When you think of the late, great Stan Lee (1922-2018), you probably think of his long association with Marvel Comics. He was the company’s primary creative leader for two decades – including a spell as editor-in-chief – and his tenure oversaw its expansion from a small division of a publishing house to a multimedia corporation that dominated both the comic and movie industries.
And when you think of actors whose movies have grossed a lot of money, you tend to think of the likes of Samuel L. Jackson (Jurassic Park, Pulp Fiction, countless Marvel projects etc), Zoe Saldana (Avatar, the Star Trek movies, several Marvel projects etc), Robert Downey, Jr. (countless Marvel projects, Tropic Thunder, the Sherlock Holmes movies etc) and Scarlett Johansson (countless Marvel projects, the Sing movies, The Jungle Book etc).
It may surprise you, therefore, to learn that Stan Lee is actually the highest-grossing actor of all time. We’re going to tell you how that happened.
To put it simply, thanks to his widespread popularity, Lee made cameos in a lot of movies – and the majority of those movies were Marvel blockbusters that grossed a heck of a lot of money. The great man really was synonymous with Marvel as a brand, so it was always inevitable that he’d make appearances in movies based on the company’s characters – but nobody could ever have imagined the extent to which he would do so.
Let’s break his movie appearances down into manageable chunks to explain further (note that we’ll only be including the movies in which Lee actually had a role and not movies in which there was merely a drawing of him or a reference to him).
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His Earliest Roles
Although Lee made his first movie cameo in 1989’s The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, that was a television movie and didn’t gross any money as such. Therefore, the first movie that contributes to Lee’s grossing tally is 1990’s The Ambulance ($51.3 million), in which he played himself. He then played himself again, in an extended cameo in Kevin Smith’s 1995 buddy comedy Mallrats ($2.1 million), in which he chatted with the comic-book obsessed Brodie Bruce.
In 1998, Lee had a cameo as a cop in Blade ($131.2 million), but it was cut from the final movie and therefore doesn’t count towards his tally.
While these roles were hardly significant, they would be the start of a trend that ultimately resulted in Lee exceeding the world’s most popular actors in terms of the money grossed by their movies.
Appearances In X-Men, Spider-Man, & The Superhero Uprising
The 2000s would see a massive boom in the popularity of comic book movies – and Lee’s cameos would increase exponentially going forward as a result. In fact, they became almost customary.
Lee, of course, helped to create the X-Men with Jack Kirby and his first cameo of the new millennium came in the first instalment of the X-Men movie franchise – 2000’s X-Men ($296.3 million) – in which he played a hot dog vendor. He would go on to appear in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand ($460.4 million) as one of young Jean Grey’s neighbours, and both Deadpool ($782.6 million) and X-Men: Apocalypse ($543.9 million) in 2016, as a strip club MC and a concerned onlooker alongside his wife Joan respectively.
Another character Lee helped to create was obviously Spider-Man – and he cameoed in all three instalments of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy in the 2000s. In 2002’s Spider-Man ($825 million), he pulled a little girl to safety during one of Spidey’s fights with the Green Goblin. In 2004’s Spider-Man 2 ($789 million), he did the same thing with an innocent bystander during Spidey’s first battle with Doctor Octopus. And, in 2007’s Spider-Man 3 ($894.9 million), he briefly talked to Peter Parker in Times Square before delivering his famous catchphrase “Nuff said”.
He also appeared in both instalments of The Amazing Spider-Man series. In 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man ($758 million), Lee played a librarian who wascompletely oblivious to a fight between Spidey and Lizard. In 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($709 million), he played a guest at Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy’s graduation.
2018’s Venom ($856.1 million) in Sony’s Spider-Man Universe also featured a cameo from Lee. In this one, he appeared as a dog walker who could inexplicably hear the conversation the Venom symbiote was having with Eddie Brock.
Lee also famously created the Fantastic Four, so it’s no surprise that he appeared in both of the Fantastic Four movies in the 2000s. In 2005’s Fantastic Four ($333.5 million), he played Willie Lumpkin – a mail carrier character whom he created for the Fantastic Four comics. In 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer ($301.9 million), he played himself as a guest who gets turned away from Reed Richards and Sue Storm’s wedding.
Other Marvel movies in which Lee has appeared include 2003’s Daredevil ($179.2 million) and Hulk ($245.4 million). In the former, a young Matt Murdock prevented him from getting run over and, in the latter, he played a security guard alongside former Hulk actor Lou Ferrigno in what was Lee’s first speaking role in a Marvel movie. Lee also filmed a cameo for Kick-Ass ($96.2 million), as a man watching news footage of the titular hero, but his scene was cut so it doesn’t count.
Animated Marvel movies have also played host to Stan Lee cameos – in voice form, obviously. In 2014’s Big Hero 6 ($657.9 million), Lee lent his voice and likeness to the character Fred. And posthumously in 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse ($375.5 million), he played a character who sold a Spider-Man costume to Miles Morales.
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Stepping In The Marvel Cinematic Universe
It was, of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe that made Stan Lee’s cameos a way of life – and the twenty-two movies in which he appeared in the franchise deserve their own section as a result.
In 2008’s Iron Man ($585.8 million), credited as “Himself”, Lee was mistaken for Hugh Hefner by Tony Stark. In 2008’s The Incredible Hulk ($264.8 million), Lee played a man who accidentally ingested some of the Hulk’s blood in a soft drink. In 2010’s Iron Man 2 ($623.9 million), Lee played a man who got mistaken for Larry King by Tony Stark. In 2011’s Thor ($449.3 million), Lee played a man who tried (and failed) to move Mjolnir using his pickup truck. In 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger ($370.6 million), Lee played a World War II general who mistook a smaller man for Steve Rogers. In 2012’s The Avengers ($1.519 billion), Lee played a man being interviewed for television who didn’t believe there were superheroes in New York City. In 2013’s Iron Man 3 ($1.215 billion), Lee played a judge of a beauty pageant who gave a contestant a “10”.
In 2013’s Thor: The Dark World ($644.8 million), Lee played a psychiatric patient who lent his shoes to Erik Selvig. In 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Solder ($714.4 million), Lee played a hapless security guard at the Smithsonian Institution. In 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy ($772.8 million), Lee played a Xandarian having a conversation with a young woman. In 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.403 billion), Lee played a World War II veteran who got drunk on Asgardian liquor at an Avengers victory party.
And now that we’re halfway through, let’s take a breather! Okay here we go again…
In 2015’s Ant-Man ($519.3 million), Lee played a bartender in one of the hilarious stories told by Luis. In 2016’s Captain America: Civil War ($1.153 billion), Lee played a FedEx delivery man who mispronounced Tony Stark’s name. In 2016’s Doctor Strange ($677.7 million), Lee played a bus passenger reading Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, oblivious to Strange battling Kaecilius. In 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($863.8 million), Lee played an astronaut talking to the Watchers – revealing himself as their informant – and mentioned his stint as a delivery man in Civil War. In 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880.2 million), Lee played an angry neighbour who called Spidey a “punk”. In 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million), Lee played one of the Grandmaster’s servants on Sakaar who cut Thor’s hair with a dangerous-looking device.
In 2018’s Black Panther ($1.348 billion), Lee played a patron of a casino in Busan, South Korea, who took T’Challa’s unclaimed chips. In 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War ($2.048 billion), Lee played the driver of Peter Parker’s school bus who was unbothered by a spaceship. In 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp ($622.7 million), Lee played a pedestrian whose car was shrunk by the Wasp. In 2019’s Captain Marvel ($1.128 billion), Lee posthumously played himself in the 1990s reading a Mallrats script. And finally, in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame ($2.798 billion), In his final posthumous role, Lee played a peace-loving car driver in 1970.
Phew! Thank goodness that’s over!
Stan Lee’s Other Movie Roles
Stan Lee did make a couple of additional appearances in movies, most notably in 2004’s The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement ($134.7 million), in which he played a Spanish-speaking wedding guest who learnt English from the Three Stooges, and in 2018’s Teen Titans Go! To the Movies ($52.1 million), in which he voiced himself dishing out a very light-hearted dig at DC. Other minor appearances include 2016’s Yoga Hosers ($38k) and 2019’s Jay and Silent Bob Reboot ($4.7 million).
In total, the movies Lee appeared in have grossed a staggering $30.6 billion – that’s a whopping $3 billion more than Samuel L. Jackson, who’s second in the list at the time of writing. Who would’ve thought?!
So there you have it: the late Marvel legend Stan Lee – a man whose acting prowess was hardly his biggest strength – is indeed, by some distance, the highest-grossing actor of all time, courtesy of his many cameos. It really does go to show what an incredibly popular and hugely loved man he was.
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Sources: Box Office Mojo, IMDb, Wikipedia
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