The Secret History of Spider-Man Movies

Next summer, Spider-Man gets a fresh start, with a brand new reboot starring Andrew Garfield. But this won't be just a second chance for Spidey — the web-slinging hero has had plenty of seconjod and third chances on the big screen already.

From the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, Spider-Man has gone through countless attempts at creating a big-screen success, with people as diverse as Roger Corman and James Cameron involved. Here's the secret history of the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man in movies.

Top image: Promo art from the Cannon Group's Unfilmed Spider-Man movie, via Video Junkie.

It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when Marvel Comics looked at the Howard the Duck movie and wished they could get something that good for their other characters. Not that Howard was a great movie, but at least it had a decent budget. For other Marvel characters, the publisher was constantly stuck dealing with smaller production companies that cut corners.

1975-1976: Steve Krantz
Krantz, one of the producers of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoons along with Fritz the Cat, tried to launch a live-action Spider-Man movie in the mid-1970s, according to the book Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book by Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon. Originally, Krantz wanted to make a splashy action-fantasy musical — perhaps not that different from Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark?

But eventually, Krantz realized that a more straightforward approach to Spidey would be more successful — and in 1976, he was pitching the studios with an outline that involved a college-age Spider-Man fighting a 100-foot-tall robot, plus Nazis. And it included the death of Gwen Stacy. Sadly, it never got off the ground.

1977-1978: Columbia Pictures
And then there was the disco-era Spider-Man TV series, which started out as a made-for-television movie that was released theatrically in some countries, about a grown-up Peter Parker who gets spider-based superpowers. A new-age guru is mind-controlling people to become criminals. And the guru threatens to make 10 New Yorkers commit suicide, unless he gets $10 million. So Spider-Man invents web shooters and swings into action against the guru and his army of samurai. Sure, why not? You can watch the whole thing right here.

After the TV show was on the air, some other episodes were edited together and released theatrically. There was Spider-Man Strikes Back (comprising the two-part "Deadly Dust" storyline) and Spider-Man: The Dragon's Challenge (the "Chinese Web" storyline). In the former, Peter Parker's students accidentally gain the materials to create an atomic bomb. In the latter, Spider-Man goes to Hong Kong to save a Chinese politician accused of corruption, resulting in a boat chase and lots of clunky action.

1982: Roger Corman
The producer of countless low-budget classics — including the legendary original Fantastic Four movie — also nearly made a Spider-Man film. Orion Pictures had the rights at one point, but to Corman's dismay, let the rights expire.

According to Raphael and Spurgeon's book, the Corman movie would at least have been based on a treatment by Stan Lee himself, which stuck pretty closely to the comics. Peter Parker would have been a college student, facing Dr. Octopus. And he would have had a few love interests, including Mary Jane Watson and a sexy KBG agent. But Lee's screenplay was probably too ambitious, including a huge sequence where Spidey fights atop the U.N. building, with lots of swinging, sticking to walls, leaping, jumping and falling, all while dodging Doc Ock's arms. Meanwhile, Spidey also finds time to prevent a nuclear war with Russia.

The Secret History of Spider-Man Movies

1985-1990 Cannon Films
Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were known for their schlocky films — including our favorite, The Apple — but in the 1980s, they were trying to go legit via the Cannon Group and Cannon Films. After Corman lost the Spider-Man rights, Cannon Group purchased them for $225,000 plus profit-sharing, and took out a 50-page pull-out ad touting Spider-Man among its upcoming productions, according to the book Superman Vs. Hollywood by Jake Rossen. At first, this film was going to be directed by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chain Saw Massacre) or Joseph Zito (Missing in Action), but after he dropped out, the director's chair was taken by B-movie mastermind Albert Pyun.

Early on, there were huge problems, according to Video Junkie — because Golan, despite being hugely enthusiastic about the Spider-Man character, was very unclear on the concept. And he wanted to change Spider-Man's origin to be caused by an evil scientist named Dr. Zork, who creates mutants. Peter Parker would be a lowly employee of Dr. Zork's, who accidentally gets turned into a Spider-Man and then has to fight Zork's army of mutants. In another screenplay that was considered, Spidey gets turned into an eight-legged tarantula.

"Golan and Globus didn't really know what Spider-Man was," Zito told the L.A. Times. "They thought it was like the Wolfman."

As Don Kopaloff, Marvel's film agent in the 1980s, told Spurgeon and Raphael in their Stan Lee book, "I would never have gone to [Cannon] as a first choice. I went to them after I couldn't get Captain America or Spider-Man sold." The younger people in the film industry were plenty interested, but the older people, who were still in charge, "didn't bite."

The Secret History of Spider-Man Movies

According to Video Junkie, stuntman Scott Leva was considered to play Peter Parker — and it got as far as creating these test shots. (They also dreamed of casting Tom Cruise in the role, according to the L.A. Times.)

Eventually, the "Dr. Zork" concept was dumped, and replaced by a more traditional approach, in which Spider-Man was going to fight Dr. Octopus (who might have been played by Bob Hoskins, according to Comic Book Heroes of the Screen by William Schoell.) In this version, Doc Ock would have been transformed by a cyclotron explosion, and would have had a hideous latex fake torso, showing how his cybernetic tentacles had fused with his body. You can read the unproduced script by Ted Newsom and John Brancato here. Some of the stuff that Newsom and Brancato came up with that made it into the Sam Raimi movies included Peter Parker discarding his glasses, which hindered his now-perfect eyesight.

But by the time Pyun came on board, the Doctor Octopus script had been dumped, in favor of another storyline, about Spider-Man being pitted against a bat-like scientist-turned-vampire (Morbius?), according to Cinefantastique Volume 34.

We asked Pyun about his experiences with this project, and he told us:

It was a big challenge trying to figure out a dynamic way to bring him to the screen back in 1988. The villain I chose was The Lizard but he had his own challenges with the tail and ability to jump around.

We were experimenting with centrifuges and wire work but it was daunting on a low budget. We were fully cast and had most of the major sets built when the plug got pulled.

Stan Lee kept rejecting these script drafts — but at the same time, kept bucking to play J. Jonah Jameson himself. Meanwhile, legendary concept artist Mentor Huebner created some concept art, which is sadly unavailable.

Pyun was hoping to film Spider-Man at the same time as Masters of the Universe 2, using the same sets — but in the end, both films fell through. A big problem, as with many of Pyun's films, was funding. There simply wasn't the money to support such a huge production, which had a $5 million special effects budget alone. At last, Pyun used the sets and props for Spider-Man and MOTU2 for his movie Cyborg.

1990-1993: Carolco:

The Secret History of Spider-Man Movies

The Cannon Group went under, but Golan still had the rights to Spider-Man, which he sold to a number of entities, including Carolco, which hired James Cameron for $3 million to write and direct. Golan's only condition was that he had to be listed on the finished product as a producer. Eventually, though, Carolco realized they had accidentally given James Cameron a contract that was basically his Terminator 2 contract with "Terminator 2" replaced with "Spider-Man." And this contract gave Cameron approval of all on-screen credits — and Cameron would not agree to giving Golan a credit in his movie. Golan sued, and the whole thing went down in a flurry of lawsuits.

The Secret History of Spider-Man Movies

But meanwhile, Cameron had already written a 31-page illustrated "scriptment," a kind of detailed outline with snippets of dialogue, and then an actual script. And according to the L.A. Times:

Cameron painted Peter Parker in darker hues than the previous writers had: morally ambiguous, profane, even sadistically violent. He gave Parker's love interest the name of Mary Jane Watson, who in the comics is a neighborhood girl attracted to Parker. But he also gave her the snobbish, upper-crust personality of several other girls in the original material, along with a drunken, abusive father. The arch-criminal is a small-time hood accidentally invested with electromagnetic powers, resembling the comics' Electro.

Cameron was also the first creator to come up with the idea of organic, rather than mechanical, web shooters. You can read the entire scriptment here, or read the actual 1993 final script here.

After that, Marvel realized it had sold the movie rights to Spider-Man to three different companies, under varying terms, and the lawsuits were epic and bitter. By the time the mess was sorted out, Hollywood was finally waking up to the big-screen potential for superhero films, and Columbia snagged the rights, leading to the Sam Raimi films.

Additional reporting by Katharine Trendacosta. Thanks to Video Junkie for the Cannon Spider-Man images.