Stan Lee on Who Wants to Be a Superhero?

Reality TV shows have attracted a record number of viewers in recent years. SCI FI Channel’s reality series “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?” aired for six episodes last season. Bill Brennan with SCI FI acknowledged the show’s rating increased steadily each week.

Superhero Hype! sat in on a press conference interview for “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?” with Stan Lee, an icon in the comic book industry. Lee is the creator and/or co-creator of many superheroes including Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, X-Men and Silver Surfer. “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?” is one of Lee’s latest successful ventures in television.

Q: I’m just wondering if any of these characters, the superhero wannabes, really believe the hype and believe who they are.

Stan Lee: Well if you mean if they believe that they have whatever superpower given themselves, I think in their innermost thoughts and beliefs they know that this is just something they made up. However, as with any mode of entertainment, they have got to go along with it just to keep the show interesting.

Q: Is the world more in need of superheroes today? I’m wondering if you got up on “Stan’s Soapbox” how you would describe that need.

Lee: I would say the world is certainly in need of somebody who could bring all of the different sects together and make us all realize that if there is a Creator, we were all created by the same one. I don’t think he, she, or it, wanted to show any favorites. There is just too much hatred in the world. That’s the big problem. If we in our own little way can do something to make it just seem as though we are all really a deserving people–no matter who and what we are. Also, you’ve got to remember that this is a reality show. It’s not scripted so we don’t know how things are going to turn out as we get moving along.

Q: Did you ever get the feeling during the first weeks of that first season that maybe a few of the contestants had never picked up a comic book in their lives?

Lee: Honest to God, I had never even thought of that. It didn’t occur to me. It doesn’t really matter to me if they read comic books or not to tell the truth. It’s just are they enjoying this whole thing about pretending they are superheroes. And do they want to go along with it. I assume though that most of them have either read or certainly looked at or been aware of comics.

Q: Has there ever been anyone who auditioned that you knew quite well they were not going to make it on the show but they made you laugh really hard?

Lee: Oh, a hell of a lot of them. There was one girl who bared her breasts. There were guys who just were the most ridiculous, unbelievable, and powers they gave themselves, and some who were so funny looking that you couldn’t believe it as far as their costumes. We couldn’t use them because they were too extreme, but at the same time we did get a big laugh out of them. In the back of my mind I was thinking, “Well I don’t know, maybe the fact that they are so extreme should make us use them. Maybe the audience would laugh.” But then you walk a fine line. Are we looking for the viewers to laugh or to give them a little credibility? It isn’t easy picking these ones.

Q: You were interviewed at the upcoming BBC documentary “In Search of Steve Ditko.”

Lee: Oh, yes. Has that come out already?

Q: Not yet. Still forthcoming I believe. When was the last time you had contact with Steve? I know he has been a bit of a recluse.

Lee: Quite a few years ago I met him up at the Marvel offices when I was last in New York. We spoke a while. He is a hell of a nice guy. It was very pleasant.

Q: Do you know if he is still working at all? I know he hasn’t had anything printed lately.

Lee: You know I really don’t know what he is doing. I haven’t heard from him since that meeting.

Q: A lot of what makes a great hero is obviously the fatal flaw they have. When these people here are creating their own superheroes, since they are human anyway, they are going to be flawed in some way. Do you recommend that they create a character flaw for their character, or do you figure that the natural humanness is going to come out during the reality show itself?

Lee: I’ve never had that question thrown at me before so I congratulate you. Basically, I think most people have enough flaws that we don’t have to worry about creating any. Frankly, I hadn’t even thought of that before. All of our contestants and all of the people on the crew also seem to come with enough natural flaws that it hasn’t been much of a problem for us.

Q: People who are more familiar with comics would kind of assume their character was going to have a flaw because of thinking in terms of a comic book they were thinking in terms of a flaw. Do this year’s contestants, even though some of them are more familiar with comics than others, do they get that into it, or is it more like they’re having this be a reflection of their own personality taken to a higher or extreme level?

Lee: I think it is more the latter. It’s their own personality taken to a higher level. Don’t forget, the one thing we’re looking for mostly is not so much what their superpower is, as what is inside of them. You know–their own make-up–their mental and psychological make-up and how much courage they have, how much loyalty and so forth, a feeling of right and wrong. As far as the flaws go, I think you will find that as the elimination process proceeds, almost every one of them is eliminated at some point because of something he or she failed to do, which in a way touches on whatever flaws they might have.

Q: It seems like every summer now is like Marvel comics time. Do you go see movies when they are in the theater or do you see them in advance when somebody does like a Spider-Man or X-Men or one of your movies? Do you see them in advance or do you prefer to see them in a theater?

Lee: I think my answer will surprise you. I have not seen the Fantastic Four movie yet because I don’t have time to go to the movies. I will probably see it when it comes out on DVD. Most of the others I’ve seen because I go to the premiere. You know, where they have a special showing and a red carpet and all of that. I wasn’t able to go to the one at the Fantastic Four because they had it in London. I just don’t have time to go to the movies. So if I don’t see it at a special showing I have to wait until I get the DVD, which is quite enjoyable. I like watching them on DVD because I can stop them whenever I want. I can go back and see something over again, usually my own cameo, of course.

Q: So, it’s just like a comic book. With a comic book you can read over and over again as well, and you know, kind of go back a few pages.

Lee: I guess I betrayed my background by what I just told you.

Q: It’s been mentioned that you’ll be appearing not on the monitor, but in real life this season. What other changes can we expect to see?

Lee: I think that was a little bit confusing. I am on the monitor, of course, but I also will appear as a character in the show very briefly as a surprise. At least I hope it will be a surprise. We’ll have to wait and see.

Q: What was the decision to bring on Balls Mahoney from the ECW into the cast, the wrestler?

Lee: It just seemed like a good thing to do. He was colorful and interesting. The one thing you want to do with the show is have colorful and interesting people. That’s why they don’t show too much of me. I’m just in the monitor.

Q: What are some of the other tweaks that are being made for Season Two?

Lee: The biggest changes really are trying to dream up some tests that we haven’t seen before, which will be surprising, which will be provocative. The style of the show is still pretty much the same, except we do treat the villain a little differently than we did last time.

Q: What do you think in general it is that the audiences are getting a kick out of because reality is a hot thing but we haven’t seen this kind of thing done before?

Lee: I think we live in a world today where we are so subjected to every type of entertainment that you can imagine. I think that if you come up with a different angle, something that is a little different that we haven’t seen that much of before, you are already halfway home. And I think, really for better or worse, there is no show particularly like “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?” So I think the novelty of it alone is enough to grab some viewers. Hopefully if the characters themselves are interesting enough and colorful enough, and if they say and do unexpected things, I think that is another grabber. See, in most shows, anybody who has watched a bit of television can practically anticipate everything that is going to come next. There aren’t that many things you can surprise the viewer with anymore. I would like to think that “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?” is replete with surprises for better or for worse.

Q: How big a kick do you get out of the cameos that you are making in the films? I thought the one for the Fantastic Four 2 was particularly inventive. The whole wedding angle plays on the comic book.

Lee: Luckily, Tim Story the director is a comic book fan and he remembered that sequence from the comic book. I wish I could take credit for the cameo. Tim told me what it would be and I was thrilled. I didn’t come up with the idea. I love doing those cameos. As a matter of fact, I was very disappointed they didn’t have one for me in Batman or Superman.

Q: Are they going to have one for you in Iron Man?

Lee: They have already done it, and wait until you see it. It is probably the most unexpected and the most startling one yet.

Q: You had mentioned last season’s villain. You had the Iron Enforcer. I was curious about this season with the contestants; how well did they get along? Was there anyone like Iron Enforcer that causes some friction in the house?

Lee: Well, I don’t want to give away any surprises, but we do it a little differently than we did with the Iron Enforcer. It’s a whole different way of doing the villain and you’ll really have to see for yourself. No matter what I tell you, it’ll be telling you too much.

Q: The Feedback comic book came out last week. I know it wasn’t put out by Marvel, but at some point would you love to see another one who could be a superhero character like Feedback have a crossover with say Spider-Man?

Lee: Boy that would be fun. Of course, that would be up to Marvel. As far as I am concerned, I’d love to do it, sure.

Q: Was that fun for you to work on that Feedback comic book?

Lee: It sure was because it has been so long since I’ve done that type of story. The only thing that I missed a little bit was that I wasn’t the editor of the book. I just did the script, but then it was drawn and done according to the way they did at that company. I’m used to having real control with every script I’ve ever done and I didn’t with this one. Even though I think it was beautifully done, as I read it there were so many things I said to myself and thought, “Gee, I would have done it this way, or I might have colored it this way.” You are never satisfied if it isn’t exactly the way you would have done it.

Q: I saw at Comic-Con that at the end of the month they are going to be selling a Stan Lee action figure. Is that funny to be seeing yourself as an action figure that you can play with the mobile figures now?

Lee: When I spoke to Hasbro about a year ago and they asked me if they could make a figure like that I swear I thought they were joking. I said, “Sure, why not?” The next thing I knew I saw an ad. I can’t believe it. I mean me as an action figure? At least they don’t call them dolls anymore. Luckily somebody came up with the phrase ‘action figure’ so now guys don’t mind buying them.

Q: As a child did you ever envision yourself as a superhero? And if so, what special powers did you want to possess?

Lee: I’ll be honest with you, I never thought of myself as a superhero. If I possessed a power, I think I would want to be able to write faster than I do. I always have so many ideas for stories but I can’t get them all down fast enough.

Q: Is there any one superhero that best associates your personality?

Lee: Probably Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, because at least the way that I used to write him in the beginning. He always talked too much, he used a lot of big words and he bored the other three like giving them lengthy explanations on things they weren’t interested in anyway. I think I kind of modeled him after myself.

Q: Is there something you have yet to achieve in your long and prosperous career that you would like to do in the near future?

Lee: I haven’t starred in a movie yet. I haven’t been threatening Sean Connery’s career in any way. I haven’t ever written a novel. I thought I would when I was young, but then I found out I don’t have the patience for it, which is why I have probably limited myself to comics. I can write a comic book in one day. The idea of spending week after week working on a novel, I’m just not geared for that, but that’s about it.

Q: Kids (and even adults) for years have been fascinated with and enjoyed comic books and superheroes. Do you think that superheroes and their role in today’s society have changed the way it reaches out to the current generation and current times?

Lee: No, I think it’s pretty much the same. I think it doesn’t matter what generation it is. I think people have always loved reading about it, and now seeing it on film and television of stories of people who can do things that they don’t have. People who for want of a better word, have super powers. That goes way back to El Syd, to William Tell, to King Arthur. I mean all of our history, our literary history, deals with heroes, whether it is someone who is a mental giant like Sherlock Holmes or somebody physical, or it goes back to fairy tales when we were kids we all read fairy tales of one courageous person who is fighting giants and trolls and werewolves and witches and so forth. People, just, I think love stories about somebody who can do things they can’t and is somebody good and who they wish would be on their side if ever they were in trouble. I hope I didn’t talk too much like Reed Richards and confuse everybody listening.

Q: What are you looking for in a superhero with the show?

Lee: I’m looking for somebody that viewers will enjoy watching and listening to. It sounds easy but to find those kinds of people is difficult. Then you have another problem with the show. You might find two people with who you think would be great, but they are a little too similar. You also want to look for variety so you’ve got to exclude one. You want somebody who is strong, you want somebody who is weaker, you want a woman, you want a man, you want a special kind of woman, a different kind of a man. You know exactly what you want but you can’t have more than one of that because you want this variety. I think the toughest part of the show is just picking the contestants. After that, it pretty much works out for itself.

Q: What do you like about hosting your own show as opposed to being Marvel’s head honcho?

Lee: I don’t even think of myself as the host of the show because it isn’t that kind of a show. I’m really a character in the show who tries not to intrude on the really exciting stuff that is happening. Being Marvel’s head honcho, that was so many years ago, I can almost not remember it. The thing that was most fun about that was the people I worked with. I was lucky enough to work with probably the most talented artists and writers and colorists that the world has ever known. Now, out here in Hollywood I’m also working with tremendously talented people and so I don’t think things have changed all that much.

Q: Do you ever see yourself doing a super-team on another show?

Lee: If the show goes on long enough, and obviously I hope it will for years and years, there is no reason why we couldn’t take some former winners and turn them into the Justice League or the Avengers, or whatever. That would really be fun.

Q: What is the weirdest tryout character that you have ever seen?

Lee: Oh gosh, there were so many of them I can’t remember them all. One guy dressed himself up in a big balloon. I forget what he called himself, but all that were showing was the legs. The rest was a king-sized, human-sized balloon. They make up all kinds of names and powers themselves. The amazing thing is they all act as though they take it so seriously. Obviously they know it is just an act they are putting on, but within that framework they do take it seriously. They come up with these great background stories of how they have gotten their powers. The auditions, we ought to do a whole show just of the auditions. Maybe we’ll do that some day.

Q: Originality can be difficult as far as superheroes goes. Do you see a lot of already tried ideas in the tryouts you see?

Lee: Of course, there are a few that resemble comic book characters, but I think most of the applicants are smart enough to know they’ve got to come up with something new. That’s why so many of them seem so weird and so surprisingly different, things you would have never thought of. But to answer your question, no, there weren’t too many that were based on characters already in existence. So I think the caliper or the imagination of our contestants is to be lauded.

Q: Has anyone ever auditioned for the show and you just thought that rather than be a hero they would be a much better villain, not because of the superhero powers they came up with but because they had, like, anger management issues?

Lee: Very rarely. There was one or two that I might have thought that, but most of them fell into two categories. They were either very heroic or very much like clowns—very funny. Dozens of them also seemed like they would they would make good sidekicks. Not too many seemed villainous. The only thing is we could take any person who gives him or herself a superhero power and imagine that person as a villain or a villainous and it wouldn’t be too hard to rewrite the whole and make them evil. Generally since we were looking just for heroes we weren’t trying to think of who might make a good villain. That really didn’t cross our mind.

Q: Do you think there is a fundamental mistake that people make when trying to come up with a superhero character, something they just don’t think of or they forget to do?

Lee: The thing is, it seems like the easiest thing in the world. So, I think to most people they figure “well, gee, I can do that easily enough.” I remember when I was back at Marvel I used to get so much fan mail from young kids. Somebody would write in a letter, “I want to call myself Tomato Man,” or “I want to call myself Brick Man. I’m as strong as a brick.” Anything that was a noun, they would figure could be a power. To them it made a lot of sense. To a lot of people it seems very simple. “I’ll be able to fly so I’ll call myself The Sparrow,” or “I can dig underground so I’ll call myself The Mole.” There is really nothing wrong with that. You could take a simple concept that someone comes up with and give it to a good enough writer who is imaginative enough and can come up with enough different angles and could probably make it work. It’s almost up to us to make them relatable. Once the person comes up with the gimmick then we try to talk to that person and fashion it so it could seem like a real super power. I don’t expect these contestants, who are just people from every walk of life, to come up with the next Batman or Superman or Spider-Man. If they have any idea of a kernel of a good concept then we try to work on it with them and come up with something that conceivably could make a comic book hero—or a motion picture hero.

Q: With this new season, when the first episode comes out at the end of July, how far ahead are you guys going to be?

Lee: We are not all that far ahead. We are like a week or two ahead because we’re working on it all the time, editing them and putting them together, and making sense out of them and improving them. It’s a real difficult show to do because we’re working on these episodes almost until it is time to put them on the air.

Q: Is it tough to keep things secretive since you are working on them till it’s almost time to put it on the air, like, which hero doesn’t make it to the next episode or things like that?

Lee: They have got to make it to the next episode. We can’t miss the date, but as I say it is difficult. It’s only because we are trying so hard. We want this to be a good show. In each episode there is so much good stuff that we put on film, but it is more than you time for. It’s only an hour show. We have to eliminate a lot of it. The arguments that we have, “well, I think we ought to eliminate that–no, no, that’s too good–if you keep that in let’s eliminate this–oh, no you don’t, that was my favorite part.” You could make a whole show just out of us arguing about what stays and what goes.

Q: What do you think about taking a couple of winners down the line and find someone to be their sidekick?

Lee: That’s a good idea. We have kicked that idea around. Maybe when we are in our fifth year or sixth year and we are looking for some variety. Maybe we will spin off a show, or maybe sooner than that called “Who Wants to Be a Sidekick?” and we’ll let the sidekicks compete. After we pick a few sidekicks we’ll decide which superhero do you want to be a sidekick for or to? I don’t know what the word would be. You’re a sidekick to somebody or maybe with. At any rate, there are all sorts of different situations we can come up with. I think this thing will go on forever if people keep watching it.

Q: San Antonio was one of the host cities for auditions. One of the contestants who auditioned there was called The Defuser. He is from Austin. I was wondering what you thought of him. He seems very serious–like a born leader. He is a police officer, but do you think he should lighten up a bit?

Lee: Maybe him not lightening up is part of his character and personality. We have a few of them who do lighten up. We don’t want to change their personalities at all. We just want to take what it is they have and bring it out to the fullest extent. Incidentally, I am very glad that San Antonio was one of the auditioning cities. I understand at city hall there is a plaque being put up commemorating that event. If there isn’t—there should be.

Q: As far as the contestants go, you say that it’s great to be a leader, it’s great to be strong, but you also have to have the human side of a superhero.

Lee: The human side is one of the most important things to us. As you can imagine, this isn’t like being extreme sports or something where the ones who are the strongest are going to win. This is going to be the ones who have the most endurance, the ones who refuse to give up, the ones who, perhaps, are the cleverest and can figure out a way to accomplish something. If it were just brute strength it would be a different kind of show. And if it were just using the magic powers that attribute to themselves, it would be a different show. The main thing as I have said before, the inner qualities that anybody is capable of possessing, those are the things that ultimately make the winner of each episode. I might add that the toughest thing in the world for me each time I have to do it is I wish that I hadn’t taken on this task, and that’s at the end of every episode is asking somebody to leave the show because he or she has been eliminated. You fall in love with these people. They all care so much, they are all doing their best, and yet, at the end of every show I’ve got to look somebody in the eye and say you’ve got to turn in your costume. I just hate doing that. In fact, if we do it for a third year, I want to see if I can get somebody else to say that. These people have been through so much and they care so much. They are not bad. Every one of them is good. It’s just by the nature of the show. One has to drop out each week.

Q: How many tests do they have to go through before they are chosen? How many contestants were there from the beginning? Do they have to go through many stages?

Lee: There were literally hundreds of applicants. Luckily I’m not the one who has to choose from the hundreds. Gill (Champion, executive producer on the show) was just telling me I’m wrong, there were thousands of applicants, but we narrowed it down to a few hundred. We had a whole staff that interviewed them all until we got to that handful that I and the other producers would interview. It’s not easy if you try to do it fairly, which we do try to do. There are so many things to take into consideration, personality, uniqueness, appeal, and all those things. By the time you have made your choice, you hope you have chosen correctly. You’ve got to go with something.

Q: What do you think of this plan to reboot the Hulk series with “The Incredible Hulk” with a completely new cast and director?

Lee: I think it is a great idea because the Hulk is a terrific character and I think there were just a few things wrong with the first movie. I think those things can be rectified and remedied in the second movie. I think the second movie will really surprise everybody. I think it will be an enormous hit.

Q: Were you unhappy with the earlier one?

Lee: I was too busy admiring so many of the things the director did because he tried to get a unique really comic book feeling into it. The way he laid one scene over another; I thought the way the special effects were done with the Hulk himself was very good. There was just some story points which I think made it a little less pleasing to the audience than it should have been.

Q: So you were on the set of “Iron Man.” How do you feel that is shaping up?

Lee: On man, that is going to be a big one, mainly of course because of my cameo. (He laughs) Robert Downey Jr. is one of the finest actors. To get him to be superhero I mean that is real cool. I’ve only seen a little bit of it but he is magnificent in the role. The director Jon Favreau has this thing down cold and the rest of the cast is great. If you could really overlook my silly cameo I think the movie is going to be a monster hit because it is something totally different than anything we have seen before. And having something different is so important as proven by the Transformers. For better or worse, nobody has ever seen anything done like that on the screen before. I think we are living in a world where people just want visual excitement. They want to see things they haven’t seen. With “Iron Man” the scenes are coupled with what I think is a really good story.

Q: You haven’t seen “Silver Surfer” yet, but you’re happy with the way Tim Story is handling that series?

Lee: Sure, sure. It’s a tough series to do. I think Story is a real fan and I think he is doing the best he can. The best thing about it was the cameo he gave me so he is a hero to me.

Q: “Spider-Man 3” continues to do well but some of the fans were actual rather critical of this one. What do you think about that? That there was too much going on in the story and certain characters didn’t get enough to do?

Lee: I would think that Marvel was just trying to give them their money’s worth. By the way, I hope somebody at Marvel is listening to this and will send me a big fat bonus for all the promotion I’m giving them. Seriously there were three villains in the third Spider-Man. There was the New Goblin, there was Sandman, and there was Venom. Again, I think they were just trying to give everybody his or her money’s worth.

Q: Do you ever get ideas for new comic books or want to go back to writing and illustrating?

Lee: I sometimes feel I would like to write a comic hit. I did something called “The Last Fantastic Four Story.” They asked me to do a forty-eight page one of what would it be like if I had to write a story that would end the series—how would I end it. I just finished writing it and John Romita, Jr. drew it. I think it will go on sale pretty soon. That’s the most recent one I’ve done. Of course I did the Feedback comic for “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?” I did the Stan Lee Meets series a year ago where I meet the various heroes themselves. Mostly I’m spending time with my new company POW! (Purveyors of Wonder) Entertainment. We’re working on movies and television and video games and DVDs and whatever I can find a way to write. We have a deal with Disney now which is very exciting.

Q: What comics are you enjoying reading right now?

Lee: To tell you the truth, I don’t have time to read them. Sometimes my assistant will bring a couple of books and slap them on the desk and say hey these look really cool. You’d better look through it so I’ll just thumb through the pages and look at the artwork. As you can imagine the other work that I do keeps me so busy that anything that I do that takes me away from it I shouldn’t do. Even with a show like “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?” you have no idea how time consuming this is. I love doing things like these interviews. I could have read two comic books in this time. To me this is more fun and more important.

Q: I was wondering what it was like working on the set with Stan and the other cast members?

Gill Champion: We’ll first, working with Stan you have to dedicate 10 hours a day, seven days a week. Usually by 11 PM I try to shut off my BlackBerry to prevent any more additional emails coming through for the rest of the night.

Q: Were there any challenges that you had to overcome that you weren’t expecting?

Champion: It’s always challenging to be working with Stan because he sees things differently than any other human being sees things. There is always a tinge of imagination and things that are kind of a mixture between fantasy and reality all the time going through his mind. And certainly sitting down at the computer watching what he’s writing on an ongoing basis.

Q: Were there any unusual or surprising situations that popped up on the set?

Champion: It’s amazing because Stan, although he is overseeing the show, had no direct contact with the cast initially. When you watch the admiration from everybody that was up for interviews and up to hopefully become a contestant, it’s just amazing to see the vast differences that are raised from people from all walks of life that have either read his material or are certainly aware of him. And how much of an impact it has made in their lives no matter where they came from or what their professions or backgrounds is. It never ceases to amaze me.

The second season premiere of “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?” will premiere on Thursday, July 26 at 9/8c. There will be eight episodes this season. Visit the official website to learn more about the contestants!

Source: Alice Chapman Newgen