In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. Today, we look at trials and tribulations Marvel went through in order to get Spider-Man on the big screen.
If you grew up in the 1970s or 1980s, Spider-Man was Marvel Comics. He was on the company’s masthead. He was on television either in cartoon form or live-action from the 60s to today. He was featured on T-shirts, bedspreads, dolls, Underoos, Halloween costumes and various other forms of ephemera. He was not only by far Marvel’s most recognizable character he was also one of the most recognizable characters in the whole world.
This makes it especially puzzling that Menahem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus had no idea who the character was. When they bought the rights to Spider-Man for Cannon Films in 1985, they knew they had a sure-fire concept. Thing is, they thought it was a horror concept about a person who was more spider than man.
Yes, for everyone out there who has issues with either the Sam Raimi or Marc Webb takes on the character, please take a moment to consider that you almost had a film directed by Tobe Hooper where Peter Parker, an ID badge photographer for a science lab, would run afoul of a mad scientist who would have turned him into a human tarantula, eight-furry legs and all. The Internet would have had to have gone public much sooner just so fans could complain about the film on it.
Considering that’s how Spider-Man’s journey to the big screen began, it’s not hard to understand why it took over 17 more years before we got a Spider-Man film.
The story of Spider-Man’s creation varies depending on how Stan Lee choses to portray it. Sometimes he says he was inspired by a spider crawling up the wall. Sometimes he was inspired by the teenage demographic that was reading Marvel’s output at the time. And sometimes it was his desire to put a new spin on how a teenage character would be portrayed in comics, as they usually were used in humorous stories (for example, Archie Andrews) or as sidekick to a hero (notably Robin) but never as the hero themselves. Whatever the true story is, it was a hard sell for Lee. He had to argue with Marvel’s then-publisher, Martin Goodman, in order to have the story published, and then only published in July 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15, the last issue of a failed anthology series (which was, essentially, only one step above being relegated to the trash heap).
Lee first went to his typical creative partner, Jack Kirby, to work out the concept. Kirby returned with a repurposed idea he and his former partner Joe Simon had for a revamp of the Archie Comics’ superhero the Fly. Kirby’s Spider-Man would be an orphan who finds a magic ring that turns him into a web-gun wielding superhero (if it being repurposed from the Fly wasn’t enough, that origin skewed maybe a bit too closely to Fawcett’s Captain Marvel). Kirby drew up some sketches to flesh out his ideas for the character, but they weren’t to Lee’s liking. They were too beefy and conventionally heroic. As much as Kirby’s heirs say that Spider-Man is a Jack Kirby creation, the only thing that really survived from his idea is a mechanical web-shooter (albeit now in the form of a wrist-mounted model).
Steve Ditko was next up to the plate, and he hit one out of the park. He drew a spindly, awkward kid for Peter Parker and Spider-Man, a break from the barrel-chested heroes common in comics those days. Ditko’s art matched the put-upon, can’t-catch-a-break characterization that Lee created for the character.
Even though Goodman intended Spider-Man to die a quick and painless death with Amazing Fantasy, fans had other ideas. They responded to Lee and Ditko’s unique take on the superhero, and they wanted more. Well, they got more. Spider-Man soon got his own series, The Amazing Spider-Man, six months later. Two years later, another comic was added (reprint title Marvel Tales) then another (1972’s Marvel Team-Up, which became Web of Spider-Man in 1985), then another (Spectacular Spider-Man in 1977). Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four on September 9, 1967 as the first Marvel heroes to headline their own cartoons (an anthology series, The Marvel Super Heroes, had a brief run the year before). The character would star in seven other animated series over the next 45 years. And in 1977, Spider-Man became the first Marvel character to have his own series on network television.
So, taking into consideration the character’s popularity, the fact that it not only took to 1985 for the rights to a Spider-Man feature film to be picked up but also was to be made into a cheesy B-grade horror flick was astounding. But not as astounding as the path Spider-Man took to the screen from there.
Fortunately, the film about the Horrific Man-Spider didn’t get much traction. Stan Lee, who by this time had moved out to California to be Marvel’s liaison with the film industry, stepped in and put a stop to that version of the film. Lee convinced Cannon to create a new script to more mirror the original work. That script was written by Ted Newsom and John Brancato and featured a college-aged Peter Parker squaring off against his former mentor, Doctor Otto Octavius a.k.a. Doctor Octopus.
Joseph Zito replace Hooper as director, brought in Barney Cohen to do a rewrite and was given a budget between $15 to $20 million dollars to work with (for reference, contemporary films RoboCop and Predator had a budget of $13 million and $15 million respectively). Tom Cruise was rumored to be considered for Peter Parker (although this would come after Risky Business and Top Gun, so I think that was mostly wishful thinking), Bob Hoskins for Doctor Octopus, and Lauren Bacall and Katherine Hepburn for Aunt May.
That seems like it would have been a pretty darn great cast! I mean, Katherine Hepburn as Aunt May? A young Tom Cruise as Peter Parker? That film would have made money hand over fist! Unfortunately, Cannon was spending money hand over fist on other projects. Soon, they were unable to afford the $15 million budget. The script was rewritten to make it cheaper, and therefore, poorer in quality. Soon, any hope of getting A-list talent faded away, along with the prospects of the film being made. Cannon shut down the costly project altogether, although still holding onto the rights.
Cannon still had rights in 1989 when they were bought out by French production company Pathé. Menahem Golan used the Cannon buyout to make a break from the company, and in lieu of a golden parachute, he took the rights to Spider-Man with him when he left.
Golan formed 21st Century Production and started the process of raising funds for a Spider-Man film, including selling television rights to Viacom and home video rights to Columbia Pictures. Golan continued developing the film for several years until in 1993 when Carolco, not 21st Century, announced that they had a script in for a new Spider-Man film from none other than James Cameron.
Titanic was several years away, and Cameron at the time just completed True Lies, but he was still the creative force behind The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. So this was a big deal in the comic book community. This was the biggest name attached to a comic book project yet, and the fans were excited.
I don’t know how excited fans would have been if Cameron’s vision made it to the screen. Cameron did not actually deliver a script, but rather a scriptment (a treatment with a fair amount of dialogue), so what was in that document could have changed before it made it to the big screen. But what was in that scriptment would have caused a bit of a stir in the comic book community.
It’s not that Cameron changed a lot of Spider-Man’s mythos, a lot of the film goes step in step with the established Spider-Man mythos. Or that the changes were bad, some did eventually make it into the Raimi films. It’s just that some of the changes were arbitrary. Instead of Flash Thompson, Peter Parker is bullied by Flash McCarthy. The main villain is a man with the power over electricity, but instead of longtime Spidey villain Electro, it is a criminal business man named Carlton Strand. Strand has a lackey that can turn his body into sand, but instead of the lackey being Flint Marko, the Sandman, it is someone named Boyd.
Cameron’s scriptment would have been rated R due to its vulgarity. Peter gains organic web-shooters and discovers he has them during an unseemly nocturnal emission. Peter drops the F-bomb in various forms in the scriptment, is prone to graphic and sadistic violence and has an explicit sex scene with Mary Jane on top of the Brooklyn Bridge. Again, this wasn’t a shooting script, and I’d imagine that a lot of these elements would have been toned down if it made it to the final film, but they are nonetheless a cause for concern.
Although, we will never know how audiences would react. Cameron’s film never made it out of the development stage as the project became bogged down in lawsuits. Golan sued Carolco because he was not credited as a producer on the project as agreed (Cameron was given control over how the credits were done and left Golan’s name off all the promotional materials and press releases). Carolco sued Viacom and Columbia to get the TV and Home Video rights back, and the two companies promptly sued right back. MGM eventually acquired 21st Century’s assets and sued 21st Century, Viacom and Marvel stating there was fraud in the original rights agreements to Spider-Man.
The result was that the project went into limbo for five years. Cameron moved on to make Titanic and never looked back. Carolco, 21st Century and Marvel all went bankrupt. Eventually, the courts decided that the original rights agreement between Cannon and Marvel expired and the rights reverted back to Marvel. MGM disputed this and even though Marvel immediately sold its Spider-Man rights to Columbia, MGM made rumblings that they were going to make a Spider-Man film of their own.
Columbia, who had been eyeing Spider-Man as a tentpole franchise for years, combated this by saying that they were planning on coming out with a James Bond franchise, based on a rights agreement that they made for 1967’s Casino Royale spoof. The Bond franchise was the jewel in MGM’s properties, the one sure money maker that kept them afloat through numerous financial difficulties. To have a competing Bond franchise at Columbia would be devastating. So the two studios came to an agreement: MGM would give up the fight for Spider-Man rights and Columbia would relinquish its 007 rights. Finally, the way was paved for a Spider-Man film.
And we’ll talk about what came to the screen in the next installment.