Yesterday the world lost one of the most important leaders of the 21st Century. Stanley Martin Lieber, better known as Stan Lee, passed away at age 95. The affable, energetic Marvel Comics Chariman co-created most of its A-list heroes and villains, from the original Avengers to Spider-Man and the X-Men. And many of these characters, especially the ones starring in box-office shattering Hollywood spectacles, have something in common.
"Their fluency in science and technology is a big part of their super power, if not their entire super power in some cases," Avengers: Infinity War co-director Anthony Russo told me back in March "That's a core part of their identity and who they are."
In that story, I argued that's great for getting kids interested in STEM to help fill the skills gap, but Stan Lee's creations have been around for 60+ years and have already made a huge impact. It's impossible to know how many scientists and technologists, programmers and futurists, real people who have made real advancements for the good of all humanity, were influenced by Lee spinning yarns where the geeks are secretly the cool kids and having great power also comes with the responsibility to help those around you.
"Stan Lee was as extraordinary as the characters he created. A super hero in his own right to Marvel fans around the world, Stan had the power to inspire, to entertain, and to connect. The scale of his imagination was only exceeded by the size of his heart," said Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, parent company of Marvel.
Here are a few characters (out of more than 300 he helped create) who exemplify Lee's influence on science and industry.
The case has been made that Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, altered the course of history through the tech aboard the Starship Enterprise. And no one argues that, but that show started in 1966 and aired for three seasons. Lee and Jack Kirby's space-faring Fantastic Four came out in 1961, led by Reed Richards a physicist/electrical engineer who wanted to get to Mars. He also often stretched himself thin and had thousand other inventions. It really sounds like Richards, and ultimately Lee, inspired Elon Musk, who also wants to build a rocket ship by himself and is often stretched way too thin.
And as far as innovations go, the Baxter Building was arguably the first smart factory, with all the connected machines and quantum doodads feeding Richards data allowing him to make the more informed decisions.
Nearly every interview I have with someone working on a new exoskeleton to help paraplegics walk or ease industrial workers' repetitive tasks, or those developing augmented reality or wearable computers, inevitably leads to making Iron Man's technology real. It's clear they were influenced at some level by Lee's armored Avenger, discovered in the pages of a comic book, or more likely, at the theater. Or if they're really young, on a 7-inch smartphone.
Peng Zhou, a gifted teen roboticist from Cleveland who helped his team win the 2016 FIRST Robotics Competition and named a Kid Science Advisor by the Obama administration, says the first Iron Man movie helped inspire him to get into STEM. His goal is to invent better robotic prosthetics.
As technology advances and more and more people like Zhou work to make the world a little better one innovation at a time, it will look a lot more like the one Lee imagined.
In the 1960s, America feared nuclear annihilation, that our scientific hubris and inability to get along would be our undoing. Lee flipped the Cold war script and drafted a vision where radiation, via a spider bite, could give a brainy twerp from Queens amazing powers to swing off skyscrapers and protect the innocent. It was the ultimate underdog fantasy realized, a high school nerd getting super powers, all thanks to science.
That kid, Peter Parker, still had very human problems like paying bills and dealing with a demanding boss, making him more relatable to teens. His way of dealing with his rogue's gallery of villains was usually equal parts web kick and scientific method. Water and rubber gloves to defeat an electric enemy; the sonic vibrations of a church bell to free himself from a vibration-sensitive alien symbiote. As he progressed through college and beyond, his engineering and chemistry skills allowed him to make better gadgets and webbing. It's inspired real people to successfully build their own.
It also could have given a push to countless kids to want to learn more about what we call now the STEM disciplines, even if they didn’t make it a career. Of course, a lot did. Many at NASA, apparently.
In school, the teen always had to put up with bully Flash Thompson's taunting and teasing, then at night would throw on his suit and pummel guys named Rhino and Doctor Octopus. It was a subtle hint to smart kids that they too should hang in there—their time would come. And when it did, not to be a spiteful jerk about it.
In the first issue, Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962 written by Lee and drawn by co-creator Steve Ditko ended with the line "With great power there must also come – great responsibility."
It's an axiom that has permeated our culture, if not our actions. But sometimes it does.
When Bill Gates stepped down from Microsoft in 2006 to focus on philanthropic work, he said, "I believe that with great wealth comes great responsibility, a responsibility to give back to society and a responsibility to see that those resources are put to work in the best possible way to help those most in need."
Lee's final legacy will be he created a rich, imaginative universe, and in the process, made ours all the better for it. For that, we will never forget him.