If the life of Stan Lee were turned into a superhero movie, it would be difficult to tell the good guys from the bad.
A battle over the Marvel Comics legend’s legacy is underway, featuring a cast of characters whose competing agendas make the plot of “Avengers: Infinity War” look simple by comparison. A man who says he is Lee’s manager and caretaker was arrested this month in Los Angeles on suspicion of filing a false police report and is being investigated over alleged elder abuse, according to court filings. A court has placed Lee, 95, under the temporary guardianship of an attorney, who has received a restraining order against the manager.
Since his wife, Joan, died last year at age 93, Lee has found himself surrounded by people with unclear motives and intentions, friends and colleagues say. The decline of his private life stands in stark contrast to the soaring success of Marvel, the brand he helped to create five decades ago. The blockbuster movie adaptations released by Disney’s Marvel Studios are perennial box-office winners that have helped to keep Lee’s influence thriving among new generations.
At the center of the current dispute is Lee himself — no longer able to see or hear well, but still active enough to attend red-carpet premieres and make cameo appearances in Marvel movies. On one side is Keya Morgan, a 42-year-old memorabilia collector and dealer who became close to Lee and served as his manager and de-facto gatekeeper. On the other side is Lee’s 68-year-old daughter, J.C. Lee, and her attorney, Kirk Schenck, who have battled Morgan over access to her father and his money.
Caught in the crossfire has been, among others, Pow Entertainment, the L.A.-based media company Lee co-founded in 2001. Lee sued Pow for $1 billion this year, claiming his business partners had sold the company under fraudulent circumstances. Lee’s attorney referred all questions to Morgan, who declined to comment.
A spokesperson for the Hong Kong-based company that now controls Pow said the suit was “without merit” and questioned the motive of the complaint, saying it was “so preposterous that the company has to wonder whether Mr. Lee is personally behind this lawsuit."
Those who know the man behind “Spider-Man” and the “Hulk” say his latest difficulties are part of a larger pattern.
“Stan Lee has a long history of having shady characters around him,” said Bob Batchelor, the author of a biography of the comic book legend that was published last year.
“If Stan Lee had a Spidey-sense for con men, the world would be better off and his fortunes would be better off,” Batchelor said. “But he doesn't seem to have that.”
Known for a gregarious nature and affection for his fans, Lee has welcomed many people into his orbit. One was Morgan, who took over his personal and professional affairs after his wife died. Morgan has accompanied Lee to movie premieres and acted as his representative by approving interviews and other appearances.
He was arrested June 11 on suspicion of filing a false police report. The circumstances remain murky, but it was related to a disagreement with security personnel at Lee’s home in the Hollywood Hills. Lee’s temporary guardian has obtained a restraining order against Morgan.
Last year, Morgan was convicted of threatening to kill someone in a dispute between his mother and a West Hollywood property manager, according to court records. He was sentenced to probation and required to attend anger management counseling.
Morgan, who has built a career as a collector, declined a request for comment on that case.
On June 16 he tweeted: “For over 10 years I have shown nothing but love, respect & kindness to Stan Lee, & his wife, a fact he has repeated countless time [sic]. I have NEVER EVER abused my dear friend. Everything you read in the #FakeNews is pure malicious lies & I will 100% prove it. The truth will come out.”
Lee’s predicament is a familiar one for elderly celebrities, who often fail to make provisions for their wealth in the event of incapacitation or death, according to legal experts.
In 2011, Mickey Rooney testified before a Senate committee, saying that at age 90 a family member misused his money. “I felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated," Rooney said.
Media mogul Sumner Redstone also has claimed elder abuse in a series of lawsuits filed in 2016 against two former girlfriends. And famed astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who is 88, this month sued two of his children and a former business manager, alleging they misused his money and slandered him by saying he has dementia.
“Many celebrities aren’t focused,” said Kenneth Abdo, a partner at Fox Rothschild who specializes in entertainment law. “If people don’t take matters into their own hands when they are able to do so, it could fall into the wrong hands.”
In some cases, a court will appoint a conservator to oversee an individual’s finances. Britney Spears fell under conservatorship 10 years ago after the pop star’s public meltdown.
Lee doesn’t appear to have a conservator. Instead, a judge this month appointed attorney Tom Lallas as his “guardian ad litem” — in essence, a temporary overseer for the duration of the legal dispute.
Lallas said in a statement that he will work to “protect the financial, emotional, physical and mental health and well-being of Mr. Lee,” as well as to preserve his assets and estate. He also said he will protect Lee from “undue influence” and coercion by third parties.
In February, he assisted Lee in signing a document that accused people, including Morgan and attorney Schenck of trying to take financial advantage of him by ingratiating themselves with his daughter. Schenck declined to comment.
Days later, Lee recanted his statement in a video posted on social media. But some doubt the reliability of the video because Morgan filmed it.
Morgan has called the February document fraudulent and has threatened to sue the Hollywood Reporter, which first reported on the matter and used it as the basis of an April article on Lee that exposed much of the familial fighting. No lawsuit has been filed.
Morgan has also fought bitterly with Schenck over access to Lee’s assets. Estimates of the comic book legend's wealth vary widely, from just a few million to more than $100 million.
He reportedly receives $1 million a year in an agreement with Marvel, but told CNN in 2012 that he doesn’t get a profit percentage of the movie adaptations. Marvel Studios movies have grossed an estimated $16 billion worldwide in the last decade, and “Black Panther” is the top grossing movie domestically this year.
Lee receives executive producer credits on the movies, though he has described them as honorary titles.
Born in New York as Stanley Lieber, Lee rose to prominence as a comics author and editor under the Marvel brand, where he helped to launch such enduring characters as Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange and the X-Men. He worked closely with collaborators including Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, but it was Lee who became the public face of Marvel. Marvel’s comics and studio businesses were acquired by Disney in 2009.
Though his achievements in the comic world are unparalleled, Lee is known to be a poor businessman who has made bad deals and entrusted his money to people with dubious intentions.
During the dot-com era, he lost a significant sum in the collapse of his company Stan Lee Media. One of his partners was Peter Paul, a convicted drug dealer. When the company declared bankruptcy in 2001, Paul faced fraud charges over manipulating the company’s stock price, fled to Brazil and was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2009.
Lee’s assets were the subject of another lawsuit that he filed in April against a former business associate, Jerardo Olivarez, accusing him of fraudulent behavior that resulted in the loss of “a tremendous amount of money.” The suit alleges that Olivarez improperly withdrew money from Lee’s accounts, modified trust documents and used Lee’s money to buy himself a condominium. The suit also alleges a bizarre scheme involving selling Lee’s blood as a collectible item.
Olivarez couldn’t be reached for comment.
Appointing a conservator to oversee Lee’s finances could be the only way to bring order to the chaos, said Laura Zwicker, a partner at Greenberg Glusker, where she advises clients on estate planning and other issues.
She said people of Lee's age can be cognizant at one moment, while at other moments confused and inconsistent.
“They start losing control and with that feeling of loss of control, they don't know whom to trust,” she said.