With Spider-Man: Homecoming in theaters this weekend, this marks the sixth film starring Spider-Man to be released (not counting his role in Captain America: Civil War) and the third actor to play the role (along with the third director to take the reins of a Spider-Man film). Spider-Man has been a box office dynamo since the first Spider-Man film was released in 2002. However, the journey to that first Sam Raimi-directed film was a long and arduous one that involved multiple bankrupt movie studios. Read on to learn the history of the three major attempts to bring Spider-Man to the silver screen!
After a brief option by Roger Corman that never progressed to the point of being a serious chance of becoming a film, the first time that a Spider-Man movie seemed not only a possibility, but a probability was when Cannon Film optioned the character in 1985. Cannon Films was run by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus (the two men were cousins). The deal was such a big deal that they even took out an ad to celebrate it.
The only snag was that Cannon only had five years to make the film. That did not seem like a problem at the time, though, as Cannon was so into the film that they even produced a trailer for it!
One of the problems was that Cannon initially weren’t sure what the deal was with the property (Golan and Globus were middle-aged men, so they were just past the age where they would have grown up reading Spider-Man comic books), so their initial attempt at a script (by science fiction/horror writer Leslie Stevens) was more of a horror film (with noted horror director Tobe Hooper set to direct) that really did not resemble a traditional Spider-Man story at all.
When everyone told them that their approach to the script was underwhelming (even Stan Lee chimed, noting that it did not really seem like a Spider-Man movie), they then hired Ted Newsom and John Brancato to do a new script much closer to the spirit of the comics with Doctor Octopus as the main villain, which everyone was happy with at the time. Joe Zito was brought in to be the director of the project, which was going to be budgeted at $20 million. Zito had the Newsom and Brancato’s script re-written by Barney Cohen.
Cohen’s script made some odd changes, like giving Doctor Octopus (who is Peter’s mentor before the experiment goes wrong and Peter gets bitten by a radioactive spider and Doctor Octavius becomes Doctor Octopus. Connecting the origins of Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus has been a very common approach in the years since with from John Byrne also doing the same in his Chapter One) a catch phrase of “Okey dokey.”
From the script:
Okey, dokey, Parker… how would you like
to take Weiner’s place… I mean, be my
Well, Professor, that would be a great
honor, but I’m already working with…
Rosomorf… that imbecile. Don’t you
understand, kid, that I am about to
uncover the greatest discovery since
Einstein came up with his theory of
relativity… The “Anti-Force.”
Wow! The theory of the Anti-force! You
should go for the Noble Prize Professor…
Noble Shmoble, I am going for a much
bigger prize kid. Okey, dokey. Let me
show you, kid, what I got here.
However, while Cannon was spending a ton of money on pre-production, they had not even cast their Spider-Man yet.
Stuntman Scott Leva, who had done a lot of work as Spider-Man (including posing for a Marvel comic book cover), was considered for the role and they even tested him out for the job, but he was never officially cast.
John Brancato actually suggested an up-and-coming young actor named Tom Cruise. The big debate with casting was whether they wanted to go with a star or with an unknown. Cannon Films had had a lot of success turning Chuck Norris into a household name out of nowhere, but as they began spending more and more money on their films, they were also becoming interested in big names, as well. If they had gone with an unknown, though, Leva was very much in the running to play the role.
The big problem for this first attempt at a Spider-Man film came when Golan and Globus met Ilya and Alexander Salkind, the famed producers of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. The Salkinds had just taken a financial bath on Supergirl and, to a lesser extent, Superman III, and they were looking to get out of making the films. Golan and Globus weren’t big Spider-Man fans, but they surely knew who Superman was and they acquired the rights to make Superman IV.
At the same time, they also spent a lot of money to acquire the hottest kids toy property at the time, Mattel’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
Once those deals were done, the original film was dead. Cannon just did not have the money to make a big budget Spider-Man movie on top of those films. The budget was cut by $20 million to well under $10 million. Zito wasn’t going to direct the movie under those circumstances, so he quit. The interesting thing about all of this is that Cannon Films first made a name for themselves based on how cheaply they made their films. They kept their budgets so low that even if a film flopped, it would be hard pressed to hurt them too much, financially and when a film succeeded, it made them tons of money. However, bolstered by the success of their Chuck Norris films, they began spending money like they never had before, and the end result ultimately finished them.
However, even with the company in deep financial stress, it still looked like their second attempt at the film would get made, but just as a really awful, cheap-looking film. Albert Pyun was brought in to direct the film and the script was repeatedly re-written to omit anything that sounded like it would take a lot of money to make. Scott Leva was still attached to the film and with the budget reduced, it seemed a lot more likely that he would actually get a chance to play Spider-Man, as they did not have the money to hire a “name” actor. Leva would later joke about how the scripts for the project just got worse and worse as time passed. Luckily for Spider-Man fans, Cannon had lost so much money on Superman IV and Masters of the Universe that they couldn’t even afford to do the low-budget Spider-Man film anymore (their money problems came so quickly that they had to cut the budget of Superman IV while in the midst of making the movie). They had spent over $1 million on production costs for Spider-Man already, so they tried to get some of it back by merging the Spider-Man production with a similarly canceled sequel to Masters of the Universe, and the resulting film was the surprise hit Jean Claude Van Damme film, Cyborg, which would be the last success that Cannon had as a film company.
Cannon Films then folded when they were purchased by the European film production company, Pathé. Golan and Globus parted ways at this point. In lieu of being paid out, Golan was allowed to take some properties with him, including Spider-Man. Golan went to work for 21st Century Productions and then went to work shopping a Spider-Man film all over the place, using the script for the original big budget version of the film to get the movie produced. While raising money, Golan sold the television rights to Viacom and the home video rights to Columbia Pictures. These deals would later cause some problems.
Golan finally got the deal approved through Carolco Pictures, an independent film company that would make major waves with their purchase of the Terminator film franchise (they would make Terminator 2: Judgement Day in 1992) . Carolco got Golan’s original option renewed through 1996. Carolco brought in James Cameron to direct, using basically the original Golan script for the picture (hilariously, they essentially just crossed out the date and pretended that it was a new script).
Cameron, though, then came up with his own treatment for the film, replacing Doctor Octopus with new versions of Electro and Sandman. Cameron’s treatment came along with storyboards for the first half of the film.
Cameron’s treatment was fascinating in the fact that he did not write out a full screenplay, but he would go full script for scenes that he wanted to highlight. Otherwise, he just described the scenes in general terms.
Something that stood out in Cameron’s treatment was just how sexually charged it was. He really wanted to play with the whole “Spider powers are like going through puberty” angle of it all.
THE NEXT DAY. Tight on Peter as he wakes up. He opens
his eyes cautiously. Not knowing what to expect. PULL
BACK to reveal that he is still in bed. All is normal.
He breaths a sigh of relief. In fact… he feels pretty
good. Lots of energy. He pulls back the covers and…
Something is causing the sheet to stick to him. He lifts
it, revealing a sticky, white mass completely covering
him, gluing him to his bedding. It is some silky
substance webbing him into the covers. He cries out in
dismay… struggling to free himself from the gluey
strands. Where did it come from? He notices his
They are oozing a pearlescent white fluid from almost
invisible slits about a quarter of an inch long. He
pushes on the skin next to one of the slits and… a dark
shape, the size and color of a rose-thorn… emerges from
beneath the skin. It shoots a jet of liquid silk into his
Peter also uses his powers to spy on Mary Jane Watson while she’s getting dressed.
Spider-Man and Mary Jane have sex later in the film in a hilariously odd scene where Spider-Man seduces her by telling her of the mating habits of spiders.
The female usually signals her
willingness by an uncharacteristic
MJ takes a deep breath. Her lip trembles. Her knees are
weak. Her eyes, though, are steady, gazing at the
silhouette before her. She doesn’t move of speak. He
Still, James Cameron was one of the hottest directors in the film industry at the time (heck, he’s still one of the hottest directors in the film industry 25 years later) and so the third attempt at the film looked like it was going to get made around 1995 or so (so much so that when the Spider-Man animated series launched in 1994, they were told to avoid using Electro or Sandman in the show because they were going to be tied up with the movie). However, Carolco’s deal with Cameron gave him full control of the project, which did not sit well with Golan, so he sued them. At the same time, Carolco was trying to get back the television and home video rights back from Viacom and Columbia that Golan had sold while trying to raise money to make the project in the past. Viacom and Columbia, of course, sued Carolco right back. Things got really crazy, though, in 1996 when 21st Century, Carolco and Marvel Comics all went bankrupt.
21st Century, and Golan’s rights, were purchased by MGM, including specifically any rights to Spider-Man held by 21st Century or Carolco. So the James Cameron project was now dead. Marvel, though, after getting through bankruptcy, licensed Spider-Man’s movie rights to Columbia (who is nowadays a division of Sony Pictures) in 1999 (Columbia had been trying to get into the superhero game for years). So now you had MGM saying that they had the rights to the film from Golan’s original deal and the Carolco extension of Golan’s deal and Columbia/Sony saying that they had the rights from Marvel licensing the rights to them. Early on, a court ruled he Golan rights were ruled to be expired, but MGM was not ready to go down without a fight, arguing that they had the rights to Carolco’s extension. Ultimately, they worked out a deal with Columbia/Sony where Columbia/Sony would agree to give up a right to make James Bond films (Columbia had the right to make a competing James Bond film to MGM’s famous James Bond film franchise) in exchange for MGM ceding the Spider-Man licenses to Columbia/Sony. MGM agreed and that ultimately led to Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man film.
It was a long road, but we eventually got there, and really, what were the chances that any of those films would have translated the character as well as Raimi’s films? So while it was a long wait, it really did pay off for movie fans in the end.
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