Take the Ultimate Spin through Spider-Man’s Cinematic History
With Jon Watts’ excellent Spider-Man: Homecoming out later this week, we thought it was prime time to take a trip down memory lane and revisit Spider-Man’s cinematic history. As it turns out, the wall-crawler’s pre-Raimi history is as tumultuous as the character’s steadily deteriorating sequels and reboot, post-2004. Yet, perhaps the most interesting strands of this story lie in the axed projects and the what-ifs. Nazis, an R-rated, foul-mouthed Parker, and nuclear war are among the storylines that litter the cutting room floor. On second thought, perhaps we ought to thank our stars the peaks of the cinematic incarnations of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man have risen so high while the valleys have dropped so low. But, before we leap into this tale, I’d like to thank all of the writers who have catalogued this story, especially Dave Gonzales of Geek.com, whose in-depth journey from beginning to end shaped the style of this piece.
The beginning of this tale lies in 1976. Former Columbia executive Steve Krantz tried to sell a treatment that featured a college-aged Peter doing battle with a 100-foot tall robot, Nazis, and the death of Gwen Stacy. This, mind you, was fresh after her comic book demise, only three years prior in Amazing Spider-Man #121 released on March 13, 1973. Though the script was scrapped due to a lack of willing financiers, only six years later, in 1982, Roger Corman tapped Stan Lee to write a treatment for a Cold War Spider-Man tale. In it, Doc Ock planned to start a nuclear war with Russia, and MJ – Peter’s love interest in the film – would turn out to be a KGB agent. As interesting (and entertaining as that sounds), the film was ultimately canned due to a lack of budget necessary to film the story’s climactic moment: a battle atop the World Trade Center.
By 1990, little progress had been made toward developing an on-screen adaptation of Spider-Man. Carolco Pictures had secured the rights to Spider-Man films and were eying James Cameron to write/direct the first live-action, big budget version of the character. Cameron’s treatment included fan-favorites Sandman and Electro, organic web-shooters, a sex scene with MJ atop the Brooklyn Bridge, and a dark tone (and I mean dark, Electro tortures MJ before Peter, distraught by MJ’s pain, threatens to kill him). Though, again, as entertaining as the film sounds, it ended up locked in development hell and was ultimately killed off when the previous owner of the Spider-Man film rights (who still had partial control over the property) moved to 21st Century Film/Pathé Communications. The property floundered here until a certain film producer swooped in and pushed the wall-crawler forward in the late ‘90s.
The Raimi Era
Cue Avi Arad, the eventual key to finally getting Spider-Man – and, indeed, many other Marvel properties – on to the silver screen. After using the popularity of the X-Men animated series of the late ‘90s to convince 20th Century Fox to make a live-action X-Men film, he trained his sights on Spider-Man. It was a summary judgment in court that disentangled Spider-Man from MGM, effectively putting the character back in Marvel’s hands. The comic giant then sold the rights to Sony shortly thereafter.
Director-scouting wavered from M. Night Shyamalan (at the time fresh off The Sixth Sense) to Chris Columbus to David Fincher (passed on by the studio due to his choice of story: the death of Gwen Stacy) to, finally, director of the Evil Dead saga: Sam Raimi.
2002’s Spider-Man scrapped the majority of the Cameron draft – save the organic web-shooters – opting for a far lighter tone. It was a massive hit, breaking the opening weekend box office record, and grossing over $400 million domestically. Further, it was met with great critical success, garnering near unanimous praise, save a general consensus that Dafoe’s Power Rangers-like armor inhibited his performance as the Green Goblin. In retrospect, Raimi’s first outing is the most distinctly “comic-y” of his three films, with silly CGI skeletons, an absurd metallic green suit, and ham-fisted dialogue. It’s a beautiful and stark contrast to the remainder of the series’ more grounded tone, even its own famous and influential glider-piercing ending.
The first film’s success immediately swung the doors wide open for a sequel. This time, written by David Koepp (Jurassic Park), Alfred Gough, and Miles Millar (Shanghai Noon), Spider-Man 2 aimed for a more serious tone. The initial script, though, was overloaded with villains and side characters, featuring the Lizard, Doc Ock, the second Green Goblin (Harry Osborn), and the Black Cat. Shortly after, novelist Michael Chabon was brought on to write a draft which streamlined the side characters, narrowing the supporting cast to MJ, Aunt May, an un-Green Goblin-ed Harry Osborn and the villain count was knocked down to just one: Doc Ock. His draft, interestingly, ended with Doc Ock and Harry teaming up to put a $10 million bounty on Spider-Man’s head, turning New York against the web-slinger. The final film ended up taking a far more optimistic approach to the city’s denizens with one of the film’s strongest scenes climaxing in subway train passengers lifting a collapsed and unmasked Peter to safety.
Arad was not a fan of the Chabon script’s ending, seeing a New York turned against Spider-Man as the wrong route for the sequel. So, he brought on Alvin Sargent (Paper Moon) to adapt the Chabon draft into the film we recognize today.
Though Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 would end up being the lowest grossing of his trilogy, it was met with great critical success. The film’s tragic, almost Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde take on Doc Ock and the doubling down on the humanity of Peter created a superhero film that, true to the character’s roots, was more about the man than the mask. Though the film was well-received at release, it has seen somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, as many have revisited Raimi’s classic and discovered what a humanistic masterpiece of superhero filmmaking it was and continues to be. In many ways, as much as Spider-Man 2 is the purest distillation of the character’s theme of responsibility in cinematic history, the film is so special for its constant willingness to remember one fact and one fact alone: we love Spider-Man not because of the web-slinging and the wall-crawling (though, those are cool too), we love Spider-Man because of Peter; because we all know what it’s like to struggle to do the right thing and never totally succeed. But, this peak in cinematic depictions of Spider-Man (and, according to me, superhero filmmaking in general), led to a problematic third act.
The Actual Final Chapter
After mostly leaving Raimi to his own devices for two films, Avi Arad stepped in to exert more creative influence for the third picture. However, a year before the third in Raimi’s trilogy came out, Arad stepped down and left Marvel entirely. Raimi’s plan for the cap to his trilogy was a trio of villains: Harry’s Green Goblin (a natural conclusion to a plotline that had been evolving over the previous two installments), the Sandman, and an aging Vulture. As is the case in the final cut of the film, the Sandman was to be revealed as Uncle Ben’s true killer. However, unlike the final film, the three villains were meant to be a natural extension of the humanization of Doc Ock that worked so well in the second film.
Arad, instead, pushed for Vulture to be scrapped in favor of fan favorite: Venom. The symbiote, Arad hoped, would introduce yet another fan favorite in the symbiote saga: the black suit. Raimi pushed back, asserting that Venom was a shallow villain, though, he did walk back his hesitation later into production, showing a greater appreciation for the character.
Regardless, the three-way split in villains led to a great deal of criticism. Most felt that the film was unfocused and that none of the three main antagonists contained an ounce of the pathos that so animated Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock. Further, the inclusion of a central character from the comics – Gwen Stacy – felt like an afterthought. It made the most of the entire franchise - $890 million - likely a product of both the film being the concluding chapter and the positive reception to its predecessor.
The Lost Chapter
Though the development of the fourth installment (slated for a summer 2011 release) was slow-going, Raimi spent extra care on the plotting of the fourth film. His Vulture, prospectively cast as John Malkovich, was aging and Raimi hoped to double down on the theme of death and finality. Anne Hathaway was slated to be the Vultress, who would take over for the decaying Adrian Toomes.
Simultaneously, Arad had, surreptitiously, hired writer of Zodiac (and, eventually, both Amazing Spider-Man films) James Vanderbilt to pen his Lizard version of the sequel. Though this film died before it ever took off, it ended up resurrecting itself when a relatively young, independent director took the helm of the Spider-Man franchise a year or so later.
The Webb Era
By early 2010, Sony Pictures had announced that Raimi’s fourth movie was no longer in development and, instead, they aimed to use the Vanderbilt draft as the basis for an entirely new trilogy: a reboot. See, from relatively early on in the Raimi trilogy Arad had wanted to explore the idea of Peter’s missing parents. This, like the unused Lizard plot, got shifted to the reboot.
Sony hired Marc Webb, fresh off of his feature film debut (500) Days of Summer. Like Raimi’s last Spider-Man film, though, Webb’s first, The Amazing Spider-Man, was subject to excessive studio interference. Entire side characters were cut between production and release. This wouldn’t be so unimaginable if the marketed “untold story” actually made it to the final cut.
A Tepid Return
Released the same year as Marvel’s electrifying The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man managed to make $750 million. But, the film didn’t ignite audiences or critics with the same energy as either the first or the second Raimi film. The spectacular chemistry between leads Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield ended up garnering the film some praise, but ultimately it was seen as a bit of a sour note. Worse yet, this film was the beginning of a prominent and vocal call for Spider-Man’s filmic rights to revert back to Marvel Studios so that he could be used in the growing Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was at this time that Sony catalyzed The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a film meant to launch the studio’s own Spider-Man-centered cinematic universe. Though, the narrowness and lack of robust planning for the nascent franchise spelled its doom before it ever launched.
The Nail in the Coffin
Like Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, Amazing Spider-Man 2 suffered from too many moving parts. The film attempted to re-double down on the parent plot point from the first Amazing film, placing the Parker parents at the center of Peter’s powers. Additionally, both Garfield and Webb were intent on making the death of Gwen Stacy the subject of the second installment. And, as is the death knell of nearly every superhero franchise, Amazing 2 split its villainy in two, casting Dane DeHaan as the Green Goblin/Harry Osborn (entirely skipping the first Green Goblin – an odd recognition of the film’s proximity to Raimi’s take just ten years prior) and Jamie Foxx as Electro. The film also featured Paul Giamatti as the Rhino, briefly, in an awkward epilogue/post-script, before unceremoniously cutting to credits before he could really get his due.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was met with mixed-to-poor reviews at release. It was criticized for being overlong, overstuffed, and poorly developed. Still, the chemistry between the leads: Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield, were met with great praise as was the tasteful handling of Gwen Stacy’s ultimate demise – a fate that the film was not coy to display in pre-release material, going so far as to use shots of her in the outfit she dies in before the film ever screened. However, in many ways, the overt world/franchise-building left a bad taste in people’s mouths. And, financially, the film fell short of its predecessor at $709 million.
The Return of the Prodigal Son
In February of 2015, a year after Amazing 2 released, it was revealed that Marvel and Sony were in talks to allow Spider-Man to join the MCU. Much to the rejoicing of Spider-Man fans everywhere, it was announced that the wall-crawler would feature in the imminent Captain America: Civil War and he’d also receive his own standalone MCU movie sometime in the future. It was after this deal that Avi Arad’s hold on cinematic interpretations of the character came to a close.
Thanks to a quick turn around with stuntmen in the currently-shooting airport battle set-piece, stellar special effects, and remote motion-capture from Tom Holland (as well as a short scene with him, Tony, and Aunt May in the film) Spider-Man was effectively a part of the MCU by May of 2016.
Spider-Man’s appearance in Civil War was among the most universally praised parts of that team-up film and launched excitement for the solo film – now announced with the post-script: Homecoming – into the stratosphere.
And, here we are, on the eve of the imminent Spider-Man: Homecoming. As I wrote in my review for the site, Homecoming is, in many ways, the best Spider-Man film since Raimi’s second outing. It’s a gleefully energetic take on the character and its Technicolor hues feel like a Ditko drawing jumped off the page and onto the screen. Despite the oft-rocky road to this incarnation of Spider-Man, it’s a testament to the character’s enduring legacy that he has remained so popular in theaters. As we learned in Spider-Man 2, and as Jon Watts has proven again with Spider-Man: Homecoming, the beating, red heart of the character of Spider-Man lies not in the web-slinging and wall-crawling, but rather in the intimate character moments with a boy who is just trying to get by like we all are. If Spider-Man films going forward can just keep that fact at the foreground at all times, we’re in for some great adaptations and incarnations of our favorite friendly neighborhood Spider-Man for years to come.