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Is the '80s Spider-Man Film a Lost Classic?

Welcome to the second installment of First Page Rewrite, an examination of cancelled comics movie projects. This week, we’re going back to 1985 and the days of Cannon Films. Its adaptation of Spider-Man was closer to happening than you might think. There's even a promotional video, archived by Youtuber Tue Nguyen.

Wikipedia describes Cannon Films as the studio behind “a distinctive line of low- to medium-budget films from 1967 to 1994.” That’s a polite way of saying Cannon is famous for direct-to-video schlock. The documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films details the story of Cannon, and it is quite amazing.

After the massive success of its early direct-to-video output, Cannon attempted a bid at credibility in the mid-80s. Three of those more respectable, higher budget projects include Masters of the Universe, Sylvester Stallone’s Over the Top and Superman IV.

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Another high-profile film Cannon felt could truly bring them to the mainstream was Spider-Man. After a series of delays, and the disappointing box office of those aforementioned movies, Cannon lost the Spider-Man rights in 1990.

The leaked 1985 Spider-Man script opens with a memo from Marvel’s then-president Jim Galton to Menahem Golan of Cannon. He praises the screenplay for staying true to the core of the character while updating him for the ‘80s. (The script for a proposed Captain America film, however, Galton trashes as “bloody awful.”)

The writing duo of John Brancato and Ted Newsom provides the script for Spider-Man. Their IMDb page notes they collaborated on several screenplays of Marvel Comics characters, working with Stan Lee. Apparently, they also penned films for Sgt. Fury and Sub-Mariner. The tone of the script does hint they’re true fans of the material.

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Brancato has solo writing credits on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, The Net, and TV shows as varied as Married... with Children and Aeon Flux. The Halle Berry Catwoman film is also on his resumé, but let’s be charitable and assume he’s only responsible for an early draft. Ted Newsom has mostly worked on documentaries. However, he did script the fan project Superman and the Secret Planet a few years back.

Reportedly, Tom Cruise was suggested for the role of Spider-Man. If going for an unknown, however, stuntman Scott Leva was on the list. (Brian Cronin covered the movie's production hell years back.) Leva has stated he was training for the role, and even did test photoshoots as Spidey. This includes Amazing Spider-Man's #262 photo cover.

The setup for Spider-Man’s origin has him as a college student at Empire State University. Peter Parker is described as “intelligent, 20, with dark hair and rimless glasses…neither a nerd nor a male model…drably dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt.” Notice Stan Lee’s Spider-Man newspaper strip and the ‘90s animated series (which had Stan as a producer) both move Peter’s origin up to his college years, while also downplaying the idea of him as a socially clueless nerd. Really, the idea of Peter as this awkward kid wasn't the standard portrayal until we had Untold Tales of Spider-Man’s mid-90s critical success and Sam Raimi’s decision to cast Peter as a teen in the 2002 film. Stan Lee’s ideal Peter is older and more confident.

A professor at the university, Otto Octavius, is causing trouble. Octavius, described as “in his 50s, broad, thickly-featured, brooding with unfashionably long hair,” cares more about his experiments with a cyclotron than teaching his classes. Interestingly, there’s no real connection between Peter and Octavius. His boss is also Peter’s advisor (a minor character called “Roz” in the script), but that’s it.

Much of the early scenes flesh out Peter’s world. He attends college with Harry Osborn (described as wearing garish heavy metal t-shirts), Flash Thompson, and Flash’s not-quite serious girlfriend Liz Allan. Liz has a “quirky sense of humor” and sports the latest ‘80s fashions. Her banter with Peter is reminiscent of Steve and Robin’s relationship in the third season of Stranger Things. They enjoy insulting each other, tossing out some surprisingly sharp barbs.

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The Daily Bugle enters the story early. Peter’s already interested in photography and looking for freelance gigs before the spider bite, which verges from the source material but works as a way to easily introduce these characters. There’s no Robbie Robertson, but Jonah Jameson is there, quite comics-accurate (while using some language the Comics Code would never approve.) Betty Brant, described as thirty-ish, cameos as Jonah’s secretary.

Peter lives in a tiny apartment in the East Village, but does stop by Aunt May and Uncle Ben’s home. May is described as in her fifties, stylish, and a fan of New Wave music. (Is this the first attempt of a revamp to make May “hip,” which is now the go-to move?) Uncle Ben works at a pharmacy, likes his beer, and squabbles with May constantly. Recasting Peter’s surrogate parents as a fairly dysfunctional couple is possibly the script’s largest break from the lore. (A tearful May even implies after Ben’s death that she never told him she loved him!)

Initially, this seems like a terrible move. But I can see where Brancato and Newsom are going with this. Many of the cast members do have stock personalities, which works fine for their role as bit players in a comic. In live action, though, there isn’t much for actors to latch onto. So, instead of just being the pretty and popular girl, Liz is darkly sarcastic. Harry is Jeff Goldblum-style quirky, rather than simply being a dork. And May and Ben are a polar-opposites couple, settled into a decades-old marriage where affection can’t be overtly expressed. (To be fair, by the 1980s the supporting cast was being fleshed out in the comics, but much of that work hadn’t been done at the time of this screenplay.)

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After setting up the players, we move into origin territory. A tiny spider drops into Octavius’ cyclotron, causing the atomic weight values in the experiment to shift just enough to trigger an explosion. (John Byrne uses a similar idea years later in his once-controversial Spidey origin revamp comic Chapter One.) The resulting malfunction causes objects in the room to bend, shift, and even merge together. So, not only is the robotic harness with four additional limbs melded with Octavius’ body, but we even have horror images, such as a dog fused with a wire cage.

Attending school the next day, Peter lands his first official Bugle assignment, sneaking past security and taking photos of the damage. There, he’s bitten by the radioactive spider, and what immediately follows is…straight out of Amazing Fantasy #15. All of the early “discovering he has powers” bits are recreated from the original comic. We then have the wrestling match, the agent discovering Peter, the creation of the web-shooters, and the national TV debut.

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One divergence from the source material has Peter considering revealing to May and Ben his new abilities on the day of the bite. (Then deciding against it.) If you’re following the traditional origin story, there’s really no reason for Peter not to tell his beloved adopted parents about such a life-altering event. The May and Ben of the film, however, aren’t the pristine saints from the comic. This Peter respects his adopted parents, but doesn’t have the kind of relationship where he can truly talk to them. Perhaps this is solving a “problem” no one’s ever complained about, but it works within the context of the script.

After appearing on Late Night with David Letterman, Peter calls Ben, cryptically revealing he’s going to be on television tonight. Nearby, a thief is running out of a store. Peter’s played as more confused than anything, though, still on the phone as the thief passes by. (Definitely not an improvement over the traditional origin.) He shrugs off the apoplectic store owner afterward, stating he’s no cop. So, we do have a bit of Peter’s arrogance from the original story, but it’s not as effectively portrayed.

The rest of the traditional origin plays out, with the thief breaking into the Parker home and killing Uncle Ben. Having Ben killed just before discovering Peter is Spider-Man is an interesting move. So is having Aunt May succumb to a heart attack right after Ben’s death. One way to tie together the two things these characters are most famous for. Having Peter’s supporting cast rally behind him after the family tragedy is also a decent way to humanize the characters and deepen their bond.

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After Peter chases down Ben’s killer, he rips up his Spider-Man costume atop the nearby courthouse. It’s here where his storyline truly connects with Octavius’ plot, as the scientist is now the deranged Dr. Octopus. Ock is robbing banks and stealing scientific equipment in order to complete his experiment. Peter comes out of his rather brief retirement as Spider-Man to stop him.

The climax of the film has Ock’s device warping reality around New York, sending his lab flying in the sky. Liz Allan, looking for the missing Peter, ends up in the lab with Spider-Man. Ock gets sucked into the mysterious void created by his invention, Spidey saves Liz, and Peter finally has the confidence to tell her how he really feels. The movie ends with a kiss between Peter and Liz, no longer “just-friends.”

FAN SERVICE

Peter attends the Curtis Connors Science Center at Empire State University, which is a nice touch. Also, engraved on the courthouse is the phrase: "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility." (Everyone knows Uncle Ben traditionally doesn't speak this aloud, right?)

The issue of Spider-Man's costume is addressed by having a masked Peter pay a "Mr. Lieber" to make his outfit. Stan Lee was interested in playing Jonah in the film, but most likely this was the cameo the writers had in mind. Decades later, a variation on this idea appears in Into the Spider-Verse.

NON-FAN SERVICE

Doc Ock's traditional green and orange outfit is justified by saying it's a tracksuit he steals in desperation and never changes out of.

The writers also attempt to redefine spider-sense for a broader audience. Instead of acting as an early-warning system, here it's closer to a psychic vision. Miles away in Manhattan, Peter actually has a premonition of Uncle Ben's murder!

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THAT’S JUST WEIRD

The iconic scene of Peter returning home to discover police cars in the lawn on the night of Ben's death now has him arriving as Spider-Man. Even worse, getting out of a cab, speaking to Ben's neighbors, as Spider-Man! Just an odd choice. How hard would it be to have Spidey react to his premonition, then show up in Queens as Peter Parker in the next scene? Also, we're to believe the pincers on Ock's tentacles should be called "waldoes." Nope.

I LOVE THE '80s

How do you show Spider-Man getting lost in his fame in 1985? Have him breakdancing at a disco, naturally. There's also a scene of him rescuing a “rotund woman,” asking if she’s ever tried Weight Watchers. Highly unlikely that bit would make it into a movie today.

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Perhaps the most '80s moment of the film has the Crusher Hogan of the comics' wrestling match replaced with...Hulk Hogan himself! He even gives Peter an inspirational pep talk.

PULLED FROM THE SCRAPS

Peter showing of his newfound powers on the basketball court made its way into the Amazing Spider-Man film. And much of Spider-Man 2 has Ock stealing equipment and robbing banks in order to complete an experiment.

DID WE DODGE A BULLET?

The 2002 film always felt like a talented director and cast doing their best with a mediocre script. Most of that movie’s issues likely stem from the repeated attempts at rewriting James Cameron’s 1992 scriptment. The result was a hodgepodge of assorted studio notes and bits salvaged from earlier drafts. It’s a fun film, but that’s largely due to Raimi’s enthusiasm for the character.

Spider-Man 2002 2 1093

Raimi had a much clearer idea in the sequel on how to create a modern tribute to the Silver Age comics of his youth. The perceived “corniness” was part of the charm, an essential element of the film’s peculiar reality. This 1985 Spider-Man is as divorced as possible from that tone, however. This is no golden, romanticized vision of New York. It’s the dangerous, gritty 1980s New York. The streets are littered with pimps, hustlers, and prostitutes. Idealized family units from the early ‘60s now squabble like real couples. And Peter Parker hides behind a veneer of sarcasm, unwilling to make connections to those around him.

The script doesn’t give in to total cynicism, though. It’s a story about the masks we hide behind, with Peter ironically finding a way to become his true self after adopting the role of Spider-Man. It’s undoubtedly from the same era that gave us Dark Knight Returns. Would it have shocked a general public who still dismissed superheroes as strictly for kids? Possibly. Assuming the right director were behind the project (like, say, a Darkman-era Raimi), this could’ve been the superior Spider-Man film.

So that’s all for now. I've begun a new review series on Chris Claremont's 2000 return to the X-Men on my blog!  You can also check out my Kindle Worlds novels for free over at Smashwords.

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