In this extract from his book The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, David Hughes looks at James Cameron’s unmade version of Spider-Man.
“There is no doubt that Jim is the best man on Earth to do the Spider-Man movie.”
– Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee
In 1978, twenty-four-year-old James Cameron made a twelve-minute, 35mm, special effects-laden promo reel for a science fiction film he hoped to make entitled Xenogenesis. It was the beginning of a thirty-year science fiction legacy that would stretch through his first screen credit, as art director on the Roger Corman production Battle Beyond the Stars; through his inauspicious directorial début, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning; two-and-a-half Terminator films (if you include the T2 3-D: Battle Across Time attraction for Universal Studios); his smash hit sequel Aliens; The Abyss, an epic deep sea sci-fi parable; an uncredited rewrite for ex-wife Gale Anne Hurd’s production, Alien Nation; an original screenplay, Strange Days, directed by another of his ex-wives, Kathryn Bigelow; the television series he co-created, Dark Angel; and his long-gestating motion-capture marvel Avatar.
In 1991, Cameron’s star appeared to have reached its zenith. The Terminator had been a financial hit precisely because it was made for next to nothing; with a budget of $120 million, however, Terminator 2: Judgment Day was one of the most expensive movies ever made, but its half a billion dollars in box office receipts also made it one of the most successful. Cameron, still six years away from making the reigning box office champion Titanic, could choose almost any film as a follow-up. One possibility was The Crowded Room, based on the true-life story of Billy Milligan, a man with multiple personalities who is put on trial for murder. Cameron had signed a deal with Sandra Arcara, who owned the rights to the story, shortly after completing work on The Abyss, and began writing the screenplay with writer-actor Todd Graff in early 1990. Having made four science fiction films in a row — The Terminator and Aliens, The Abyss and Terminator 2 — Cameron was understandably taken with the idea of making an $11 million courtroom drama focusing on the central performance of a single actor, albeit effectively playing several roles.
Yet the lure of science fiction was one that Cameron found difficult to resist, and while he continued with pre-production on The Crowded Room, he began developing ideas for a near-future thriller, set during the New Year’s Eve celebrations of 1999. Tentatively titled Strange Days, the resulting treatment would ultimately become the 1995 film, co-written by Cameron and Jay Cocks, and directed by Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break). He was also offered, through his close friend and frequent collaborator Arnold Schwarzenegger, the chance to remake La Totale!, a little-known French comedy about a married man who hides the fact that he is a James Bond-style spy from his wife. “I wanted to do a comedy as well as a big action and visual picture,” Cameron told the Los Angeles Times. “Comedy was something totally new for me and so I knew it would be a challenge. And besides, the whole James Bond-spy genre had not really aged well. I felt it was time to pump some new blood into it.” But even as he sketched the outline for this film, released in 1994 under the title True Lies, Cameron’s ideas for an epic love story based around the sinking of the Titanic began to coalesce, although it was to be another five years before he would bring this story to the screen, winning eleven Oscars and earning a billion and a half dollars worldwide. And in the midst of it all, there was Spider-Man.
Like millions of Americans, Cameron had been a fan of superhero stories since his youth, preferring Marvel Comics titles like The Amazing Spider-Man and The Uncanny X-Men to DC Comics’ Superman and Batman tales. By the age of twelve, he had decided that he would grow up to be a comic book artist, and began copying his favourite characters. “I basically learned how to draw comics by copying the characters out of Marvel Comics,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “I would spend long hours drawing Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk, and basically teaching myself.” For Cameron, Spider-Man must have been of particular interest, having at its centre a teenage boy named Peter Parker who is socially awkward but precociously bright, much like the young Cameron himself. Thus, when the success of Tim Burton’s Batman opened the floodgates for a new wave of films based on comic books, Cameron became the logical choice to bring his web-slinging idol to the big screen. An initial meeting between the director and Spider-Man creator Stan Lee took place in 1991, following which Lee stated simply: “There is no doubt that Jim is the best man on Earth to do the Spider-Man movie. He wants to do it, and I want him to do it.”
Carolco, the company behind Terminator 2, also wanted him to do it, and, with Cameron squarely in mind, acquired the rights to a Spider-Man feature film from 21st Century Film Corporation. 21st Century’s founder, Menahem Golan, had inherited them as part of the dissolution of his previous company, Cannon, which had licensed the rights from Marvel in 1985. “I was crazy for Spider-Man,” Golan told Premiere. “Comic books were down, and nobody was interested. But I thought they would come back.” In order to retain the rights, 21st Century were contractually obliged to put Spider-Man into production by April 1989, and Golan wasted no time in announcing the film, with Stephen Herek (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) at the helm: “The world’s best-selling comic book hero battles his multi-limbed arch-enemy, Doctor Octopus, in this fun and action-packed adventure comedy.”
Desperate for money to finance the film before the deadline, 21st Century sold the home video rights to Sony-owned Columbia TriStar and international television rights to Paramount’s parent company, Viacom. Golan even struck a new deal with Marvel Comics, extending the deadline to January 1992. But still the movie failed to materialise, and when 21st Century collapsed in 1991, cash-rich Carolco swooped in to pick up the remaining rights, paying Marvel $3 million to extend its option through May 1996, and inviting Cameron aboard as writer, director and producer. Although Cameron continued to pursue several other projects, including Strange Days and True Lies, he was interested enough in the Spider-Man project to write a fifty-seven-page ‘scriptment’ — a combination of script and treatment, not unlike the one he had written for The Terminator a decade earlier. Cameron’s first draft was completed on 3 August 1993, the same day his fourth film, True Lies, began shooting in Santa Clara, California. Stan Lee immediately proclaimed the story treatment to be “brilliant” — unsurprising, given that Cameron had been almost obsequiously faithful to Spider-Man’s comic book origins. “What Jim managed to do was do Spider-Man exactly the way Spider-Man should be,” he enthused to Premiere. “The same personality, the same gestalt. And yet it all seems fresh and different, something we have never seen before.”
Opening with an image of the web-slinging crime-fighter suspended upside down from the uppermost radio mast of New York City’s tallest building, the World Trade Center, Cameron uses first-person narration to describe how Peter Parker, an orphaned but otherwise unremarkable seventeen-year-old living with his aunt and uncle in Flushing, New York, is bitten by a spider whose genetic code has been altered by its ingestion of a mutagenically-activated fruit fly. That night, Peter has a dream in which he imagines himself as a spider — and wakes to find himself eighty feet up a high tension tower dressed only in his underwear!
Peter soon begins to display other arachnidan qualities, apparently brought on by the spider bite: he can climb vertical surfaces, land safely on his feet from virtually any height, perform incredible acrobatic feats and tune his senses to superhuman levels. He can also secrete a pearlescent white fluid from his wrists, which turns out to be his equivalent of a spider’s silky thread (these organic webspinners, a change from the original comic’s mechanical ones, were fully intended by Cameron to be seen as a metaphor for puberty and the urges that go with it). Peter, like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, has awoken to find himself turned into a bug. Peter hides his secret from his family and his classmates — even the object of his unrequited affection, pretty classmate Mary Jane Watson. Instead, he dresses himself in a mask and makeshift spider costume and, under the name ‘Spider Man’ (with no hyphen), begins performing gymnastic feats for money, first in the street, and later on television variety shows — but always, somehow, retaining his anonymity. But when his elderly uncle is murdered by street thugs, Peter decides to use his powers for more than just financial gain and small-scale fame. He begins a solitary hunt for Ben’s killer, and eventually becomes a kind of nocturnal vigilante, a masked ‘superhero’ who invokes the wrath of legitimate law enforcement and the enmity of the criminal underworld. Soon, these feelings are shared by the public at large, whose fear of the costumed vigilante stalking the city at night (wearing, it should be said, the classic red-and-blue Spider-Man costume) is fuelled by a local newspaper eager to build its readership around the Spider Man phenomenon. Already unpopular at school, Peter now finds himself a despised public figure.
Soon, Spider Man’s superhuman feats come to the attention of evil tycoon Carlton Strand, who developed the ability to control electricity after surviving a lightning strike (Cameron’s version of the Marvel character Electro). Using his powers to turn himself from small-time crook to billionaire supervillain, he, along with his beautiful but deadly consort, Cordelia, now controls his criminal empire, and has a shapeshifting sidekick, Sandman (not to be confused with the early DC Comics character successfully revived by Neil Gaiman). Strand tries to lure Spider Man into his criminal empire, but Peter rejects the offer and continues his fight against crime, despite the fact that the line between good and evil is often as blurry as his vision used to be before he gained his ‘spider-sense.’ There are other complications. A furious Strand frames Spider Man for murder, turning the crimefighter into a hunted criminal. Meanwhile, romance is blossoming with Mary Jane, but not for Peter — it is Spider Man who seduces her, and she has no more idea that Peter Parker is the man, or rather, boy behind the mask than anyone else in the city. Eventually, in classic comic book style, Strand uses Mary Jane to lure Spider Man into his web, and when Spidey comes to her rescue, an almighty battle atop the World Trade Center ensues. Strand is killed, Mary Jane discovers Peter’s secret identity, they fall in love, Peter graduates… and the one-time hated vigilante becomes — you guessed it — your friendly neighbourhood Spider Man.
The closest Cameron came to directing the film was in 1995, as evidenced by interviews given for True Lies in which he regularly referred to Spider-Man as his next project. “I’m doing the origin story and then going way beyond that and delving into the whole story of teenage angst,” he told Platinum magazine. “What if you were seventeen years old and you could do whatever the fuck you wanted, anytime you wanted? There’s going to be all the webs and stuff, but it’s also going to be deeply philosophical.” Cameron had met with his future Titanic star Leonardo DiCaprio to discuss the central role, believing that Spider-Man himself was a big enough star to carry the movie. Besides, he said, “I think the big star factor is obviated by the fact that the guy’s supposed to be just seventeen or eighteen. He’s a senior in high school, and I’m playing it the way it was originally written.”
Cameron also gave a hint as to the visual style of the proposed film. “One of the things that really interests me, possibly in Spider-Man, possibly in some other later project, is going into some very bizarre and surreal imagery that can only be done using computer-generated images,” he added. “I want to try something really wild. Before, there were limits to what you could do in special effects, but now there are no impossibilities. If you can imagine it, you can definitely put it up there on the screen.” Cameron may have been referring to a sequence in which Peter has an arachnid nightmare after being bitten by the spider, described in his scriptment as a dark, David Lynch-style montage of fevered images, including prey wriggling in webs, shining eyes and shadowy rooftops.
As fate would have it, by the time Cameron was free to make the Spider-Man movie, the feature film rights were caught in a web of their own, arising from the bankruptcy of Carolco in 1996, the result of such costly failures as Cutthroat Island and Showgirls. A year earlier, 20th Century Fox — which had struck a deal with Cameron after True Lies hit big at the box-office — offered to buy the rights for $50 million, but Carolco, which claimed to have spent in the region of $11 million developing the project, stubbornly refused to sell. Now, the collapsing company was forced to hand over production and distribution rights — excluding television and video, still held by Viacom and Columbia respectively — to MGM, which acquired both Carolco’s and 21st Century’s rights in the bankruptcy sell-off.
Before MGM could make a move, however, Marvel Comics filed a lawsuit claiming that the rights to make a Spider-Man film had reverted to Marvel in May 1996, since Carolco had failed to put the film into production before the deadline. Marvel was understandably desperate to reacquire the rights to its tentpole character, since by 1996 it had succumbed to the curse which seemed to afflict any company with an interest in a Spider-Man movie, and was facing bankruptcy proceedings of its own, precipitated by a slump in comic book sales and a disastrous attempt at direct-sales distribution. MGM promptly responded to Marvel’s litigation with a three-pronged countersuit, claiming that if it did not own the rights under the Carolco agreement, it did so under its agreements with 21st Century and Cannon, both of which it had acquired from Carolco. To further complicate matters, Sony stepped in to assert its claim to the video rights, while Viacom threw its hat into the ring with a particularly creative lawsuit, claiming that, rather than merely owning the TV rights it purchased from 21st Century in 1989, it actually held the rights to produce and distribute a cinematic feature. “It’s a tangled web,” 21st Century Film Corporation’s attorney, Sam Perlmutter, told Premiere. “More of a web than Spider-Man ever could have made in one of his stories. Almost all the studios have a seat at the table, claiming they have a piece of [the rights].”
As the litigation continued throughout the making of Cameron’s next film, the gigantic hit Titanic, 20th Century Fox head of production Tom Rothman kept a close watch on proceedings, hoping that whoever came out of the legal mess with the rights to make a Spider-Man movie would be interested in a Titanic-style co-production deal with the studio most favoured by Cameron. “It’s a great, enduring character — it’s mythic,” Rothman told Premiere. “I like it, and kids today are into Spider-Man, too. It’s a property we’re quite interested in, and we really hope we can make it.” Nevertheless, he said of the ongoing legal battle, “Without a doubt, it’s the most complicated and tortured rights process I’ve ever seen.” Added Sony lawyer Robert Schwartz, “the shame of it is you have a valuable property that is just sitting there. No one knows where it’s going to go.”
The Spider-Man saga was briefly put on hold during Toy Biz’s takeover of the Marvel Group in the summer of 1998, by which time the prospect of Cameron directing a Spider-Man movie looked distinctly doubtful. “Jim’s a big fan and has the utmost respect for Stan Lee,” admitted Rae Sanchini, president of Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment. “But who knows if it will ever get made? So many people want to make it, and that has been one of the greatest impediments to getting it made.” As Stan Lee told Dreamwatch, “For years now, lawyers have been working on this, trying to untangle this terrible legal knot and get the rights back [for Marvel]. The minute the rights come back, I hope Jim will do the movie, and I hope by then he’s not busy with another movie, or he hasn’t lost interest. As far as I know,” Lee added, “he says he wants to do it, and as far as I know, he has no movie to do at the moment, and I have heard that we’re close to getting a resolution with the legal thing.” Lee felt that Cameron’s participation was crucial. “He’s not just a writer who’s going to get the assignment and going to have to learn who Spider-Man is,” he explained. “Jim has told me he’s wanted to do a Spider-Man movie since he was about fourteen years old. So you have the desire and the ability in one guy, and the knowledge and the skill. I don’t say other people couldn’t do it, [and] probably do a wonderful job, but I think it would be awful if it isn’t Jim Cameron, if only because we’ve both been waiting so long for this.”
The legal web surrounding Spider-Man finally became untangled in February 1999, as the US courts dismissed MGM’s claim to the rights, leaving Marvel free to make a new deal — and thus, a new movie — with Sony Pictures Entertainment. “This is a great day for the studio,” Sony chief John Calley declared. “I am delighted that we will be able to bring this long sought-after comic book hero to the world of Sony film and television entertainment.” Describing the Spider-Man property as the “jewel in the crown of Sony’s franchise vision,” Calley confirmed that Cameron was still the studio’s first choice for director, but admitted, “We haven’t even looked at [his] treatment yet.” By this time, however, and in the wake of Titanic’s critical and commercial success, Cameron felt that the ship had sailed. “Here’s where I am philosophically,” he told Premiere in November 1998. “I’m forty-four, I make a movie every two or three years — it should be something that I create. I’ve always done that, with the exception of Aliens. The Terminator was my creation, so were Titanic and The Abyss. With the amount of time and energy that I put into a film, it shouldn’t be somebody else’s superhero. I don’t want to labour in somebody else’s house.”
Understandably disappointed by Cameron’s departure, Sony wasted no time in discussing the project first with Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the writer-producer-director partnership behind Independence Day and Godzilla, and then with David Fincher, director of Alien3, Se7en, and The Game. “I went in and talked to them about it,” he told Cinescape. “I’ve always loved Spider-Man. [But] I wanted to do a much more operatic version of it, and everybody went, ‘Gulp! We want the creation story.’” Exploring the character’s origins was not something that Fincher wanted to do. “I was never interested in somebody getting bitten by a radioactive spider,” he explained. “If we had a scene where a guy goes, ‘Ouch! What is that?’ I mean, I couldn’t keep a straight face.” Finally, genre favourite Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Darkman, A Simple Plan) signed on to direct an entirely new version of the story (though one which retained Cameron’s idea for organic web-spinners), which swung into cinemas in 2002, to enormous success.
The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made is available from all good bookshops.