Stan Lee is a man who needs no introduction. Mind you, neither does Stephen King. Both are masters of their own universes, in every definition of the word. One helped create an unprecedented cinematic microcosm that’s changed the landscape of consumption over the past two decades, and the other is quite possibly the most significant contributor to his genre since Edgar Allan Poe.
But one thing that Stan Lee is known for more than his Marvel creations is his abundance of cameos in the adaptations of said creations. He’s always there. But, in the grand scheme of on-screen creator cameos, this is nothing new. In fact, Stephen King was doing it years before the MCU.
Stephen King is the Master of Horror. The literal King. The very fabric that made some of the best horror movies ever made was woven by him. Yes, King and Lee are alike in some ways, but King preceded what is arguably the most famous thing about Lee (other than his works): his presence in his own creations.
Lee’s first appearance in the Marvel world (prior to the official formation of the MCU), was back in 1989 for the TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. King’s began even further back in 1982’s Creepshow. Directed by George A. Romero, Creepshow was a horror comedy anthology penned by the famous novelist, with two of the segments being based on his short stories. Less a cameo and more a legitimate role, King starred in the second segment.
Not long after this, his position as a pop culture icon began to form (at this point, he’d had nearly 15 novels published, including the likes of Carrie, The Shining, and The Running Man), and he would go on to star in a 1983 American Express commercial as…himself.
The commercial is clearly a tongue-in-cheek play on King’s growing persona as the author of suspense. After this, King would appear in 1986’s Maximum Overdrive, a movie written and directed by him that was loosely based on his short story, Trucks.
The most famous of all his cameos is perhaps that of 1989’s Pet Sematary, in which he plays a minister. This appearance is one of his most memorable, not purely because of the irony of having the creator of this tale try to impart spiritual comfort to his own characters (to whom he later serves as a destroyer), but also because of King’s own complex feelings towards religion that he’s discussed in the past.
The list goes on: Sleepwalkers in 1992 (my personal favorite appearance), The Stand in 1994, The Langoliers in 1995, and The Shining miniseries in 1997 are all adaptations of his work that contain cameos from King. His shortest can be found in the 2013 TV adaption of his book Under the Dome, clocking in at only seven seconds.
Here’s where the two worlds collide (sort of): In 2019, It Chapter Two was released. By this point, the MCU had been in full swing for just over a decade, and Stan Lee’s status as Cameo King was cemented. But where King’s cameos were often sincere bit parts, Lee’s are never anything but a wink-and-a-nudge to the audience. Often, they serve as a purposeful joke that stops the movie dead, usually matching the comedic style of the best Marvel characters.
When the It Chapter Two King cameo rolled around, it was clear that the Stan Lee-scape of cinematic cameos has changed things. And, well…it’s a little odd. We’ve all seen it: Bill goes into an antique store and encounters the crotchety store-owner, played by King. The owner (who’s reading a book, tee-hee) responds to Bill’s offer to sign one of his novels by saying: “Nah, I didn’t like the ending.” It’s a criticism the real-life author has heard aimed at himself over the years.
There’s something a little off-putting about the on-the-nose nature of this cameo, the likes of which hasn’t really been since his American Express commercial days. The shots hold on him for longer, and he’s given more screen time. All this to say: “Ah, see! Look who it is!” One can’t help but wonder if this is a direct result of what studios think audiences want from their creator cameos as a direct result of the MCU.
At this point in time, the idea of a movie without an appearance from its creator would have been unfathomable to the bigwigs. But instead of having King do what he’s always done and appear as a distinguishable character, it’s a barely disguised presentation of the real-life god behind the story. King’s cameos have always gone beyond an exercise in vanity, because King has loved movies and horror ever since he was a kid.
And as such, he’s appeared in movies and TV shows that aren’t from his works, and have nothing to do with him. All this speaks to the ubiquity as not only a creator, but a person. And yet, Lee has managed to achieve the same (if not bigger) cultural heights by keeping himself contained within his own universe.
This isn’t a comparison between the two legends. For one, they’re both major contributors to their forms. Stan Lee is directly responsible for some of the best superhero movies ever made, and Stephen King’s work in horror has given us some of the best movie villains ever seen.
King might have been the original when it came to creator cameos but, actually, it would be unfair to say that Stephen King is the original Stan Lee, because he’s not. Stephen King is simply Stephen King, and nobody else can do what he’s done.
For more of the King, find out what Stephen King story The Boogeyman is based on, and see why Stephen King had no idea one of his weirdest movies was even happening. You can also find out why even Stephen King’s wrong about the best Stephen King movies.
To see what’s ahead, you can also check out our guide to the Welcome to Derry release date. And, finally, don’t miss our guide to all the new movies coming soon, and check out how many King stories appear on our list of the best movies of all time!