Long before he did one of his now-famous cameos in a Marvel movie, Stan Lee appeared as himself in a film about a bunch of slackers killing time in suburbia. Mallrats was Kevin Smith's second movie after the breakout success of Clerks , and for his follow-up Smith swapped out deep nerdery about Star Wars for deeper nerdery about comics. In 1995, the year of Mallrats ' release, seeing Lee show up in a Smith film was the perfect Venn diagram overlap of grunge proto-hipsterdom and comics fan culture.
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Whoever dreamt up Lee's cameo in Captain Marvel , one of dozens he's made over the years, knows this. (Hell, Lee's appearance in Mallrats might've been what gave comics fans a love of his cameos to begin with.) The way he appears onscreen in his spotlight moment was clearly designed as an Easter egg for both Marvel and Mallrats fans alike.
It comes—and I'll say this once so it shall henceforth be known: spoiler alert —as Brie Larson's Captain Marvel is charging through a Los Angeles Metro Rail car looking for a shapeshifting Skree who has presumably taken the form of an unwitting human bystander. (You've seen this in the trailers: It's the moment where good ol' Marv punches an elderly woman in the face.) As she scans the crowd, she comes upon a man with his face hidden behind a movie script with a red cover that reads Mallrats . "Trust me, true believer," he's muttering, working on the intonation. The line, of course, is Lee's from the film , and the man saying it is Stan.
Lee, who died last year at the age of 95, probably loved this. As writer Jim McLauchlin noted in his remembrance of Lee for WIRED, Lee enjoyed his cameos and made a play to get one in the 2003 Hulk flick, eight years after he appeared in Mallrats . Lee appeared in almost every movie or TV show associated with a Marvel property over the years, and he was always game. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe has coalesced into its current form, those cameos have become tradition—the one thing besides a post-credits scene that fans look for at every screening.
What’s surprising about the Captain Marvel appearance—beyond the self-referential in-joke—is that Lee is, in essence, playing himself. More often than not, Lee would play Thirsty Gambler ( Black Panther ) or Strip Club DJ ( Deadpool ) or FedEx Driver ( Captain America: Civil War ). Having him play himself, doing what he would’ve been doing at that time in real life, is a bit of fourth-wall-breaking that’s rare for a Lee cameo, let alone a Marvel movie.
Actually, let’s back up. Would that have been what Lee was doing during the timeframe of the film? Probably, but also probably not. Captain Marvel , if the context clues are to be read properly, probably takes place in late 1995. There are ads around for 311’s self-titled album, which came out in June of that year, and Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness , which came out in October. The Blockbuster that Carol Danvers crashes into has a prominently displayed True Lies standee, which would make sense—that movie came out in July of 1994 and probably would’ve hit the home video market in early ‘95. You know what else came out in 1995? Mallrats . The timing is almost perfect—except for the fact that, if the film was released in October of that year, Lee would’ve been practicing and filming his cameo a few months before (it was shot in March and April of that year ) Danvers landed in LA. Whatever. It’s still cool.
Cool, and also maybe Lee’s final cameo in a Marvel movie. Avengers: Endgame comes out next month, and it’s conceivable he filmed a cameo for that before his passing last November as well, but as of yet, no such appearance is listed on his IMDb page. (Marvel boss Kevin Feige has suggested there may be one banked away, though.) Captain Marvel scrapped the usual montage of MCU superheroes that usually plays when the Marvel logo shows up during the opening credits with a montage of Lee. Perhaps that tribute will play on all MCU films this year, or perhaps it was added to honor the last appearance Lee will make in a movie based on any one of the dozens of heroes he created. In a way, it would be nice if his final cameo echoed what many consider his best cameo of all. It would allow the tradition to go out the way Stan Lee always did—with style.
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Lee didn’t invent the comic book superhero; that’s usually credited to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a couple of Jewish kids from Cleveland who alchemized religious imagery, science fiction, and urban crime-busting into a hero who, rocketed to Earth as an infant, gained powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men to fight a never-ending battle for truth and justice.That was Superman, of course, who came first in 1938.