It just doesn’t seem like a Marvel Comics-based film or TV show without a cameo from Stan Lee. Ever since 1989’s Trial Of The Incredible Hulk TV movie, the writer who has long been the public face of the publisher, as well as having had a hand in creating many of its iconic characters, has made short appearances in most of the television shows and films based on those heroes. Lee has made so many appearances in these films that it was probably inevitable that a fan theory would pop up explaining how the same guy could be in all the different places he is seen in the interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.
Stan Lee – Watcher
For some time now there has been a light-hearted theory floating around that Lee is actually a Watcher. What’s a Watcher, you ask? Well, they’re a race of millennia old aliens who silently observe the history of worlds as civilizations rise and fall. The Watchers are pledged to not interfere with the worlds that they observe because of the disastrous consequences that followed them giving an alien race advanced technology that their society was not mature enough to handle. The Watcher who has been tasked with observing Earth, Uatu, has been known to bend, if not outright break, this rule from time to time. Normally, the Watchers are extremely tall, bald humanoids in togas, but there’s nothing prohibiting the possibility that the “form” of Stan Lee seen in the films is just a disguise that this particular Watcher wears when he wants to observe something up close. In fact, with Lee appearing in the X-Men, Fantastic Four and the previous Spider-Man films that take place in their own separate continuity from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the theory suggests that this Watcher can traverse between parallel universes where each movie franchise plays out.
And that brings us to Lee’s most recent cameo in this weekend’s Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2. It comes as a throwaway moment in a sequence where Rocket, Yondu and Kraglin are slingshotting around the galaxy in a bit of dangerous astro-navigation that had never been done before. As their ship pops in and out of space, it briefly appears near a small planetoid where we see Lee in a spacesuit talking to a trio of Watchers about “that time I was a FedEx deliveryman.” This is clearly a reference to his appearance in Captain America: Civil War. In the film’s closing cast list, Lee is credited as “Watchers’ Informant,” so while his cameos may not line up exactly in the way that the fan theory describes them, it does get close.
Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige explained at a recent press tour for the film (via ScreenRant) that the cameo was meant to be a bit of fun and originated with Guardians writer/director James Gunn.
Yes, we always thought it would be fun. Stan Lee clearly exists, you know, above and apart from the reality of all the films. So the notion that he could be sitting there on a cosmic pit stop during the jump gate sequence in Guardians was something very fun – James had that idea and we shot that cameo and loved it so much, you know, you see it a couple of times in the movie. It wasn’t in for a long time and we put it back in towards the end of the process where he references that time he was a Federal Express agent – we thought it would be fun to put that in there because that really says, so wait a minute, he’s this same character who’s popped up in all these films.
The Bigger Issue
But beyond the bit of fun it adds to an already pretty entertaining film, Lee’s scene raises a question about something that hasn’t really been addressed elsewhere, as far as I can see. The appearance of the Watchers suggest that the rights to those characters actually lies with Marvel Studios rather than at Fox as part of their Fantastic Four package. A curious thing, as the Watcher first appeared in 1963’s Fantastic Four #13 and it was generally assumed that the Fox deal gave that studio access to characters from the first fifty issues of the comic series.
But that is just one possibility. There is another alternative here and that could be that Marvel and Fox are sharing the Watchers. There are two ways that this could come about.
The first could be through a deal similar to the character sharing agreement that Marvel and Sony have struck in regards to Spider-Man. Of course, going through such negotiations for something as trivial as having the Watchers show up for one gag seems like an inordinate amount of work. Unless, the Watchers were going to be seen in the MCU again. As part of their race’s mission, the Watchers have been known to appear at moments of great import, silently observing the events. With the many plotlines that have threaded through the various films of the MCU culminating in the two Avengers films coming in May 2018 and May 2019 will very likely showcase some universe-spanning events that would likely attract the Watchers’ interest.
Alternatively, there is the possibility that the rights to the Watchers are split across two different deals, similar to the way the rights to the characters of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are divided between Marvel and Fox as part of their X-Men package. Although there hasn’t been much revealed about the agreement that let Joss Whedon use introduce sibling superheroes Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch into the MCU in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron while they also appeared in Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past, we do know it happened. After the disaster that was Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four film, Fox seems to be giving the franchise a rest until they can come up with a take that won’t suck. In the meantime, why not let a minor character from the rights package pop up in a Marvel film or two? And if it keeps said character in the public eye for a while before they might possibly pop up in one of your own movies, so much the better.