It was a melancholy milestone on Friday: Marvel Comics pioneer Stan Lee would have been celebrating his 96th birthday and likely basking in the achievement of Black Panther and The Avengers: Infinity War, which are about to finish 2018 as the year’s two top-grossing films. Both movies were (like so many superhero movies) based on Lee’s creations.
The publishing icon died Nov. 12 in Los Angeles as the comic book medium’s greatest ambassador and as Hollywood’s long-reigning King of Cameos. But in the 1960s, Lee was a relentless I.P. machine, churning out new signature Marvel characters almost by the month at times. It didn’t hurt that he was collaborating with legendary artists like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita, John Buscema, Wally Wood, and Gene Colan.
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Today, to spotlight Lee’s legacy, a look back at Lee’s creations ranked by their screen success in Hollywood, with a weighted emphasis on feature film appearances.
To add some guest commentary to the process we invited the participation of Michael Uslan, one of Lee’s longtime Hollywood friends and a superhero specialist himself — although his typical turf is Gotham City, not the Marvel Universe. Uslan, a former comic book writer, has been a producer or executive producer on DC Comics adaptations dating back to 1982’s Swamp Thing with credits that include Batman (1989), The Dark Knight (2008), Justice League (2016) and the upcoming Joker (October 2019), starring Joaquin Phoenix.
Deadline Genre Editor Geoff Boucher and Uslan each began with their own Top 20 list of Marvel characters with green success that were co-created by Lee. That eliminated plenty of notable characters (among them Wolverine, Captain America, Deadpool, Winter Soldier and the Punisher) who were created by other Marvel writers. After some lively discussion and compromise our two judges delivered the final Top 15, which you’ll find in the ranking below.
No. 15 Hawkeye: (Introduced in 1964 by Lee and Heck) Portrayed by Jeremy Renner in four films and returns to the role for Avengers: Endgame (in theaters April 26). The Marvel marksman is a notch above any other archer in the world — and he’s appeared in three of the 20 highest-grossing films in Hollywood history. Uslan (an admitted partisan of DC Comics) took a potshot at the character. “Hawkeye? See ‘Green Arrow.’ ”
No. 14. Black Widow: (Introduced in 1964 by Lee, Don Rico and Heck) Portrayed by Scarlett Johansson in six Marvel Studios films with a seventh, Avengers: Endgame, on the way in 2019. After years on the back burner, the solo Black Widow film project heated up in 2018 after the hiring of director Cate Shortland. Uslan notes that Black Widow and Hawkeye are two of the many Lee-created heroes who were introduced as a villain or as a former criminal. Three others in that category — Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and the Falcon — were considered for this list but didn’t make the cut.
No. 13 Nick Fury: (Introduced 1963 by Lee and Kirby) Portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson in eight Marvel Studios films with a ninth, Captain Marvel, on the way March 8, 2019. Also portrayed by David Hasselhoff in the Fox television movie Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. The character was introduced to Marvel readers as Sgt. Nick Fury, the gruff, cigar-chomping leader of the Howlers, an eccentric WWII commando team but moviegoers know him as the savvy spymaster and geo-political force. Uslan: “The WWII adventures of Fury’s commandos is a movie I want to see.” Boucher: “Well, you can watch it tonight. Just go buy the Blu-Ray of Inglourious Basterds.”
No. 12. The Hulk (Introduced 1962 by Lee and Kirby) Mark Ruffalo has portrayed Bruce Banner and/or the Hulk in five films to date. Also on the big screen: Edward Norton (in 2008) and Eric Bana (in 2003) played the unjolly green giant. Long before the CG era, Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno tag-teamed the role for CBS on 80 episodes The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982) plus five made-for-TV movies. Shocked to see Hulk outside the Top 10? Uslan didn’t rank him in Top 15 at all. “He peaked on TV. The movies never understood he was meant to be a cross between Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein, not King Kong.”
No. 11. Groot (Introduced 1960 by Lee, Kirby and Larry Leiber) Vin Diesel gives voice to the alien tree-like creature who doesn’t say much (“I am Groot,” mostly) but has become a fan-favorite appearing in three Marvel Studios films to date. His roots run deep: Groot’s 1960 debut in Tales to Astonish makes him the oldest character on this list. Introduced as a one-off “monster of the month” story but revived 46 years later. “Just think,” Uslan said, “an afternoon afterthought becomes ingrained in Hollywood’s Marvel mythology!”
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