strange was originally an arrogant surgeon before an accident damages his hands meaning he could no longer work. He sets off on a journey to find the ‘Ancient One’, a figure he believes may be able to cure him after research. When he does eventually find him, he studies sorcery and picks up many spells which he uses, in time, to protect the world. He is named as “The Sorcerer Supreme” when his mentor dies; arrogance is largely replaced with humility and empathy for others.
Why are they awesome? He protects humanity from supernatural forces of evil, which is a pretty awesome job title. The character also shows the battle between egotism and humility and how it can be overcome, with Doctor Strange ultimately becoming a character many can empathise with on a human level too. Doctor Strange also founded The Defenders, which comprises Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist (Netflix has recently run – and cancelled – several of these shows). In the original comics, Hulk, Namor and Silver Surfer were also part of the group.
From comic book to screen: The first outing of the character on the screen came in 1978 in a television film – Dr. Strange. Benedict Cumberbatch took over the role in 2016 and appeared in Doctor Strange. He has since appeared as the character in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War and has proven to be one of the franchises most popular – and enduring – characters.
Lee describing Doctor Strange in 1963: “We have a new character in the works for Strange Tales (just a five-page filler named Dr. Strange). Steve Ditko is gonna draw him. It has sort of a black magic theme. The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him.”

Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four – Credit: Marvel

Year created: 1961
Co-creator: Jack Kirby
Who are they? One of the first group of superheroes to smash the typical superhero stereotype. Unlike previous creations, the Fantastic Four had human, relatable qualities on display for the first time and balanced problems with power after discovering they had superpowers following an experimental space mission which saw them exposed to cosmic radiation.
The characters struggled with self-doubt, made errors, had numerous flaws and argued frequently: they also dealt with real-world issues and weren’t immune to the issues we all face each day. Many related to the characters which helped to make it one of Marvel’s most successful comic book series with five volumes before it’s eventual end in print (although characters from the series continued to appear elsewhere). They consisted of elastic scientist Reed Richards (Mr Fantastic), his girlfriend Sue Storm (Invisible Girl), her brother Johnny (The Human Torch) and Ben Grimm (The Thing). Lee set the comic in New York City and not a fantasy land – this was an innovation at the time and appealed to many readers.
Why are they awesome? They stopped Stan Lee giving up writing comic books. After 20 years of drawing cartoons, Lee’s wife urged him to write one he would like at a time when he was ready to give up on writing comic books altogether (the industry had fallen out of love with comics after WW2.) Fantastic Four helped Lee discover his love for writing and creating again – and from there, he went on to write some of his most famous and beloved characters with Jack Kirby, changing the face of popular culture in the process. We can’t think of a more finer reason for awesomeness than that.
From comic book to screen: The Fantastic Four has four animated series and four films up to now.
Lee on The Fantastic Four: “In the beginning Marvel created the Bullpen and the Style…And the Bullpen was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the Artists. And the Spirit of Marvel said, Let there be The Fantastic Four. And there was The Fantastic Four. And Marvel saw The Fantastic Four. And it was good.”

The Incredible Hulk

Avengers 4

The Hulk – Credit: Marvel

Year created: 1962
Co-creator: Jack Kirby penned the first five issues with Steve Ditko working on the sixth
Who are they? The Hulk, aka Dr. Bruce Banner, is effectively a comic book mashup of Jekyll and Hyde and Frankenstein – scientists who somehow turn into monsters. Banner, when angered, develops an extraordinary strength (and turns green for good measure) smashing up everything in his path which can, due to his sheer force, lead to conflict with his fellow superheroes. The Hulk’s alter ego Banner couldn’t be further away: he struggles socially, is weak, mild-mannered and reserved – a far cry from his destructive other self. Banner develops his superpower after an accidental exposure to gamma rays when an experimental bomb is detonated.
Why are they awesome? The catchphrases – “Hulk Smash!” and ‘Hulk is the strongest one there is!” – not to mention the fact he turns green. He was a founding member of The Avengers and his strength, when used for a force of good, frequently saves the universe. The Hulk is also a tale about survival: originally, the comic was cancelled after six issues but then reappeared in Tales to Astonish which eventually became The Incredible Hulk and subsequently one of the most iconic characters in the series.
From comic book to screen: Eric Bana, Ed Norton and Mark Ruffalo have all played the character as part of the MCU.
Lee on The Hulk: “I was getting tired of the normal superheroes…I remembered Jekyll and Hyde, and the Frankenstein movie with Boris Karloff and it always seemed to me that the monster was really the good guy; he didn’t want to hurt anybody, but those idiots kept chasing him up the hill until he had to strike back. So why not get a guy who looks like a monster and really doesn’t want to cause any harm. But he has to in self-defence, because people are always attacking him.”

Iron Man

Robert Downey Jr as ‘Iron Man’ – Credit: Marvel

Year created: 1963
Co-creator: Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Jack Kirby
Who are they? Many fans know Iron Man as the witty and often cutting character played by Robert Downey Jr. However, prior to his portrayal, the character was often very serious and reserved – and difficult to relate to. A businessman and scientist, Tony Stark suffers an injury during a kidnapping. Forced by his captors to build a weapon, he instead creates a suit of armour to save his life and escape. The suit gets some tweaks and eventually, Tony Stark uses it to become Iron Man.
Why are they awesome? Lee often used the character to explore timely political issues such as the Cold War (during the early days of the character’s creation) and more recently corporate crime, terrorism and the role of technology in cyber-crime. He was a founder of The Avengers and remains a firm fan favourite.
From comic book to screen: After several incarnations on television, it was Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal that brought the character huge popularity in 2008’s Iron Man. The film had two sequels and the character has also appeared in many of the other MCU films.
Lee on Iron Man:
“I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him.”

Magneto

X-Men – Credit: Press

Year created: 1963
Co-creator: Jack Kirby
Who are they? Pretty much all of the X-Men could go into this list but X-Men adversary Magneto is one who stands out because of his desire to protect his species and his candid, and often uncomfortable, truths. Part of a group of human subspecies mutants, Magneto has the ability to generate and control magnetic force fields. He is a character who has suffered oppression and domination and his story chimes with many stories of colonisation throughout history. A cynical character, his views often causes rifts with others but his reasons are often valid, making him an interesting anti-hero and villain – and a villain many can relate to.
Why are they awesome? Magneto is often razor sharp in his observations: “Your humans slaughter each other because of the colour of your skin, or your faith or your politics – or for no reason at all – too many of you hate as easily as you draw breath.” Whilst controversial, he is often difficult to argue with. Magneto has often been compared to civil rights leaders in history, although the ways in which he wants to achieve equality often result in controversy.
From comic book to screen: The legendary Sir Ian McKellen has played Magneto in five of the X-Men film series so far; Michael Fassbender has also played a younger version of the character. 
Lee on The X-Men: 
“I wanted them to be diverse…The whole underlying principle of the X-Men was to try to be an anti-bigotry story to show there’s good in every person.”

Scarlet Witch

Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch

Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch with Hawkeye – Credit: Marvel

Year created: 1964
Co-creator: Jack Kirby
Who are they? Scarlet Witch aka Wanda Maximoff began her life as a villain in the X-Men series alongside her twin brother, Quicksilver. “He’s fast and she’s weird,” read the description of the two. Eventually, they both go on to fight with The Avengers, turning their backs on villainy. Using her ability to warp reality, she beat her enemies to become a formidable character in the Marvel Universe.
Why are they awesome? It was the first time where villains were portrayed as more complex than the “evil through and through”character stereotype. Lee created a more complex character than comic books had seen previously, showing that villains could be redeemed.
From comic book to screen: There have been animated films and television series but the most famous portrayal comes via Elizabeth Olsen in the current MCU series.

Spider-Man

Andrew Garfield as Spider Man – Credit: Marvel

Year created: 1962
Co-creator: Steve Ditko
Who are they? Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker, is arguably Lee’s most iconic creation. Parker is raised by his aunt and uncle in New York following the death of his parents in a plane crash. After being bitten by a radioactive spider, Parker develops spider-like abilities which include being able to cling to surfaces, shoot spider webs and detecting danger from afar via “spider sense.”
Why are they awesome? He was a character young people related to because of his teenage struggles, his “self-obsession with rejection, inadequacy and loneliness” and his status as a geek, an outsider and a character, as Lee put it, “with a world of struggles”, is one many could relate to. The line “with great power there must also come great responsibility” became his mantra showing that he was never reckless with his powers. Spider-Man is also one of the most profitable character Lee ever created, earning Marvel around $1 billion a year. Originally, Lee’s publisher wasn’t keen on the character: once the sales figures came in, a solo series – The Amazing Spider-Man – was commissioned.
From comic book to screen: A number of famous portrayals of the character have occurred over the last twenty-years, most notably by Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and most recently, Tom Holland.
Lee on Spider-Man: “I wanted him to be a teenager…he would be the hero [not the sidekick] and to make him empathetic with the readers, I figured I would let him be not that good looking, not that successful with girls…he doesn’t have enough money, he’s an orphan. That would make him relatable to a lot of kids.”

Thor

Chris Hemsworth as Thor, 2013. Credit: Jay Maidment/©Walt Disney Studios/courtesy Everett Collection

Year created: 1962
Co-creator: Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby
Who are they? The character is based on Norse mythology – Thor was the God of Thunder with a hammer which makes him, as Lee put it, “stronger than the strongest person.” Thor can fly, manipulate the weather and use his superhero strength for the greater good. Like The Hulk and Iron Man, he was one of the founding members of The Avengers.
Why are they awesome? After the Hulk, Lee realised that he needed to create a character even stronger, with Thor being a god fitting perfectly. Lee said that part of the empathy with Thor came from his readership knowing the history of gods of legends, meaning he could make Thor a figure to look up to. And let’s face it, Thor has a hammer than can control lightening: it doesn’t get much more awesome than that.
From comic book to screen: Thor appeared in the 1988 television film The Incredible Hulk Returns but Chris Hemsworth’s portrayal of the Norse God in many of MCU’s most recent films including: Thor, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok and most recently, Avengers: Infinity War.