Marvel of a man
If Stan Lee - the Marvel Comics 'generalissimo' as he is known to his hordes of fans worldwide - could have one superpower right now, it would be the ability to speak all the world's languages.
'I wish I didn't have to talk to you now because I haven't finished my Chinese language lessons yet. Maybe if I have another minute I'd become more fluent,' the 89-year-old quips down the crackling line from Los Angeles.
Lee is on a publicity blitz for not only The Amazing Spider-Man - fourth in the blockbuster series that gives the popular comic a hormone-fuelled makeover under director Marc Webb - which opened in Asia and the US last week, but also his 'first global Chinese superhero', The Annihilator, announced at the Shanghai International Film Festival last month.
The man behind Spider-Man, Iron Man and the X-Men is also planning to stage a 'rock opera' at a casino in Macau next year.
The Annihilator is a co-production between the mainland's National Film Capital, the official funding body that finances joint ventures in the movie industry, and Magic Storm Entertainment, a Hollywood-based film finance company that specialises in developing Stan Lee film franchises for mainland audiences. According to Gill Champion, who co-founded the production and licensing company POW! with Lee, shooting for the new movie - written by Dan Gilroy (Real Steel, The Bourne Legacy) - is scheduled to begin in early 2013. Eric Mika, chief executive of Magic Storm, says the film will have a 2014 release, with a budget of more than US$100 million.
The story is typical Marvel: it tells of 'a Chinese young man who has a tragic incident happen to him', says Lee, 'and he has to flee the country for a while and comes to America.'
As the story progresses, he gets a 'very colourful and unusual set of superpowers, and he uses these superpowers to right some wrongs in America. And then for a really emotional and exciting climax, he returns to China where he has his final battle with a very powerful super villain.
'And I don't want to have you worried a second longer. I want you to know our hero triumphs at the end,' Lee says.
These 'superpowers' will be original and beyond the traditional martial arts moves, Champion says.
Part of the appeal of Marvel heroes - many are Lee's creations - is that despite their great powers and physical perfection, they all have flaws. The Annihilator will be no exception.
'I think he is a character who very much lives in today's world; and he has the same problems as most of the people who will be watching the movie and he will be extremely empathetic. People will relate to him,' Lee says. 'They will see a little bit of themselves in him and they will be incredibly happy when he emerges triumphantly at the end of the movie.'
The main villain will also be Chinese, he says. 'We thought it would be interesting to have a Chinese superhero and a Chinese super villain.'
The search is on for the actor who will play the title role. Champion says they 'are also hoping this movie will lend itself to a number of sequels such as many Marvel movies have had; chances are we'd like to find an actor who could be available for two or three sequels as well'.
Born Stanley Martin Lieber to Romanian immigrants in New York City, Lee started from the bottom at Timely Comics, a publisher that eventually evolved into Marvel Comics. By the 1960s, he had either helped create or created a whole new breed of superheroes including The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers and The X-Men; all have been adapted into movies. 'They have, for the most part, been very faithful to my vision; the ones that were most successful financially were actually the ones that were the most faithful to my vision, I'm happy to say,' Lee says.
But it was his Spider-Man who captured the imagination of comics fans and earned the teenage hero a place in the same league as Superman and Batman from DC Comics. It is not surprising that Peter Parker is Lee's favourite character.
'I tried to write him as though he's just an average teenager who isn't the most popular boy with the other kids, who isn't the most popular boy with the girls, who has to worry about making a living. The fact he has an aunt who is ill and he has to look after her, I gave him enough personal problems so that almost anybody reading it could think, yeah, I can understand that, I've been through that myself,' says Lee. 'I try to make him a typical, realistic human being who somehow gained a superpower.'
Not that all of his superheroes are underdogs: 'Tony Stark as Iron Man is incredibly popular and successful around the world; he is a multi-billionaire and the women love him, but of course I gave him a problem too. He has an injured heart which we have to worry about because at any time his heart may prove fatal. So they have different problems.'
Worldwide box office for the previous three Spider-Man films has tallied US$2.5 billion and big things are expected of the latest instalment.
Comics and movies aside, Lee has also been busy with online ventures including his YouTube channel, called 'Stan Lee's World of Heroes', and tweeting to his 300,000-plus followers daily.
Next year, he will be also dabbling in stage production by bringing the rock opera to Macau; details are still sketchy.
'It's a different type of rock opera,' Lee says. 'It's very big and the great difference between this and others is ... I cannot explain this to you other than to say the audience itself is part of the story. When you are in the audience, you are part of what's going on.'
Champion says the production will utilise modern technologies that 'haven't been used in typical live action shows and we are calling this the 'First Chapter of a Living Comic Book''. Although he declines to reveal how much the production will cost or where it will be staged, Champion says the original show will feature at least 25 principal performers, both heroes and villains.
'The one thing we always try to do now is, whatever we come up with, whether it's a movie, a show, or a television show, we try to make sure it's different from what people have seen before,' says Lee.
'We don't want to just repeat what's been done. We want to take all of that knowledge, all of the experience that we have gained over the decades, and we want to put them to use with original ideas where the concept will be as exciting as the story itself.'
The Amazing Spider-Man is screening now