For the next few days, in honor of Spider-Man: No Way Home‘s release, we will be tracing the circuitous path Spider-Man took from the comic book page to screen both small and big. This draws on this site’s HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM feature that ran from 2011 to 2016, with new and updated information for your enjoyment.
The years of stops and starts were behind it, and all the legal wrangling was a thing of the past. It was now finally time for Sony to bring Spider-Man to the big screen. The only question was who would be the director at the helm.
Sony was not messing around. When it began its search in 1999, its list of directors included Roland Emmerich ( three years removed from Independence Day and following up the critically lambasted yet still successful Godzilla), Tim Burton (the man who brought Batman to the big screen and was coming off Mars Attacks and a failed attempt to bring a Nic Cage Superman to the big screen), Chris Columbus (much in demand director of Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire who was coming off a hit with Stepmom), and David Fincher (who was still riding high from Se7en and was in the process of making Fight Club at the time).
Each director would do well in capturing a quality of the character. Emmerich would do well with the bombast and spectacle of the character, Burton the quirky weirdness, Columbus the heart and sensitivity and Fincher the dark and morbid underpinnings (his proposal for the film? Start with the death of Gwen Stacy). But the director they chose was able to capture all these characteristics of Spider-Man and more. That director would be Sam Raimi.
Raimi was at the time best known for the Evil Dead series of films, but was starting to move away from genre films with films such as A Simple Plan, For the Love of the Game, and the then in-production, The Gift. But Raimi was also a comic book collector with a focus on the Silver Age. So, Sony hired the perfect man for the job, someone who understood the character yet was a great director with a unique style and vision.
Once Raimi signed on, work began on updating the James Cameron scriptment to the big screen. David Koepp replaced Cameron’s Electro and Sandman analogs with the more pertinent Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus. Raimi’s wish to play up the father/son triangle between Norman and Harry and Norman and Peter caused Doc Ock to become expendable. The character was removed in Scott Rosenberg’s rewrite. Eventually, practically the only thing remaining in the final film from Cameron’s scriptment was the organic web-shooters.
Raimi then set about casting the film. Even though the studio wanted a big name like Leonardo DiCaprio or Freddie Prinze Jr. (yes, for a brief period after I Know What You Did Last Summer and She’s All That, Prinze was a big name), Raimi insisted on Tobey Maguire for the role of Peter Parker. Casting Norman Osborn/Green Goblin was slightly more difficult, as first choices Nicolas Cage (thankfully) and John Malkovich (regrettably) passed on the role. Luckily, a copy of the script fell into Willem Dafoe’s hands and he began to lobby for the part. Eventually, he won Raimi over and was cast as the villain.
This was a boon for the franchise. Maguire was well enough known as an actor that he was recognizable, but was not so famous that he would overshadow the character. He also was a great character actor, playing Peter’s angst-filled and somewhat sad sack persona without ever becoming annoying. And Dafoe was a great fit for Osborn, creating the right note as a good man going insane. In other hands, the transformation would not be believable. In Dafoe’s it was.
Of course, the casting was solid top to bottom, with everyone doing well in their roles. Kristen Dunst’s Mary Jane might not have been the sexpot she was in the comics, but she was the girl next door the script called for. James Franco did well as Harry in what he was given. But the greatest acting job of the entire cast was J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson. Simmons totally captured the bluster and the bombast of the character to a “T”. Also, watch closely as you will see future stars Joe Manganiello (True Blood) and Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games) as Flash Thompson and Betty Brant.
But even this time around, the path to the big screen wasn’t without bumps, this time provided by real world events. While teasing the film in the summer of 2001, Sony wanted to show that the film was set in New York and used an iconic New York City landmark in its publicity—the World Trade Center. The Twin Towers feature prominently in the first posters for the film (look at Spidey’s eyes in the poster to the right for their reflection) and in the first teaser trailer.
Unfortunately, the events of September 11, 2001 turned the advertising’s respectful nod to a famous part of the New York skyline into a haunting reminder of the lives lost when terrorists attacked those buildings. The poster and trailer were both recalled and a scene with random New Yorkers added to the final film to reflect the spirit of cooperation citizens showed in the days after the tragedy.
The film itself follows in the formula established by X-Men two years earlier. It made changes to the story so that it would make a better film, but stayed true to the spirit if the original work. Spider-Man is still a decent human being, horribly haunted by one poor decision that left someone he loved dead. The main differences are that he was bitten by a genetically altered spider and not a radioactive one. And his main nemesis dressed up as a flea market version of Iron Man instead of, well, a goblin.
But overall, the film worked because it struck this balance. Uncle Ben still dies, but this time immediately after Peter negligently lets the robber escape. This allows for a powerful scene between Cliff Robertson (as Ben) and Tobey Maguire, as Peter arrives in time to spend a last few minutes with his uncle.
A similar, character-defining death scene occurred the same year in Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones and the difference in quality is embarrassing. Anakin’s mother’s death is supposed to be one of first things that push him to the dark side. Unfortunately, compared to Uncle Ben’s death, it lacks emotional potency and seems hollow.
Raimi also employed some of his cinematic trademarks in the film. The 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Raimi uses in most of his films became the Parker’s family car. And longtime collaborator Bruce Campbell has a cameo as a wrestling announcer who gives Spider-Man his name.
The film set records when released, including becoming the first film to earn $100 million dollars in its opening weekend. The $39,406,872 it made on its first day set a record for the highest opening day total. The film grossed $403,706,375 domestically and $821,708,551 worldwide, making the long road to the screen worth it. Obviously, it also meant that a sequel was in the making.
But first, we would get an animated series as a companion piece to the film. Spider-Man:The New Animated Series was developed by comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis and ran for one season on MTV. The series tried to follow the continuity of the first Spider-Man film as well as plot points from Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man comic books series. It was also one of the first cartoons to rely on computer generated animation.
With Spider-Man a resounding success, Sony’s decision to start work on the sequel before that first film came out turned into a prudent decision. Sam Raimi was back at the helm, with script by Smallville’s Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who were later joined by David Koepp. This script would have brought Spidey into conflict with Doctor Octopus AND the Lizard AND Black Cat. See, the villain cramming started almost immediately.
Novelist Michael Chabon was tapped to rewrite the script. He pared the villains down to just Doc Ock but made him more a contemporary of Peter and had him enter a love triangle for the affections of Mary Jane. Harry’s quest for vengeance would begin in earnest, having put out a $10 million bounty on Spidey.
Raimi worked with screenwriter Alvin Sargent to cull bits and pieces from various screenplays and molded them into the formula that was used in the first film. Doc Ock was the main villain, and once again, the bad guy was a sympathetic figure who was a mentor/father figure to Peter, albeit with an air of tragedy added to the mix. Doctor Otto Octavius goes mad after an experiment to create cold fusion goes haywire, killing his wife and fusing his prosthetic arms to him.
The formula extended to the casting as well, as talented British actor Alfred Molina was cast as Otto Octavius over bigger names that were rumored to be up for the role such as Robert DeNiro or Ed Harris. Once again, the ploy worked out because we were allowed to focus on Molina’s great acting without any baggage another actor would have brought to the role.
However, we came close to having a new Peter Parker. Tobey Maguire made some noise about not returning to the role due to back problems, which was married to some complaints he had about his salary for the first film in comparison to the money the film made. Sony/Columbia went so far as to offer the role to Jake Gyllenhaal as a replacement before calmer heads and healthy backs prevailed and Maguire rejoined the cast. Gyllenhaal would eventually appear in a Spider-Man, but as the villain. More on that in a couple of days.
The film also took notes from the comic books as Peter has problems with his powers (as he often did in the comics) which cause him to give up being Spidey for a while (as he did in the classic Amazing Spider-Man #50, which is referenced in a shot of Peter putting his Spidey costume in the trash).
Raimi seems to come into his own here. The surgery scene is vintage Raimi slapstick horror, and the emotional beats play better here that in the original. Bruce Campbell returns, this time as a snooty Broadway theater usher who refuses Peter late entry into Mary Jane’s play.
This all resulted in a better film than the first one, in quality if not in grosses. It broke the record for one day grosses set by the first film with $40.4 million, but its domestic take of $373.5 million and $783.7 million worldwide lagged behind its predecessor.
But that haul was still worthy of garnering a sequel, and garner a sequel it did. And it was now that the wheels came off the franchise.
Once again, development of the film began before the prior film had even hit theaters, and almost immediately the production got off on the wrong foot. Raimi (along with a returning Sargent) was interested in bringing two villains, the Sandman and the Vulture, into the film to fight Spidey. As any experienced comic book film viewer can tell you, once you add more than one villain to the mix, you’re asking for trouble.
Worse than that, Raimi intended the Sandman to be a petty thief named Flint Marko, a man who steals to help his sick daughter, that got himself trapped in a particle accelerator and had his body fused with sand. Since this didn’t have the emotional pull it needed, Raimi decided to do a retcon and have Marko be the man who really killed Uncle Ben, albeit quasi-accidentally. This plot point is what irritated me the most about this installment. It was tacked on and it completely felt like it was. It was a cheap way to ramp up the emotional through lines of the film.
Then Avi Arad got involved and convinced Raimi to change the Vulture to the more modern and more popular comic book villain Venom. Venom’s origin in the comic books is way too convoluted (it was an alien symbiote that Spider-Man picked up on an alien planet that he used as a costume until he found out it was sucking the life force out of him and he had to get rid of it. The symbiote then bonded with Eddie Brock, a man with an intense hatred of Spider-Man) so they simplified it for the film, slightly (it was an alien symbiote that came to Earth attached to a meteor that landed in Central Park, near where Peter was having a romantic rendezvous with Mary Jane. The symbiote managed to attach itself to Peter’s moped and followed him home, where it eventually became Spider-Man’s costume and began to negatively change his personality. Peter got rid of it and it attached itself to rival photographer Eddie Brock). Nonetheless, the character was a turn away from the “science gone wrong” villains the franchise had to that point.
You can almost see Raimi’s dislike of being forced to take Venom on in the casting for the villains roles. For Sandman, he cast Thomas Hayden Church, who was fresh off his Oscar nomination for Sideways, who brought weight and pathos to the role. For Venom, he cast Topher Grace, an actor with plenty of Teen Choice Award nominations to his credit, who seemed overwhelmed by the role, relying on smarmy snark to get him by.
The producers also wanted to introduce Gwen Stacy (played by a redhead turned blonde Bryce Taylor Howard) into the mix to create a love triangle with MJ (still played by the blonde turned redhead Kirsten Dunst) for Peter’s affections. Harry also formed the corner of another love triangle for MJ’s affections, meaning the film had two competing love triangles, neither of which was as well formed or as well developed as one would have liked.
Speaking of Harry, it was in this film that they decided to bring his long simmering quest for vengeance to the forefront, creating yet another villain for Spidey to fight as Harry donned updated versions of his father’s Goblin gear. Harry’s character arc goes from villain to supporting character (after he gets amnesia (?)) to villain to hero, without ever doing the due diligence the changes deserve.
Bruce Campbell makes his final cameo, this time as a maître d’ who helps Peter try to propose to Mary Jane.
All of this adds up to a jam packed, convoluted film that, in all honesty, isn’t quite as bad as everyone makes it out to be. Sure, compared to the two films that came before it, it was Plan 9 from Outer Space-bad. But compared to Catwoman or The Spirit? Miles above those two.
However, there was just too much piled on
Even though many critics considered the film to be the worst of the lot, moviegoers didn’t think so. They made the film the highest grossing one of the trilogy, earning $890,871,626 worldwide. So, yet another sequel was in the making. Raimi, Maguire and Dunst all agreed to return for the fourth installment.
In January 2008, things were looking good for Spider-Man fans. Spider-Man 3 was the biggest hit of the franchise thus far, and Raimi, Maguire, and Dunst had all signed on to do a fourth installment, rewritten by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. Sony was even planning a fifth and sixth installment as well.
Then thing fell apart. Within two years, Raimi would be gone, taking Maguire and Dunst with him, and Sony would be rebooting the franchise less than ten years after it began.
Development began in October of 2007 when Sony hired Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt to do the screenplay. That screenplay was rewritten by Lindsay-Abaire in 2008 and Gary Ross in 2009.
The villains were in flux at the beginning of the film. Raimi at one point was leaning toward Dylan Baker becoming the Lizard in the film. Lindsay-Abaire has said the villain of his draft was Kraven the Hunter. But eventually, they settled on the Vulture and Black Cat as bad guys.
John Malkovich was signed to play the Vulture and Anne Hathaway in talks to play the Black Cat (Hathaway would go on to play the character Black Cat was based on, Catwoman, in The Dark Knight Rises.) But it was never meant to be. Raimi would be stepping down.
Rumors for Raimi’s departure included from Raimi wanting Avatar like special effects in the film to toy licensor Hasbro raising concerns that the 60-year old Vulture wouldn’t sell many toys in their toy line. However, the official party line, one that Raimi himself has given, is that he, unhappy with the way Spider-Man 3 turned out, wanted more time to create a workable script than what he was given. Sony, wanting to keep the sequels previously announced release date of May 6, 2011 intact, refused to give more time, so Raimi left.
This of course caused Sony to start from scratch on a reboot (a process which ironically necessitated Sony moving the release date back anyway). We’ll talk about that tomorrow.