You would be hard pressed to find anyone who has had more influence on the comic book world than Stan Lee.
While at Marvel Comics in the '60s, Lee reinvented the superhero format through a cast of characters — Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, The X-Men, etc. — who dealt with their own angst while fighting bad guys. The approach was so revolutionary that Marvel's chief competitor DC Comics began to give their heroes flaws.
It's been more than 50 years since Lee first began at Marvel, but the 91-year-old comic-book legend continues to remain active in his efforts to bring a new look to an old form. His latest project, "Stan Lee's Mighty 7," is an animated film for the Hub Network that has Lee working with a group of aliens from another world.
"I wanted to do something new and I like doing teams because you have people who talk to each other. You can create a lot of drama that way. I wanted it to be the first reality show with superheroes, so I have real people like me in it," Lee says.
Lee has popped up in comics (including the cover of Fantastic Four No. 10), made cameo appearances in Marvel movies, hosted a reality competition show and produced countless TV and film projects, but this is the first time he appears as himself in a full-length animated movie.
As for finally being the star, Lee laughingly says it should have happened a long time ago.
Along with Lee, the 90-minute movie features seven aliens — two peace keepers and five criminals — each with a unique power: Strong Arm (Armie Hammer), has super strength; Silver Skylark (Teri Hatcher), uses her wingspan to fly; Lady Lightning (Mayim Bialik), possesses super speed; Lazer Lord (Christian Slater), hurls balls of laser energy; Roller Man (Flea), rolls into a big ball and launches at high speed; Kid Kinergy (Sean Astin), has telekinesis; and Micro (Darren Criss), has the ability to shrink in size.
Lee has had success with teams from the Fantastic Four to the six original members of The X-Men. Lee's philosophy is that you can never have too many members in a team, which explains why there have been dozens of members of The X-Men.
The reason Lee likes having seven heroes in the new film is that the name "Mighty 7" sounded right to him. He adds that the name also works because the film has influences of the feature film "The Magnificent Seven," which featured outcasts working together to save the day.
Just like Lee's done with each comic book he's worked on, "Mighty 7" has more than action scenes and delivers a central message about loyalty and trust. It was the decision to put those kind of lofty elements into comics that changed the industry.
"When I started doing comics, a lot of parents said they didn't want their child wasting time with comics. It was not a glamorous field and got no respect. But, little by little, we tried to write more stories to make comics more of a literary device and not just one guy hitting another guy," Lee says. "It seemed to work. Comics have become a great art form. People love the art and they love the stories.
"We started getting fan mail. At first it was written in crayon. Then we got some in pencil. We got a few in ink and then typed. We knew we were making progress."
That progress has turned into a boundless superhero empire.
Lee's always had an interest in animation and sees it as just another form of entertainment — that also include TV, online, movies, printed material, stage, etc. — that he can use to tell good stories.
The plan is to make two more animated films featuring "Stan Lee's Mighty 7" and then look at turning it into a series and a live-action movie.
He might be 91, but Lee shows no signs of slowing down, which means he could very well play himself if a live version were ever made.
As for how, Lee says that he's lucky.
"When I come to the office, it's like going to a golf course. I am having fun. I am working with people who are friends and we are seeing what we can come up with," he says.
"I often feel sorry for people doing a job just to make a living. I really enjoy my job."
"Stan Lee's Mighty 7": 5 p.m. Saturday on Hub Network
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.