Stan Lee asks, 'Who Wants to Be a Superhero?'
Comic-book legend Stan Lee wants to get the spandex out of the closet.
On Thursday, July 27, Sci-Fi Channel premieres "Who Wants to Be a Superhero?" a six-week reality competition series in which a few fortunate folk create a superhero alter ego -- including a name, costume and superpower -- then vie for a chance to have it immortalized in a new comic book created by Lee and in a Saturday night action movie on Sci-Fi.
After a long stint at Marvel Comics as the man behind "Spider-Man," "The Incredible Hulk," "The Fantastic Four" and "X-Men," Lee recently founded POW! (Purveyors of Wonder) Entertainment Inc., with partner Gill Champion. For "Superhero," POW! has joined forces with Bruce Nash's Nash Entertainment ("Meet My Folks," "For Love or Money," "Who Wants to Marry My Dad?").
Anyone who has viewed costumed attendees at comic-book conventions could be forgiven for thinking that some of these would-be crusaders might have some problem distinguishing fantasy from reality - but Lee begs to differ.
"I don't think they really believe (they're superheroes)," he says, "but I think they'd all like to be them. If you could go to these comic conventions and see how many of them come in costumes - it's just a little fantasy that these fans have."
"It's interesting," Champion says, "many of these contestants have other lives. Most of them have professional backgrounds. They come from diversified backgrounds and run the gamut from firemen to personal trainers to investment bankers.
"But they all have a belief or a fantasy that they and the world can somehow be a little better if they could be acknowledged or their character could be acknowledged as a superhero."
"We have the brain surgeons," Lee says, "the atomic scientists."
"But they all went through a background check," Champion says, "and passed with flying colors."
While the superhero characters have superpowers, their creators don't. So they must be judged on other criteria.
"Obviously," Lee says, "we're not going to expect them to fly over buildings, crash through stone walls. So we're going to have to look for the traits that a superhero or even a hero should have: courage, honor, honesty, self-sacrifice, dependability, all of the wonderful virtues that any hero should have.
"And we're going to put them to tests which will test whether or not they have those virtues and to what degree they have them. It's a comedic show but with an underlying tinge of great reality."
In true reality-show style, the 11 lucky finalists -- chosen out of nearly 1,000 applicants -- will be forced to cohabit in a "secret lair" in Los Angeles while undergoing a series of real-world challenges, with Lee as the ultimate judge.
Even though Lee has been working in comics for more than half a century, he says the basics of what makes a true hero haven't changed that much.
"The style of writing and the style of drawing has changed a bit," he says, "but I think the criteria for heroes are pretty much the same. Maybe with one difference -- and I'd like to think we started it at Marvel with my stories -- they're more three-dimensional now. They're not 100 percent goody-goody.
"They have their own hang-ups, their own problems, but they still have to be somebody that you care about, because he is doing the right thing -- he or she. No matter how tough they are, how different from the 100-percent-pure hero, you still have to admire the guy.
"Are you familiar with Wolverine in 'The X-Men'? Now there's a guy, you wouldn't call him goody-goody, but he's still the good guy. He still does the right thing. Most of the superheroes, they're like me -- they're wonderful people, and you want them to win."
As to how they winnowed down the contestants, Lee says, "It has to be just instinct more than anything. We'd say, 'Well, I think that guy would be great on camera. I think the audience would like him. This fellow is a little bit dull. I think this name and costume are great, and this girl's personality is terrific, or she's very pretty,' or whatever. Maybe the pretty came first.
"You just have to go by your own instincts. We picked ones that people are going to be interested in."
Champion says the show also challenges the notion that only boys -- of all ages -- care about superheroes.
"It's pretty even," he says. "One of the things we were pretty much amazed at is the amount of women that turned up for the auditions. The superhero world seems to be expanding certainly into the female gender. But we were really surprised."
"Sociologists are watching this show with great interest," Lee says, "because they're learning more about women. It seems that almost every woman has a hidden desire to be a superheroine, and we never realized this.
"So there will be a lot of learned papers written and a lot of college courses. In fact, our show is really an educational one. And I shouldn't say this because we haven't finished it yet, but we're working on a plan where we'll be tax-exempt, because we're contributing, really, so much to the social mores of our time."