Marvel Phase Five: Does 'What If?" Change Stan Lee's Cameo Role Forever?
It wasn’t long ago when Stan Lee’s roles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were confirmed to be one character: Uatu the Watcher. Marvel’s Kevin Feige said as much in 2017, when Lee appeared with the alien Watchers in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. But now, with Marvel’s What If…? animated anthology series coming to Disney+, has Stan Lee’s role as Uatu been rewritten?
At San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige unveiled (among other things) What If…?, an animated adaptation of the cult Marvel comics that speculated pivotal moments had they turned out differently. The series brings the concept to the MCU, exploring divergent timelines that the live-action films did not go down.
True to the comics, episodes will be hosted by Uatu, an ancient alien who observes Earth on behalf of the Watchers. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963 for The Fantastic Four #13, the Watchers assign one of their own to planets to observe sentient life. For Earth, the Watchers assign Uatu.
For the What If…? television series, Uatu will be played by Jeffrey Wright, known for his role in the HBO sci-fi series Westworld. And that’s all fine and great, except, wasn’t Stan Lee already Uatu?
While it was never explicitly confirmed, there is evidence to support the idea that the late comic book icon, who died in November 2018, was Uatu.
A quick recap for those who might need it: In virtually every Marvel film, Stan “The Man” Lee shows up in various contexts — as a mailman, as a bus passenger, as a bartender, as a gambler in South Korea, and once, as a strip club DJ (Deadpool) — often to bring levity to otherwise tense moments.
And in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Stan Lee appears sitting beside the Watchers, with Lee numbingly recapping all those other cameos. We know this because his fractured line of dialogue:
“Oh, man. Anyway, before I was so rudely interrupted. At that time, I was a Federal Express man…”
In Captain America: Civil War, Stan Lee appeared as a FedEx agent who delivered Captain America’s burner phone to Tony Stark. (“Are you Tony Stank?”)
The post-credits of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 again visits Stan Lee wit the Watchers, who walk away as Stan Lee begs to tell them more stories:
“Hey, fellas. Hey, wait, where you going? Hey, you were supposed to be my lift home. How will I get outta here? Hey! Aw, gee. I’ve got so many more stories to tell. Aw, guys. Oh, gee.”
“So many more stories” strongly hints that all of Stan Lee’s cameos, maybe even those in the Fox and Sony-produced films like Fantastic Four (where he was a mailman, again) or The Amazing Spider-Man (a librarian) were all connected.
In 2017, Feige confirmed Stan Lee’s cameos were all the same character:
“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.”
Feige never said that Stan Lee really was Uatu the Watcher, but existing evidence strongly suggested the “Generalissimo” was associated with the Watchers in a big way. Though he may not be Uatu, he could be an informant, or maybe just a wandering traveler who got lost somewhere and found himself among the aliens. But we don’t know the full story.
It is, of course, natural to hire a living professional actor take up the role for the new series. Wright is known among other things for his deep voice, which lends itself well to an alien know-it-all like Uatu. Stan Lee’s eccentric old man voice coming out of Uatu’s mouth would only have been funny, and not emotionally impactful in the way Wright is capable.
Whether or not Stan Lee was a Watcher in the MCU, he at least lived his real life like one: He ultimately saw his wildest dreams come true.
In a November 2018 interview with Inverse, Stan Lee’s former boss at Marvel Productions, Margaret Loesch, remembered her late friend, saying: “He felt everybody would love Marvel. He saw a world filled with Marvel stories and characters everywhere. That was his vision, and he was right.”
What If…? debuts on Disney+ in Summer 2021.