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.
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!”
No. 10. Daredevil (Introduced 1964 by Lee and Everett) Charlie Cox portrayed the sightless hero of Hell’s Kitchen on the gone-too-soon Netflix series Daredevil as well as The Defenders. Ben Affleck starred in the 2003 feature film also called Daredevil. This character will move up the list in the years to come if he gets the screen adaptation he deserves. Uslan is apparently the Man Without Fear when it comes to indelicate humor: “What was wrong with those Daredevil filmmakers? Were they blind to his potential?”
No. 9. Fantastic Four (Introduced 1961, Lee and Kirby) Portrayed in four feature films (a low-budget 1992 effort; the first Fox adaptation and its sequel in 2002 and 2007; and the Fox reboot of 2015). The F.F. also have animated history on television. The on-screen future is hopefully far brighter than its on-screen past, which has never lived up to the brand’s glory in its original medium. “The series known as ‘The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine’ became ‘The World’s Lamest Movies,'” Uslan lamented. He said the classic comics saga of the Silver Surfer deserves another shot at movie theaters but in a different medium that can handle its extra-large cosmic backdrop. “Will it take an animated feature to do justice to the greatest story arc in the history of comic books?”
No. 8 Doctor Strange (Introduced in 1963, by Lee and Ditko) Portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in three films and returning to action in Avengers: Endgame as well as a sequel to the character’s 2016 solo film. Also adapted in 1978 in a live-action TV movie. Cumberbatch is great as the imperious surgeon Stephen Strange who finds humility and a world of magic after a high-speed car crash. Thankfully, the spirit of Ditko’s singularly tripped-out artwork was imported to the silver screen along with the Sorcerer Supreme himself. Uslan: “The movie beautifully captures the real magic — the magic of the Stan and Steve collaboration.”
No. 7. Ant-Man (Introduced in 1962, Lee, Kirby and Larry Leiber) Portrayed by Paul Rudd in three Marvel movies and a key player in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame. It’s no picnic being a hero called Ant-Man, who was memorably mocked by Saturday Night Live way back in 1979. In the comics, the character never found any major sustained success but Rudd and Marvel Studios flipped that script in 2015 with the sharply satisfying Ant-Man and in 2018 with its equally good sequel. Uslan: “This is the character Stan described to me as his one greatest failure of the Marvel Age — now he becomes a $150 million blockbuster and finally finds success!”
No. 6. Thor/Loki (Introduced in 1962, by Lee and Kirby) The Thunder God of Norse myth and his conniving half-brother, Loki, the trickster Demi-god, are portrayed, respectively, by Chris Hemsworth (in seven Marvel Studios films) and Tom Hiddleston (in five Marvel films). Thor also popped up in a painfully bad live-action TV movie in 1988. Loki shares the entry on the list because of his essential contributions to the Marvel Studios screen saga. (Which is also why Loki will be getting a mini-series of his own on Disney+, the subscription streaming service.)
Hemsworth was an unknown in the U.S. when he picked up the hammer for the 2011 introductory effort Thor and he’s used it to mint a thriving career (which goes in a very different wardrobe direction next June with Men in Black: International). Uslan agreed with the rationale for this ranking but admits he’s personally underwhelmed by the Asgardian’s solo franchise. While critics largely embraced Thor: Ragnarok (2017) as an heavy-metal epic and deep-space thrill ride it left Uslan missing the 1960s version of Thor. Uslan said: “Sorry, it’s a good movie about a guy with a hammer, but he wasn’t Stan and Jack’s Thor. Didn’t look like him. Didn’t sound like him.” Boucher response: “By Odin’s Beard, thou doth protest too much.”
No. 5 Black Panther (Introduced 1966, by Lee and Kirby) Black Panther is portrayed by Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther , 2018’s biggest box-office hit in domestic release (it finished second in worldwide box office, behind Avengers: Infinity War) and two other Marvel Studios films to date.
The film has been hailed as a cultural happening and is viewed as the first super-hero film with a legitimate chance to compete in the Oscars best-picture race. Also, the Black Panther soundtrack led to eight Grammy nominations, including album of the year. Uslan: “Lee and Kirby, two middle-aged Jewish guys from New York, create a character who, at one time due to political pressures, had his name changed briefly, then eventually goes on to the big screen and smashes diversity barriers both in Hollywood and in China? An earth-shaking impact!”
No. 4. X-Men/Magneto (Introduced 1963, by Lee and Kirby) The mutants and their infamous frenemy Magneto (portrayed by Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender) were just a middling success for Marvel Comics in the 1960s and both Lee and Kirby were on to other things when the X-Men series was overhauled and became a fan sensation and Marvel’s bestseller in the 1980s. Still, the central characters, the upstate New York school setting and the outsider tones of the early X-Men stories were foundation stones for the Fox film series that has reached 11 films with two more, Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants, on deck in 2019.
Uslan said the X-Men success paved the way for comic book adaptations that were previously dismissed as too edgy or obscure. “Finally, incontrovertible proof that you can take a comic book known only to its readers and — through good stories, memorable and textured characters, and important themes — make a mainstream hit and a household brand name.”
No. 3. The Avengers (Introduced 1963, by Lee and Kirby) The all-star flagship franchise for Marvel Studios will return for its fourth film, Avengers: Endgame, in 2019, and don’t be surprised if the Disney/Marvel Studios behemoth flies into film history as the biggest box-office success of this modern era of superhero cinema. The films fill the sky with superheroes and maintain a human heart beating beneath the action and alien attacks. Uslan: “The whole is greater than the parts. Sometimes, the best summer movies are popcorn movies that you enjoy as you watch them but, three weeks later, you can’t recall much about them. Unless they involve the Infinity Gauntlet — then you can forget what I just said.”
No. 2. Iron Man (Introduced 1963, by Lee, Kirby and Larry Lieber) Portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. in eight Marvel Studios films. The pitch-perfect portrayal of Tony Stark and his metal-clad after ego salvaged Downey’s career, launched the upstart Marvel Studios on a flight path to glory and made an international pop culture brand out of a comic book character that was traditionally solid but never spectacular. Uslan: “A clear second banana as a Marvel comic book hero, the movie converted Iron Man into the leader of the cinematic Marvel Universe!”
No. 1. Spider-Man (Introduced 1961, by Lee and Ditko) Since 2002, Spider-Man has been featured in eight live-action feature films. Tom Holland stars in the ninth, Spider-Man: Far From Home, due in theaters next July. In theaters now: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the most-acclaimed animated film of 2018, and has a long history in TV animation as well as some questionable live-action attempts in the 1970s.
The most beloved Marvel Comics character? Probably and with good reason. Bullied and bespectacled, high school student Peter Parker looked like no previous super-hero when he debuted in mid-1962 as the wise-cracking wall-crawler called Spider-Man — in fact, the novice hero probably had more in common with the readers of Superman comics than he did with the Man of Steel himself. And that explains a lot about the history-making appeal of the character as the Marvel screen character that sticks. Uslan: “Into the Spider-Verse is a game-changer for feature-film animation. Add in Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films? Plus Spider-Man Homecoming? It all adds up and it’s the reason why Spider-Man has to be No. 1.”