Spider-Man is one of the most enduring superheroes in modern fiction. The wall-crawler made the leap from the comics page to the big screen in 2002. Sam Raimi’s kinetic and colorful adaptation was hailed as a success. However, it wasn’t the first time the webhead tried to swing into theaters. In fact, we almost got a Spider-Man film directed by none other than geek guru James Cameron.
“Can he swing from a thread?”
Cameron became attached to the project in 1991 when Carolco, the company that financed Terminator 2: Judgment Day, picked up the rights. They immediately set up a film with Cameron as the writer, producer, and director. Cameron had a fifty-seven-page treatment that outlined the entire story of Peter Parker and his first adventure as the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
Cameron’s version starts with Spider-Man hanging from one of the radio masts of the World Trade Center. Peter begins to tell the audience – through voiceover – who he is and how he was bitten by a radioactive spider. The night that Peter is bitten, he has a trippy dream that involves seeing himself as a spider. When he wakes up, he’s climbing a tower in his underwear.
As Peter’s other powers begin to manifest, he also develops the ability to shoot webbing from his wrists. Yes, Sam Raimi lifted this idea for his version of the character. And yes, Cameron was well aware of the subtextual aspects of having a teenager shoot white fluid in excitement. Peter starts doing stunts for money and makes a decent haul by appearing on television. Unfortunately, his Uncle Ben is murdered and Peter decides to use his powers to stop crime. This all sounds fairly familiar, doesn’t it?
“Here comes the Spider-Man!”
Well, the story really kicks into gear when business tycoon and criminal kingpin Carlton Strand discovers Spider-Man’s amazing abilities. He tries to get Spider-Man to join him but Spider-Man refuses. Too bad for Spidey that Strand is actually Electro and has a shapeshifting sidekick named Boyd that is also the Sandman. Cameron changed up the identities of these famous baddies but kept their superpowers largely untouched.
Strand frames Spider-Man for murder and the city begins to see Spider-Man as a menace. At the same time. Peter is struggling with his romantic feelings towards classmate Mary Jane Watson. As luck would have it, she is seduced by Spider-Man without knowing he’s Peter. They even end up having sex on top of the Brooklyn Bridge!
Well, Strand finds out about their romance and kidnaps Mary Jane. Spidey meets them on top of the World Trade Center and a knockout fight breaks out. Strand uses his electric powers but to no avail. He is bested and killed. Spidey wins the day and reveals to Mary Jane that he is Peter. They fall in love, graduate, and Spider-Man’s name is cleared. He becomes the hero we know and love.
“Wealth and fame, he’s ignored”
Cameron’s version is much more adult than most comic book movies. The symbolism of Peter’s transformation as a representation of puberty is not exactly subtle. He literally wakes up in the night and is covered in webbing. Gross. Plus, Cameron’s version of the character is a little salty. He drops some hard F-bombs and really gets beaten bloody by both Sandman and Electro. You have to remember that this project was given the go-ahead shortly after Tim Burton’s Batman. Dark and edgy superheroes were a hot ticket item.
Sadly, Cameron never got to make his version thanks to tons of boring legal issues with the character. By the time he was free to pursue the project, he had moved on. His desire to create his own stories overtook his childhood love of the character. It’s a shame since Cameron wanted to try and utilize emerging technology for some of the stranger parts of his Spider-Man story. Mainly, the bizarre dream sequence that Peter has would have involved lots of different computer animations. Might have been cool. Not to mention that Cameron wanted Leonardo DiCaprio for Peter Parker. How crazy would that have been?
It’s always disappointing when a talented filmmaker doesn’t get to finalize an interesting project. Would Cameron’s Spider-Man have been good? We’ll never know but it certainly would have been cool to see.