Sunday, June 3, 2012

Spider-Man: The Webs That Didn't Stick

This is a feature article in the current issue of F*** Magazine, Issue 29, out now. Please go get your copy! This issue focuses on the upcoming film The Amazing Spider-Man, and I wrote an article about the versions of Spider-Man that didn't quite make it to the big screen.


Spider-Man’s long climb up the water spout
By Jedd Jong

On the special features for the 1989 Batman film, Spider-Man co-creator and Marvel Comics overlord Stan Lee recounts how Batman’s co-creator Bob Kane made fun of him at the time because the Dark Knight had successfully found its way to the big screen while the webhead hadn’t. In 2002, when the Spider-Man movie was finally released, Bob Kane wasn’t around anymore to hear Stan Lee gloat. Kane also didn’t live to see the series rebooted, while Stan Lee gets to see The Amazing Spider-Man.

It’s been pointed out many times that Spider-Man has been rebooted almost instantly, far too soon for audiences to miss the character and want a new take. Given the finger-snap speed with which the new Spider-Man film happened, it’s interesting to see the long, winding and webby journey that led to the 2002 movie. These development hell tales are morbidly fascinating, and include Spider-Man being misinterpreted as an actual human-spider monster, Tom Cruise being considered for the lead, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doc Ock and Mary Jane and Spider-Man having sex. For all of you who complained about emo-Peter dancing through the streets of New York in Spider-Man 3, take a gander at that.

The first true Spider-Man film is one most people aren’t aware exist, and rightfully so. Technically, it was a TV movie serving as the pilot to the live-action TV series The Amazing-Spider Man which ran from 1977 to 1979. Nicholas Hammond, aka Friedrich Von Trapp from The Sound of Music, played Peter Parker/Spider-Man. The costume was laughably amateurish and the villain wasn’t anyone from the comics, but a new-age self-help guru who inspires people to kill themselves. The sequel to this film, Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge, was two episodes of the TV show lazily sewn together and crawling over to, uh, Hong Kong, for an extended tourism board commercial. From what we can gather, there was also another TV movie that called Spider-Man Strikes Back, in which Spider-Man is framed for attempting to blow up the, uh, World Trade Center. Retroactively awkward. Sure, there are some who derive a sense of nostalgia from these clumsy first eight-legged steps, but the world needed a proper Spider-Man movie.

Z-movie king Roger Corman held the film rights to the property for a brief period and didn’t do anything with them (thankfully). After they expired in 1985, Marvel Comics optioned Spider-Man to Cannon Films, a production house specializing in low-medium budget movies, famous for such immortal classics as American Ninja and Invaders from Mars. Naturally, given their filmography, the studio chiefs were under the delusion that Spider-Man meant the same thing as “Wolf Man” – there actually is a werewolf villain in the Spider-Man comics, and in fact he turns up in human form in the second Raimi movie. Pointless trivia in an article about pointless trivia aside, their version would have been less super-powered nerd and more Dr Smith from the Lost in Space movie – you know, that thing Gary Oldman turns into.

Stan Lee was naturally displeased with this strange abomination of a treatment, and commissioned a new script for Cannon Films, written by Ted Newsom and John Barcanto – the latter of whom would later be one of the screenwriters for the Halle Berry-starring Catwoman movie. Anyway, that version was an origin story with Doctor Octopus as Peter Parker’s college teacher and mentor, kind of like Dr Curt Connors became in the Sam Raimi movies. Doc Ock’s catchphrase was also to be “okey dokey”, which is kinda hokey-pokey. Tom Cruise was discussed for the leading role, Bob Hoskins for Doctor Octopus, Katharine Hepburn as Aunt May and Stan Lee himself wanted to play Daily Bugle editor in chief J Jonah Jameson. However, the film’s budget was put in jeopardy after Cannon Films had their assets drained by Superman IV: The Quest For Peace and Masters of the Universe. From there on, it was downhill for this proposed incarnation of Spider-Man. Several attempts to keep the air in its lungs were made, but eventually the not-yet-movie was taken off life support.

And then, along came a Cameron. A James Cameron, to be precise. Cameron slapped his name onto the earlier screenplay alongside all those who actually wrote it, as a kind of “reserved” sign like you find on restaurant tables. Cameron’s oft-collaborator Arnold Schwarzenegger was rumoured to be considered for Doctor Octopus. A few months later, he turned in a “scriptment” to Carolco Pictures, which had Spidey fight Electro and Sandman, both of whom didn’t really resemble their comic book counterparts. Even though Cameron did more than attach his name to someone else’s work this time, he took inspiration from the myriad screenplay revisions, mainly traits of the villains and the organic web-shooters (as opposed to gadgets Peter Parker invents and wears on his wrists) that ended up in the finished 2002 film – Peter would end up covered in goo at least twice, which is totally not suggestive of anything at all. Oh, and there’s lots of swearing, and Mary Jane and Spider-Man get jiggy with it hanging from Brooklyn Bridge. Imagine all the children’s toys!

Cue the legal trouble. Like Cannon Films before them, Carolco Pictures started to face financial woes and litigations. There’s lots of boring technical stuff, mostly parties squabbling over who would get what credit, with Menahem Golan (who had broken away from Cannon Films) still involved in development and not getting a producer listing. There was also a lot of ignoring of fine print; with the rights for the movie bouncing around so much you’d think they were the Green Goblin’s pumpkin bombs. It seemed as if the movie gods were conspiring against James Cameron’s Spider-Man movie seeing the light of day. Why the same movie gods let Catwoman be released, we have no idea. In 1999, movie rights for Spider-Man were licensed to Columbia Pictures (by then absorbed by Sony) by Marvel.

But the main thing is Spider-Man vs James Bond. No, it isn’t an epic crossover flick, though there’s no denying that would have been awesome. This was a power struggle between two studios, MGM/UA and Columbia Pictures – far less interesting. After MGM/UA’s chief executive John Calley hightailed it to Columbia, he announced that Columbia would be producing a rival James Bond series. MGM/UA, having acquired Menahem Golan’s 21st Century Films and receiving rights to the roughly 4826 versions of the screenplay, disputed the legality and threatened to do its own Spider-Man series. This would have been the equivalent of two people pulling the rugs out from underneath the other guy at the same time. With all this, John Calley would have been better in Colombia – the drug trade there was probably less violent than all this. Both studios seemed to build a strong case as to their rights to do such films, and eventually an agreement was reached. They essentially said “you give up if I give up”, Columbia letting go of its rights to create a new 007 series on the condition that MGM give up its claim to Spider-Man.

Wow, a whole lot of trouble for one teenager in red and blue tights. Sony Pictures hired David Koepp, screenwriter of Jurassic Park and Panic Room, to write the screenplay for what would finally become the Spider-Man movie we know and (mostly) love, with the Green Goblin replacing Electro. Scott Rosenberg and Alvin Sargent performed uncredited rewrites, removing Doctor Octopus from the movie – he’d later be the central villain of the sequel. Columbia Pictures production president Amy Pascal bypassed a lineup of established directors including David Fincher, Chris Columbus, Roland Emmerich and Tim Burton for Sam Raimi, then best-known for Army of Darkness and The Quick and the Dead. It was a gamble that paid off big time – Spider-Man grossed $114,844,116 in one weekend.

It was followed by two sequels – we won’t get into that here, because the article is about the webs that didn’t stick. A Venom spin-off was announced as in the works in 2007 - apparently it’s still in development, with Chronicle’s Josh Trank attached to direct, and may or may not be connected to the new Spider-Man movie universe. Spider-Man 4 entered development in 2008, with Raimi and his cast, including Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man and Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane, set to return. There was even to be a number 5, which for a while was going to be filmed at the same time as the fourth movie. James Vanderbilt, who would later write The Amazing Spider-Man (that’s the Andrew Garfield version coming out now, for all you who are confused) wrote the script, which was rewritten by David Lindsay-Abaire (the Rabbit Hole guy) and later by Gary Ross (the Hunger Games guy).

The film’s villain was to have been the Lizard, just like in The Amazing Spider-Man (that’s the Andrew Garfield version coming out now, for all you who are confused). After having appeared as Dr Curt Connors in Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3, Dylan Baker would finally get his chance to morph into the bona fide bad guy. Alas, he would end up just like Billy Dee Williams in the Batman movies, who played Harvey Dent but was replaced by Tommy Lee Jones, who ended up playing Two-Face under the impression he was playing the Joker. John Malkovich was reportedly cast as the Vulture, a role that had been linked to Ben Kingsley in the past – let’s be honest, if a vulture were to take human form, it would look exactly like Ben Kingsley. Anne Hathaway was also going to play Felicia Hardy, who in the comics is the Black Cat (say, we wonder what this reminds us of…) however, Hardy was to become a new character called The Vultress instead.

However, Raimi and Sony couldn’t see eye to eye, and the intended May 2011 release date was slowly slipping through their fingers. In January 2010, Spider-Man 4 was officially kaput, after Sam Raimi left the project over doubts that he could finish the movie in time and over dissatisfaction with the screenplay even after four drafts. *Sniff* we’ll miss you, Sam Raimi-Spider-Man.

Sony Pictures Entertainment then came up with the revolutionary new product, insta-reboot. They even came up with the release date of July 3, 2012, almost immediately after Spider-Man 4 was canned. At least Spider-Man was spared another torturous development phase, and lives to spin another web.

Let’s hope this one sticks.


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