Marc Webb is a lucky man. Not just because of the lucrative The Amazing Spider-Man 2 paycheck that’s headed his way. Or the fact that he has finally put an end to the hotly debated “nuh uh, Spider-Man could totally beat Rhino, Electro and the Green Goblin if he wanted to” standoffs of his childhood. Webb’s lucky that he’s even been able to make a Spider-Man movie at all.
Because slingin’ ain’t easy. Not for Spider-Man, and not for the trail of corpses that dot his long and troublesome road to the big screen. Not human corpses, obviously (if there actually was a trail of bodies left in the wake of a Spider-Man movie, you’d probably hear about it on a site slightly more serious than this one), but the desiccated remains of countless Spider-screenplays and Spider-pitches, which for one reason or another just couldn’t cut it in the big leagues.
Our story begins in 1976.
Steve Krantz’ Spider-Man
Steve Krantz knew his way around comic adaptations. He was a producer; a producer of cartoons like The Mighty Thor, The Marvel Super Heroes and the original 1967 Spider-Man series, plus both feature film adaptations of Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat. And in 1976, Krantz was the first human man to try and put a spidered man on the big screen. His original idea was a touch outside the box — a grand Spider-Man fantasy complete with showstopping song and dance numbers, but eventually he tapered his pitch into something more streamlined. It would be an adaptation of the seminal 1973 storyline “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” but with a few subtle additions like a giant robot and hordes of Nazi stormtroopers. Krantz was no button-down storyteller, that’s for sure.
But in ’77, a different Spider-Man film was born, a live-action TV movie that spurned on a live-action TV show about the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler. And when that first TV movie/pilot hybrid creature was shown in theaters to international audiences, Spidey had his theatrical debut… a debut entirely without Steve Krantz and without dancing Nazis.
Roger Corman’s Spider-Man
In 1982, the Spider-Man machine revved to life once more, when Roger Corman, schlock producer extraordinaire, got his hands on the property. And Corman knew his Spider-Man. Or knew enough to hire Stan Lee as the screenwriter.
With Lee at the helm, we finally had a Spider-Man film that treated Spider-fans with respect and Spider-faithfulness. It hit all the right notes: radioactive spider bite, Uncle Ben, Mary Jane, Doctor Octopus. The works. Sure, maybe there was a sequence where Spidey intervened into US foreign policy to stop a nuclear war with Russia, but the rest of the shoe fit just fine.
But what Corman and Lee wanted out of Spider-Man were two drastically different things. Lee wanted big-budget, big-action spectacle, and Corman wanted to a comic book movie that could be budgeted with the handful of crumpled bills he had in his pocket. And just like last time, the project went bust. Don’t worry, though. Corman eventually got his “I shot this in my basement”-quality Marvel movie with 1994’s The Fantastic Four.
Leslie Stevens’ Spider-Man
Corman’s deal came to an end, and in 1985 Marvel offered their hand to another potential suitor. This time it was Cannon Films, a B-movie factory famous for its endless supply of Death Wish sequels and movies where Chuck Norris Taekwondo’d people to death. Also Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, which isn’t particularly relevant here but must be mentioned, regardless.
The two men at the top of Cannon (Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus) got a sweetheart deal on the Spider-Man name, paying only $225,000 for the rights. What they didn’t have was a clue about who Spider-Man was. They heard Spider-Man and thought The Wolfman, and hired The Outer Limits creator Leslie Stevens to write a hip new horror movie about this man-spider guy no one had bothered to research.
The final product had Peter Parker bombarded with radiation by the fiendish Dr. Zork, mutating into a horrible mesh of man and tarantula. This thoroughly unpleasant “Spider Man” must now fight the dreaded mutant armies of Dr. Zork, because this was the ’80s and dreaded mutant armies were all the rage.
Cannon had Tobe Hooper all set to direct, but Hooper left the project only a few months after it was set up. Not long after, Stevens’ script was taken out behind the old barn and shot.
Ted Newsom and John Brancato’s Spider-Man
Hooper was out, but B-movie action director Joseph Zito was in. And along with Zito came a brand new script — one with no Dr. Zork and no tarantula parts. Not even a single Cold War nuclear standoff. It was Spider-Man as he was meant to be. Written by Ted Newsom and John Brancato, the latest screenplay saw Spidey save New York City (and also the known universe) from Doctor Octopus, who was chest-deep in the kind of needlessly dangerous pseudo-science that only guys with eight arms ever get into. Notable was the inclusion of Liz Allan as Peter Parker’s love interest, instead of one her more popular classmates, like MJ or Gwen Stacy.
But this is a tale of failed Spider-Man movies, and a decent screenplay cannot survive here. Thus, the Newsom/Brancato script lasted up until its first rewrite, when writer Barney Cohen stepped in to throw a pile of new ideas at Spider-Man. They were probably all winners, right? Let’s take a look!
These ideas included:
- Giving Doc Ock the catchphrase, “Okey Dokey.”
- Assigning Doc Ock a hulking comic relief sidekick named Weiner.
- Changing Ock’s name from “Doctor Octopus” to “Professor Octopus,” which has just as clever a ring to it and was totally worth changing.
It’s also worth noting that around this time, people were bandying about the first casting rumors. Spider-Man was rumored to be either Tom Cruise or stuntman Scott Leva; Bob Hoskins was the frontrunner for Doc Ock; Stan Lee really, really wanted to play J. Jonah Jameson. (Take note, whoever’s casting The Amazing Spider-Man 3: that last one is absolutely genius, and probably the only option that wouldn’t pale in comparison to J.K. Simmons.)
When the script was on its last legs, Menahem Golan, under his penname Joseph Goldman, threw in a small rewrite as well. But it was around this time (that time being the early nineties) that Cannon finally buckled under financial pressures, and the Spider-Man name found a new home in Carolco Pictures. It also found a new filmmaker willing to champion the Spider-Man cause: James Cameron.
Yet the Doc Ock script just would not die. It lingered on, with Cameron throwing his name (plus slight alterations of Barney Cohen and Joseph Goldman’s names) on the title page and calling it his own.
But James Cameron is not a man to laugh at the word “weiner.” Not now. Not ever. And by 1993 he had his own original Spider-Man in the works.
James Cameron’s Spider-Man
The opposite of “laughing at the word weiner” is probably a sex-fueled screaming rage, and that’s exactly what Cameron pumped into his own version of Spider-Man’s story. His scriptment (part script, part treatment, all unrelenting teenage angst) was the perfect embodiment of the edgy ’90s style that was also plaguing the comic book industry at the time. Cameron’s Peter Parker could toss out a “motherfucker” like it was nothing, and at one point swung Mary Jane to the top of the World Trade Center for a bout of graphic sex. But only after reciting (and acting out) the mating rituals of various species of spider, because nothing gets a girl in the mood like repeated use of the word “thorax.”
For villains, Cameron used Electro and Sandman, and by “used,” I mean “threw out everything about their characters except their supervillain names and a vague approximation of their powers.” Max Dillon, the electrical engineer who goes all villainy after becoming a human bug zapper, is now Carlton Strand, a small-time crook who becomes a megabillionaire after he figures out how to use his electricity powers to steal money (and “information,” somehow) from computers. Flint Marko, otherwise known as Sandman, is now just some schlub named Boyd who punches the things Electro tells him to punch.
Very little of Cameron’s work ever saw the light of day. But one of Cameron’s ideas would actually make it onto the big screen: organic webshooters. Edgy 90’s Spider-Man had little organs on his wrists, “dark [shapes] the size and color of a rose thorn,” that shot spider-goo in a manner not unlike a middle school sex-ed video. Future filmmakers did not care for Cameron’s other ideas, like Peter accidentally dropping a little kid off the side of the building and watching him die, or his suggestion of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doc Ock (back when he was still tooling with the Cannon screenplay). But in gross little wrist pustules, Cameron’s legacy would live on.
David Fincher’s Spider-Man
Ok, so the whole time Cameron and Carolco were working on Spider-Man? It turns out that Menahem Golan was, too. And due to a series of complex legal thingies, both Carolco and Golan had their own separate film rights to Spider-Man. Which led to lawsuits.
Then Viacom got involved, to more lawsuits.
Then 20th Century Fox (lawsuits).
Then Columbia (lawsuits).
Then MGM (lawsuits).
The six entities sued, countersued, and generally flung legal feces at each other for about seven years, from 1993-1999, during which period several of the companies involved filed for bankruptcy, making things much smoother and not an even bigger mess of useless angry litigation. But in ’99, a winner emerged: Columbia Pictures. And they got to work posthaste, lining up four potential directors that same year. Of the four, none of whom got the job (Chris Columbus, Roland Emmerich, David Fincher, Tim Burton), only Fincher’s ideas ever came to light.
Probably because they were a little funky. Fincher was not into the whole “origin story” thing. After all, that’s what everyone else was doing. Instead, he wanted to do an adaptation of “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.” Which, in itself, sounds fairly ordinary. But you need to give the audiences some clue of the “teenager + unusual spiderbite = red and blue spandex” thing, and Fincher wanted to get this across through song.
“The title sequence of the movie that I was going to do was going to be a ten minute — basically a music video, an opera, which was going to be the one shot that took you through the entire Peter Parker [backstory].”
The people of 2014 might hear “Peter Parker” and “opera” and immediately suffer a violent “Turn Off the Dark” episode, but the people of 1999 knew nothing of the sort, and even they passed on a David Fincher Spider-Man mini-rock opera. In a way, it’s fitting; Steve Krantz started this long and terrible struggle with thoughts of a Spider-Man musical, and Fincher was its final casualty with a similar train of thought. Truly, time is a flat Spider-circle.
Once Raimi was locked into the franchise, the Spider-Man movie body count dried up real fast. Every once in a while, a leg or a torso might be found amongst the wreckage, an early draft of David Koepp‘s Spider-Man had Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin as competing villains, only for Doc Ock to be axed to make room for more Norman/Harry bonding time. And Michael Chabon wrote a wonderfully nuanced draft of Spider-Man 2 that was chewed up and repurposed into the Spider-Man 2 we know today.
But now Sony (owner of Columbia) has the Spidey rights held firmly in hand, and if they let go even for a second, Marvel Studios will put Spider-Man in The Avengers 3 and win all comic book movies forever. That means no more of the crazy crap we saw in the ’80s and ’90s. Which is probably a good thing, in the long run. Even if the crazy crap is fun to read about.