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Stan Lee Effect: Do Stan Lee Cameos Make a Movie Popular?

Spider-Man 3 (2007) - Stan Lee, Peter Parker (Tobey McGuire)
A Stan Lee cameo is the best way to make sure a movie is successful.

The latest Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 (2017) carries the tradition of Stan Lee cameos. Lee has always joked that his cameos make movies more successful. Back when Josh Trank's Fantastic Four bombed he said, "Well, it was probably because I didn’t have a cameo in it, and they didn’t discuss the story with me." Does a Stan Lee cameo mean a movie is more successful? The answer is yes, and the reason may surprise you.

Who is Stan Lee?

For those who aren’t familiar with him, Stan Lee is a 93-year-old comic book writer who co-created some of the most popular Marvel superheroes. Along with artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko he created Spider-Man, the Hulk, Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Daredevil, Thor, the X-Men and dozens of other popular characters.

He helped expand Marvel Comics from a small division of a publishing house to a large multimedia corporation covering movies, television, and newspaper comic strips. Today he’s the face of Marvel Comics and his trademark glasses, mustache and catch-phrases like “Excelsior” have become part of American culture.

Since the 1990s he began appearing in live-action movies and television. Usually, he plays a minor character and has no speaking part, but occasionally he does get a line or two. From having him pop up to give Mr. Fantastic a stack of letters to asking for his shoe back, spotting a Stan Lee cameo is a time-honored tradition in Marvel films. His appearance, even if it’s just a photo, is headline news.

How Many Stan Lee Cameos Are There?

Since the 1970s, Television shows and movies have based on Marvel comics. It was in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989) that Stan Lee made his first cameo as a juror. There have been 56 live-action movies and TV shows based on Marvel superheroes. Not all of them have a guest appearance by Stan Lee. 39 Marvel movies do, but 17 do not.

For reference, here are all the movies and TV shows that have a cameo by Stan Lee

  • The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989)
  • X-Men (2000)
  • Spider-Man (2002)
  • Daredevil (2003)
  • Hulk (2003)
  • X2: X-Men United (2003)
  • Spider-Man 2 (2004)
  • Man-Thing (2005)
  • Fantastic Four (2005)
  • X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
  • Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
  • Spider-Man 3 (2007)
  • The Incredible Hulk (2008)
  • Iron Man (2008)
  • Iron Man 2 (2010)
  • Thor (2011)
  • Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
  • The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
  • The Avengers (2012)
  • Thor: The Dark World (2013)
  • Iron Man 3 (2013)
  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
  • Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2014)
  • Ant-Man (2015)
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
  • Marvel's Daredevil (2015)
  • Marvel's Agent Carter (2015)
  • Marvel's Jessica Jones (2015)
  • X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
  • Doctor Strange (2016)
  • Deadpool (2016)
  • Captain America: Civil War (2016)
  • Marvel's Daredevil (2016)
  • Marvel's Luke Cage (2016)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
  • Deadpool: No Good Deed (2017)
  • Marvel's Iron Fist (2017)
Here are all the movies and TV shows that Stan Lee doesn’t have a cameo in since the 1980s

  • Howard the Duck (1986)
  • The Punisher (1989)
  • Captain America (1990)
  • The Fantastic Four (1994)
  • Blade (1998)
  • Blade II (2002)
  • The Punisher (2004)
  • Blade: Trinity (2004)
  • Elektra (2005)
  • Ghost Rider (2007)
  • Punisher: War Zone (2008)
  • X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
  • X-Men: First Class (2011)
  • Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)
  • The Wolverine (2013)
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
  • Fantastic Four (2015)
Stan Lee is scheduled to have a cameo in

  • Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
  • Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
  • Black Panther (2018)

It’s a pretty exhaustive list but, when you look at it, a pattern does start to emerge especially when you compare it with the Rotten Tomatoes score of the films.

What Does Rotten Tomatoes Tell Us About Stan Lee Cameos?

Rotten Tomatoes takes all the professional critical reviews for a movie or television show and gives an average percentage. They take that percentage and give the property a score based on how positive the average is: “Certified Fresh” (70 or higher), “Fresh” (60 or higher), or “Rotten” (59% or lower). It’s just an average, so it’s possible that some people love a movie rated “Rotten” and some might hate a film rated “Fresh”. It’s controversial, but a good way to gauge the success or failure of a property.

It’s less subjective than box office since a movie that’s poorly received sometimes gets a high box office because of marketing. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) made over $179 million but has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 38%. It's pretty bad. On the other hand, Blade (1998) only made $70 million but has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 54%. That explains why there have been two sequels and a TV series based on it.

It’s a fact that movies with Stan Lee cameos have a higher RT rating than movies without him. The RT average of movies with a Lee cameo is 73%, but without him, it drops to 36%. 90% of Marvel movies with a Stan Lee cameo have an RT score over 38% while 10% are certified “Rotten”. When you flip it, 65% of Marvel movies and TV shows without a Stan Lee cameo are certified “Rotten” while 35% are certified “Fresh”.

When you look at the box office numbers you see something similar. Most movies where Stan Lee’s mustache shows up are hits but they usually bomb without him.

What does that mean? Stan Lee pops up in a ton of popular Marvel properties. Coincidence?

Why Do Stan Lee Cameos Make Movies Better?

We can assume it’s not Lee’s acting skills that lead to higher returns. It’s not that he’s a terrible actor, but most of the time he doesn’t have any lines. In Iron Man, he doesn’t talk, but it’s still an awesome cameo.

Also, we have to accept that most of his cameos are by Marvel Studios and MCU movies tend to be successful. Not every Marvel superhero movie is made by Marvel Studios and he’s had some success in movies by Sony Entertainment and Fox Studios movies like Spider-Man and X-Men. But usually, the Marvel Studios films bring in the money. Being in popular movies raises his overall score. But there are some things that have everything to do with Stan “The Man”.

A Stan Lee cameo is usually pretty funny, but it has to fit the tone. Having Lee say, “Superheroes in New York? Give me a break” or “Oh, I am so fired” usually gets a laugh. That fits in The Avengers but it doesn’t fit in Fantastic Four (2015). The most popular superhero movies have a good sense of humor. One exception to that is when he was looking up at a nuclear missile launch in X-Men: Apocalypse. His cameos usually play on his natural sense of comic timing.

Another reason is that Stan Lee is an expert on his characters, so it’s worth getting his thoughts on the film. Not that a director is going to rewrite his movie based on Lee’s recommendations, but you’ll notice he made a point of saying that the makers of Fantastic Four never contacted him. Usually having him involved gives the movie some insight into the comic books. Lee wasn’t involved in Fantastic Four and it’s rumored that the director Josh Trank told the crew not to bother reading the comic books. Coincidence?

A final reason is that a Stan Lee cameo is part of a series of hidden jokes in the film, known as “Easter Eggs”. Details that reference comic book history without being obvious. Geeks like me love Easter Eggs and will watch a movie over and over for a glimpse of some random part of comic book lore. So, fans will go back to the theaters to see a Stan Lee cameo. Mo’ money. Mo’ money. Mo’ money.

Stan Lee definitely makes movies more popular because of his humor, style and comic book knowledge. So, the next time you see Stan Lee’s face pop up on-screen, feel free to yell “Excelsior!”

‘Nuff said.

How do you feel? Does a Stan Lee cameo make you enjoy a movie more? Which is your favorite cameo?

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