What Happened To James Cameron's Spider-Man Movie

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Rebecca Keegan's book, The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron, was recently released to coincide with the release of James Cameron's Avatar (you can read all of our Avatar coverage, including news/reviews/interviews by clicking here). Here at /Film, I've be relaying some of the most interesting sections of the book – stories from the fascinating career of James Cameron, with words from the man himself – culminating in a /Filmcast interview that I'll do with Keegan next week. I'd highly suggest you pick up the book yourself, as it's certainly a worthy read for any film fan.

Up next: Whatever happened to James Cameron's version of Spider-Man? Hit the break for a brief excerpt from Keegan's book explaining the aborted endeavor. Note that the details of this entire process have already been well-documented, but Cameron's quotes and reactions are new.

Hardcore James Cameron fans will probably recall that Cameron was once attached to write/direct a film adaptation of Spider-Man. The story behind the project's rise and fill is still fascinating, and gives some insight into Cameron. Keegan writes:

After True Lies, Cameron's next project could have been based on a character he'd been dreaming about since he was a 9th grader in Chippawa— Spider-Man. He had lobbied Carolco, the independent studio behind T2, to purchase the rights to the Spider-Man comics, which they did in 1990. Carolco's executives had a habit of seat-of-the pants deal-making that endeared the company to Cameron, who had made his $100 million Terminator sequel with them based on terms laid out in a simple half-page memo. But in this instance, a hasty contract would come back to haunt all the parties involved. Cameron wrote a Spider-Man scriptment for Carolco that was widely admired in Hollywood. The comic's creator, Stan Lee, adored it and gave a Cameron-directed Spider-Man movie his hearty endorsement. "It was the Spider-Man we all know and love," Lee said of the treatment. "Yet it all somehow seemed fresh and new."

He opted to make his Spider-Man movie an origins story, explaining how Peter Parker developed his web-slinging powers. But he made some thoughtful changes to the iconic character, starting with the Spider-Man's wrist shooters. Lee's comic called for Peter Parker to build them himself, but Cameron thought a biological explanation was more plausible. "I had this problem that Peter Parker, boy genius, goes home and creates these wrist shooters that the DARPA labs would be happy to have created on a 20-year program," says Cameron. "I said, wait a minute, he's been bitten by a radioactive spider, it should change him fundamentally in a way that he can't go back." In Cameron's treatment, the wrist shooters simply grow as Peter becomes spider-like...

Cameron also updated the comics' super-villain Electro for the information age in a character he called Carlton Strand. Electro was a robot that functioned on pure electric power, while Cameron's Strand could touch a computer or a cable and absorb the data flowing through it—an acknowledgement that information itself is real power. Cameron's scriptment is darker and more adult than anyone expected from a comic-book movie in the 1990s—Peter Parker says "motherf***er" and Spider-Man and Mary-Jane have sex atop the Brooklyn Bridge. Adult-oriented comic-book adaptations like Dark Knight and 300 found huge audiences more than a decade later, but Cameron's writing was a dramatic departure from the accepted wisdom about the genre at the time, namely that it should be nearly as family-friendly as a Disney movie. It would have been fascinating to see what the creator of the rough-edged characters of the Terminator franchise did with the adolescent superhero. But the James Cameron version of Spider-Man never happened, because Hollywood's real idea of super villains descended—lawyers. When Carolco filed for Chapter 11 in 1995, it became clear the company's claim to the Spider-Man rights had been tenuous all along.

"Here I am working on Spider-Man and it turns out that there's a lien against the rights and Sony's got a piece of it and Carolco doesn't really own it even though they think they own it," Cameron says. With Carolco down, Cameron tried to get Fox to go after Spider-Man. The studio would have been happy to buy their top-earning director his pet project if it had just been a matter of rights, but procuring Spider-Man now meant entering a nasty legal fight and potentially a bidding war involving multiple other studios and producers with overlapping claims on the project dating back to when Marvel had first put the film rights up for sale in 1985. "They're so risk-averse," Cameron says. "For a couple hundred thousand dollars in legal fees they could have had a $2 billion franchise. They blew it."

By the time Sony emerged with the rights, Cameron had already moved on to another endeavor: Titanic. But those who have seen Spider-Man know that several elements of Cameron's version made it into Raimi's take on the web-slinger. Specifically, the organic web-shooters, conceived by Cameron, played prominently in the final film. When asked why he didn't get a writing credit on the film, Cameron responded: "I'd say that wasn't terribly polite of them." Nonetheless, Cameron doesn't harbor any ill will against anyone for the whole ordeal.

Unlike other Spider-Man writers who waged unsuccessful battles via the WGA over their contributions, Cameron never put up a fight for his name to appear on the film. Thanks to Titanic, he was a very wealthy man who could afford to forgo the potential residuals."I didn't feel that injured...slighted, but not injured," he said.

As awesome as Keegan makes the Cameron Spider-Man sound, some people might disagree that the film would have been as artistically/critically/financially successful as the Raimi films. In fact, io9 recently got their hands on the script treatment and weren't particularly kind to it. According to Graeme McMillan:

While offering up enough visual thrills and surface spectacle that you know it would've made an exciting movie to watch, Cameron's Spider-Man shaves off so much of the weirdness of the character that it could be any generic teenage superhero saving his girlfriend and the The Day. We're happier this script stayed unmade and Sam Raimi got his chance to show off his superhero chops instead and, let's face it: Wouldn't the world rather have had Avatar than this, in the end?


Thanks to the magic of the internet, you can read the script treatment online and see an illustrated version of it.

Once you do that, come back and answer this question: Would you have preferred a Spider-Man movie directed by James Cameron?

Excerpts reprinted from THE FUTURIST: The Life and Films of James Cameron Copyright (c) 2009 by Rebecca Keegan. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc. You can buy The Futurist at Amazon.