Stillanerd’s Retrospective: James Cameron’s Spider-Man scriptment


A weekly look back at the previous live-action Spider-Man movies begins with a proposal that would’ve taken the web-head in a dark, strange direction.

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Seeing as how Spider-Man: Homecoming is on the horizon, I figured this would make the perfect opportunity to reexamine the web-head’s previous cinematic endeavors. So each week, leading up to Homecoming‘s official release on July 7, 2017, we will be looking again at all six films, with the exception of Captain America: Civil War.

“Hold on,” I can hear you saying collectively to your monitors. “There’s only five live-action Spider-Man movies. Unless you’re counting those made-for-TV ones starring Nicholas Hammond. Or that weirdly awesome Japanese show.” True, Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Spider-Man 3 (2007), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) are the official movies.  However, for us to have a better appreciation for those films, we need to first learn about the ones which almost became a reality.

There was a lot–and I mean a lot–of early attempts to create a live-action Spider-Man film, stretching all the way back to the 1970s. Roger Corman was once attached to helm the film; so was Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame. However, the biggest proponent for a live-action Spider-Man movie was one Menahem Golan of the Cannon Group. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because Golan also produced Masters of the Universe and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

But perhaps the most notable (or infamous depending on your perspective) of these abandoned Spider-Man film projects is from writer-director James Cameron. During the 1990s, James Cameron convinced Carolco Pictures, the same studio which helped him produce Terminator 2: Judgement Day, to purchase the film rights for the wall-crawler. Cameron then submitted a “scriptment”—a story outline with occasional dialogue done in screenplay format. Apparently, even Stan Lee himself thought it was impressive.

Take away the comic book source material, and this [scriptment] could be reworked into a serious, mature, and thought-provoking sci-fi coming-of-age story.

However, legal battles and Carolco filling for bankruptcy forced them to shelve production. By the time Marvel also filled for Chapter 11 in 1996, Cameron was busy filming Titanic. Once Columbia Pictures and Sony obtained the film rights, Cameron, due to an exclusive contract with 20th Century Fox, no longer had any involvement with Spider-Man. However, David Koepp, the screenwriter for the first Sam Raimi’s movie, used Cameron’s scriptment as a template.

Today, you can easily find a copy of Cameron’s scriptment online. Among Spider-Man fandom, it has a kind of cult following of it’s own, with some preferring it over the Raimi version. One devoted fan even went as far as to create his own storyboards based off the scriptment which were so good, The Toronto Star, io9, and Time Magazine mistook them as official.

Credit: Steve Ditko (Marvel Comics); cover for Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #9

Personally, I think we should count our blessings we didn’t end up with this version. Not to say there aren’t parts of Cameron’s scriptment which aren’t good; in fact, some of it’s pretty great. But it’s also a very dark, very adult take on Spider-Man. If Tim Burton’s Batman shocked audiences who were more familiar with the campy 1960s TV show, then Cameron’s Spider-Man would’ve had parents groups in an uproar.

As already mentioned, the first Spider-Man movie borrowed material from this scriptment. What’s surprising upon reading this, however, is just how much it borrowed. There’s obvious things, of course. It’s an origin story; Mary Jane Watson is Peter’s romantic interest; and Peter has organic webbing. Peter also receives powers from a genetically altered spider (or in this case, a spider that ate a genetically altered fruit fly) instead of a radioactive one. And Spidey’s reasons for letting the Burglar escape, and how this lead to Uncle Ben’s death, are almost identical as well.

There are major differences, however. Here, Peter starts off as a street performer instead of a wrestler, and his entertainment career goes on longer. In fact, it takes half the scriptment until Spider-Man fights crime. J. Jonah Jameson is also present, but here, he’s a television broadcaster, never sharing a scene with Peter or Spider-Man. And for some bizarre reason, Flash’s real name is “Nathan McCreery” instead of “Eugene Thompson.”

But it’s Cameron’s choice of villains which are particularly odd. The main antagonist is Electro, whose name in the scriptment is “Carlton Strand.” Although he has electricity-based powers, Strand reads more like a substitute for Norman Osborn, described as being “bigger” than Donald Trump (and reading this when Trump is now President certainly gives this line a whole new context). Sandman also has a role, and far closer to his comic book counterpart. However, he’s nothing more than Strand’s muscle, and an excuse for boosting the special effects budget.

Cameron also takes a complex, sophisticated look at superheroes rarely touched upon in the genre. When Spider-Man turns over Uncle Ben’s killer to the police, they refuse to believe him because he’s wears a mask. Spider-Man also saves a suspect from police brutality. In another scene, he’s shocked to discover that a group of thieves are no older than he is. At one point, Peter even contemplates stealing a bag full of drug money for himself.

But this “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” isn’t so friendly. Instead, Peter Parker comes across as bitter, resentful, sexually frustrated, and shockingly violent, far closer to Dane DeHann’s character from Chronicle minus the abusive father. Also, for those who thought Raimi’s Spider-Man lacked the wisecracks, this particular wall-crawler has no sense of humor whatsoever.

In an early scene when Peter wakes up after his spider bite, one doesn’t need a psychoanalyst to see what Peter’s organic web-shooters represent.

At the same time, Cameron explores Spider-Man in daring, insightful ways the live-action films never did. For example, when Peter first starts his career as a superhero, Cameron provides us with a series of person-on-the-street perspectives, another element the Raimi film adopted. Only here, every race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation believe Spider-Man is a member of their respective group. Moreover, it also explores how economic class divisions shape Peter Parker’s social consciousness.

In addition, the scriptment always reminds us that, for as intelligent as Peter is, he’s still just a 17-year-old kid who only thinks he knows everything, but still has a lot to learn. Take away the comic book source material, and this could be reworked into a serious, mature, and thought-provoking sci-fi coming-of-age story.

Credit: Todd McFarlane (Marvel Comics); cover for Spider-Man vol. 1 #1

That said, those aspects of the scriptment’s aren’t subtle either. Raimi’s film hinted at how Peter’s burgeoning new powers was a metaphor for adolescence and puberty. Cameron, however, takes this a step further, openly acknowledging the metaphor outright. In an early scene when Peter wakes up after his spider bite, one doesn’t need a psychoanalyst to see what Peter’s organic web-shooters represent.

That’s one the scriptment’s tamer scenes, believe it or not. Cameron also has Peter using the f-word, and secretly spy on Mary Jane undressing at her bedroom window. And, of course, there’s the infamous sex scene between him and MJ atop the Brooklyn Bridge. Have I mentioned this would not have been a movie for kids yet?

It isn’t just the mature content which feels out-of-place. Strand’s motivations and philosophy about exceptionalism from super powers seem more fitting for a movie like X-Men than Spider-Man. There’s too much needless voice-over and extended flashbacks. Also, even by superhero origin story standards, the pacing is incredibly slow.

While Cameron spends a great deal of time fleshing out Peter and Strand, the rest of the supporting characters are woefully underdeveloped. Mary Jane is the stereotypical high school beauty queen, and Flash is just the abusive, rich dumb jock. Both Uncle Ben and Aunt May seem too distant, and Jonah seems like another stooge for Strand. This not being an actual script, though, it’s understandable these characters were done in much broader strokes.

Next: Two new trailers drop for Spider-Man: Homecoming

Like Kevin Smith and Tim Burton’s Superman Lives, or Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, James Cameron’s Spider-Man is a fascinating, but flawed, look at what might have been. If you have the time, I encourage you to give it a read. It will certainly make for interesting homework just before re-watching Raimi’s Spider-Man. Then be glad this wasn’t the Spider-Man movie you grew up with.