James Cameron’s Spider-Man. Kind of has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? Well, unlike the fictional James Cameron’s Aquaman–of which only a few fleeting seconds exist in the universe of the long-defunct HBO series Entourage–a Spider-Man movie written and directed by the legendary filmmaker almost came to pass in the early 1990s.
But like so many superhero and comics-based projects during that time–a relative Dark Ages for the genre–Cameron’s vision for the webslinging high school student never swung into theaters.
Almost all of it was down to legal issues surrounding the rights to Spider-Man, which kept him off the screen for years. But a glance through the “scriptment” that Cameron worked up–a detailed treatment outlining the story, characters, and even passages of dialogue–indicates that Cameron’s conception of the character and his mythos was very faithful in its own way. He did, however, incorporate a few bold changes to both Spider-Man himself and some iconic villains that would’ve divided fans. Some of those changes ultimately still did divide them, even if Cameron never got to be the one to implement them on the big screen.
“I wanted to make something that had a kind of gritty reality to it,” Cameron told Screencrush in a recent interview. “Superheroes in general always came off as kind of fanciful to me, and I wanted to do something that would have been more in the vein of Terminator and Aliens, that you buy into the reality [of it] right away…I wanted to ground it in reality and ground it in universal human experience. I think it would have been a fun film to make.” note: Spider-Man: Homeless Day Movie
The Cannon Films Era
With the exception of Tim Burton’s two Batman films, the ‘80s and early ‘90s were bleak for superhero cinema. The once-celebrated Superman series starring Christopher Reeve had crashed and burned with both Superman III (1983) and the unwatchable Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and little else was happening. Two cheapo attempts at Marvel movies–Captain America (1991) and Fantastic Four (1994)–were never even released, while movies revolving around characters outside of DC and Marvel, like The Rocketeer (1991) and The Shadow (1994), quickly vanished at the box office.
Although legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman had briefly held the film option for Spider-Man, it was picked up in 1985 by Cannon Films–the exploitation factory that had actually bankrolled Superman IV. Why did Marvel sell the rights to Cannon? According to the book Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book by Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon (via Gizmodo), Marvel’s film agent at the time, Don Kopaloff, couldn’t sell Spider-Man anywhere else. “I would never have gone to [Cannon] as a first choice,” he recalled. “I went to them after I couldn’t get Captain America or Spider-Man sold.”
Nevertheless, Cannon heads Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus set about developing a Spider-Man movie over the next five years. The problem was, Golan and Globus apparently mistook Spider-Man for something along the lines of a monster, and the first script they commissioned–by The Outer Limits creator Leslie Stevens–had a scientist turning Peter Parker into literally a human spider and asking him to join a new race of human mutants.
Director Joseph Zito, one of the first filmmakers picked for the project by the producers, told the Los Angeles Times in 2002 that “Golan and Globus didn’t really know what Spider-Man was. They thought it was like the Wolfman.” Apparently they really did think they were making a horror movie since another potential directing choice was Texas Chain Saw Massacre creator Tobe Hooper.
Even so, the producers budgeted the picture at $20 million–a huge cost at the time for any studio, let alone a quickie shop like Cannon–and began burning through a succession of screenplays by writers like Ted Newsom and John A. Brancato (the latter went on to co-write The Game), Barney Cohen (Sabrina the Teenage Witch), and Frank LaLoggia (Lady in White), with the budget shrinking at each pass. As the money available to finance the picture diminished, Zito left the project, with directors like Albert Pyun and Stephen Herek in the mix at one point or another.
Enter James Cameron
Carolco immediately offered Spider-Man to Cameron, who was about to bounce back from 1989’s financially disappointing The Abyss with the already-buzzing and groundbreaking Terminator 2. Although Carolco received all the previous Spider-Man scripts that Cannon had commissioned when it picked up the rights, Cameron reportedly did not even look at one of them. He instead decided to start from scratch.
Or did he? Confusingly, one of the last scripts of the Cannon era–which was submitted to Columbia Pictures, back when the studio had a deal in place to distribute any Cannon-produced Spider-Man movie–named the authors as “James Cameron, John Brancato, Ted Newsom, Barry Cohen and Joseph Goldmari.” The latter two were misspellings of Barney Cohen’s name and Menahem Golan’s own pseudonym, Joseph Goldman… Still, there was Cameron’s name right at the top!
Unlike the first script by Leslie Stevens, succeeding versions had gone back to the comics, incorporating Doctor Octopus as the main villain and returning Peter Parker to a more traditional origin story. The script also had Doc Ock going on an insane rampage after his research was shut down by corporate investors–oddly enough, not a million miles away from what eventually became Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 (other versions reportedly swapped out Doc Ock for a Morbius-type vampire scientist and the Lizard).
It’s not clear whether Cameron actually did work on this script, despite his name being on it, but what is known, and what has become kind of legendary in its own way, is that he later wrote a nearly 60-page document, labeled a “scriptment,” which laid out his own vision for Spider-Man. David Koepp, who wrote the 2002 movie Spider-Man, told IGN about Cameron’s work, “It took Peter seriously as a character and it took a superhero movie seriously as a genre. And you hadn’t seen that before.”