Stan Lee’s best MCU movie cameos, ranked
Few creators are as synonymous with their work as Stan Lee. From his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in 1989’s The Trial of The Incredible Hulk to his death in 2018, the man who is widely credited as making Marvel what it is today has been a fixture of the superhero universe’s live-action adaptations. Even as the franchise grows exponentially, Lee remains the performer with the most MCU projects under his belt.
Kevin Feige and the folks at Marvel Studios made sure to feature Stan Lee in every single one of their films made while he was still with us, running from 2008’s Iron Man (in which he was mistaken for Hugh Heffner) to his posthumous part in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. His walk-on roles were always eagerly anticipated by fans and, even as we head into 2023, Lee’s presence on our screens is still much-missed.
But with Lee’s 100th birthday now having passed, it’s time to reminisce on the very best of Stan the Man’s MCU cameos, whittling down all 22 to just the top 10. ‘Nuff said.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Stan Lee’s Phase One cameos generally aren’t the most ambitious, and therefore memorable, of his MCU career, but his brief part in The First Avenger stands out as it works as an enjoyable gag in its own right.
When Steve Rogers goes AWOL from a show – in order to rescue Bucky and the Howling Commandos – an assistant runs on stage to explain his absence. Mistaking the stagehand for the real Captain America, one confused general (Lee) comments, “I thought he’d be taller.”
This cameo gains extra points for acting as a nod to Stan’s own military service during the war – Lee was in the Signal Corps before his writing talents were spotted and he was transferred to the Training Film Division to work on scripts.
The most recurring sub-genre of Lee’s Marvel cameos, be they in the MCU or not, is the “Stan gets a new job” strand, which sees the legendary creator try his hand at a random occupation, generally with bumbling results.
One of the most memorable examples of this is Lee’s Thor: Ragnarok role in which he plays a bizarre hairdresser working for the Grandmaster. He’s responsible for shearing off the luscious locks of Chris Hemsworth’s God of Thunder, who is understandably terrified to face the business end of Stan’s high-tech Edward Scissorhands-like cutting contraption.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Hapless odd-job man Stan Lee returns in The Winter Soldier, this time as the unfortunate security guard who might just have the honor of losing his employment thanks to Captain America.
When going on the run with Falcon and the Black Widow, after finding out the truth of HYDRA’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D., Steve swipes his old super-suit from his very own museum exhibit. Stan’s nightwatchmen is the one who discover the theft, remarking to himself “Oh, man… I am so fired.”
Yes, Stan is basically Marvel’s own version of Gil from The Simpsons.
Lee turns up towards the end of the MCU’s original team-up extravaganza, The Avengers, featuring as an old guy playing chess on the street who’s interviewed on the news in the wake of the Chitauri invasion. “Superheroes? In New York?” a skeptical Stan answers. “Give me a break!”
It’s hardly the most subtly of Lee’s cameos, but it gets points for working on two levels. On the one hand, it’s obviously a meta reference to Lee being the one to make superheroes and NYC synonymous in the first place. On the other, it’s ironic that Lee’s Marvel character doesn’t believe in superheroes when he keeps turning up in their immediate vicinity.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Despite not believing in superheros in The Avengers, Stan attends a party with them in sequel Age of Ultron. Playing a retired military man (going by his cap), Lee overhears Thor talking to Steve Rogers about his Asgardian alcohol. Lee ignores Thor’s warning that it’s not for mortal men, telling him to “stop trying to scare us.”
We then cut to a shot of him being dragged out of the party, drunkenly slurring his words as he says “excelsior.” On top of being one of his few cameos to comprise a two-part scene, Lee’s Ultron appearance is extra-notable for allowing him to utter his comic book catchphrase in person, albeit in an irreverent way.
Captain America: Civil War
The Captain America trilogy utilized Lee particularly well, it seems, as here’s another great cameo from the great man to rank on this list. This time, Steve is blameless in messing with Stan’s day, although he has found himself another job he’s no good at – this time as a FedEx man with poor eyesight.
In a much-needed bit of levity at the end of the very heavy Civil War, Tony Stark and Rhodey’s chat is interrupted by the arrival of Lee at the day, inquiring which one of the two men is “Tony Stank?” As spot-on as Lee’s initial delivery is here, though, credit should probably go to Don Cheadle for eking out all the potential laughs from this scene. “Table for one, Mr. Stank, please…”
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Lee’s Ant-Man cameo memorably saw him “voiced” by Michael Pena as Luis recapped one of his patented meandering anecdotes in the movie’s final scene. For the sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, however, Lee got to keep his own voice – delivering one of his funniest lines in the MCU in the process.
Lee appears in a quick cutaway gag as the random civilian owner of a car that just happens to be accidentally shrunk by Evangeline Lilly’s Hope Van Dyne during a battle with the Ghost. Lee takes the bizarre shrinkage of his vehicle on the chin, nonchalantly quipping, “Well, the sixties were fun, but now I’m paying for it.”
The first of two MCU cameos released after Lee’s passing, Captain Marvel, might be rather slight in the grand scheme of his screen history, but its posthumous placement earned it an unexpected amount of poignancy.
When Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers marches through a subway train, she passes Lee, who is rehearsing some lines from a script – the script he’s reading is, in fact, Mallrats, the Kevin Smith movie that came out in 1995 (when CM is set). In other words, this is the only MCU movie in which Lee plays himself.
The meta moment gets even deeper when Lee catches sight of Carol and the pair share a smile, a small but meaningful touch that feels like Lee reacting with pride at the growth of the universe he helped create.
We know that all Lee’s characters are one and the same (more on that in a moment), but some are easier to connect than others. For instance, Ant-Man 2‘s Lee – who apparently spent the ’60s constantly tripping – is definitely the same as the peace-loving hippie we saw in Avengers: Endgame.
As a way of introducing us to both the setting of Camp Lehigh and the time zone of 1970s, Lee’s Endgame cameo sees him play a perfect match for his younger self (thanks to the-then cutting edge de-aging tech) as he drives by the military base – accompanied by a young blonde woman, of course, because MCU Lee is always a hit with the ladies.
“Hey man, make love not war!” Lee yells at the guards. And don’t miss the significance of his bumper sticker…
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Out of Lee’s near two-dozen MCU cameos, however, there is one that lives the longest in the fandom’s memory, even five years later. The reason why is because it saw director James Gunn take note of a widespread theory and make it canon, totally changing our understanding of Lee’s role in the MCU forever while he was at it.
Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 finally confirmed that every character Lee played was the same man, a mysterious individual of undefined age and power who apparently keeps watch on the galaxy’s heroes on behalf of the Watchers (it’s unknown if he knows What If…?‘s Uatu as well).
Come from the Civil War reference (“that time, I was a Federal Express man”), stay for the hilarious post-credits scene in which the Watchers leave Stan stranded on an asteroid.