Monday, June 28, 2010

The "Never Got Made" File #19: Look Out! Here comes the SPIDER-MAN movie...or maybe not!

Born from the minds of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the early 1960s, Spider-Man was a teenage superhero that resonated with the comic book demographic right away. Naturally, Hollywood came calling soon after. Spider-Man was quickly turned into a cartoon series that ran three years (1967-70) and is most notable for its well-known “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can” theme song.

Live-action Spidey debuted in 1974 in the recurring “Spidey Super Stories” on the children’s variety show THE ELECTRIC COMPANY. This proved to be a popular segment and gave way to the television series THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, which began with a television pilot in September 1977 that saw theatrical release overseas as a feature. The series premiered the following year in April 1978 and ran for a total of 13 episodes. Hot on the heels of the US version, the Japanese also produced a live-action series (Supaida-Man) that debuted in May 1978. This series featured a young Japanese motor cycle racer becoming the titular superhero after receiving a special bracelet from an alien in a crashed UFO. Naturally, Spider-Man fought huge monsters, ninjas, samurais and controlled a large robot. The series lasted less than a year but managed to pack in an impressive 41 episodes into its run. You can now watch it online with subtitles at

With superhero fever at an all-time high (thanks in part to the success 1978 SUPERMAN film adaptation), it seemed like only a matter of time before Spider-Man would reach the big screen in a proper theatrical feature. Enterprising film producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus secured the feature film rights in the early 1980s for their Cannon Films company. Originally, Cannon ran trade ads in Variety in 1985 with director Tobe Hooper attached to direct the film and television veteran Leslie Stevens (THE OUTER LIMITS; BUCK ROGERS) penning the script. According to a Cinefantastique article on the unproduced film, "Stevens substituted a new origin for the superhero involving an evil scientist name Dr. Zork, a maker of mutants who pits his monsterous creations against Spidey. In this case, Peter Parker was a lowly Zork employee who became a spider-man because of an experimental mishap." In addition, character co-creator Stan Lee produced his own treatment for the film, which he described as "pure, quintessential Spider-Man." Writers Ted Newsom and John Brancato were given the assignment of turning this treatment into a script for Tobe Hooper.

But by late 1985, Hooper was off the project and director Joseph Zito, who helmed Cannon’s successful MISSING IN ACTION and INVASION U.S.A., stepped in as director. Interestingly, Zito included a scene in MISSING where Chuck Norris' character awakens from a Vietnam nightmare to find the cartoon series Spider-Man playing on the television. When Joseph Zito entered the project, he brought in his own writer, Barney Cohen to polish Newsom and Brancato’s script (check the comment section below for more info on this). The plot, according to Zito, focused on Spider-Man battling Dr. Otto Octavius, better known as Doctor Octopus. The script (dated Nov. 24, 1985) can be read online at this link and is interesting in how some of it mirrors the eventual SPIDER-MAN 2 from Sam Raimi, which featured the same villain.

Zito scouted studios in both Italy and England to house the production. Zito also hired Mentor Huebner and Marvel Comics artist Nikita Knatz to help storyboard the film. Special effects tests were done to capture Spider-Man's movement and Doctor Octopus's tentacles. While no actors were officially cast, Zito considered stuntman Scott Leva for the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Leva had made public appearances as Spider-Man for Marvel Comics in the 1980s. Zito also expressed interest in having Bob Hoskins play the villain Doctor Octopus. In addition, Zito mentions that Stan Lee himself was hoping to land the role of Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson. In total, Cannon spent $1.5 million in pre-production costs on the un-produced Zito version.

Despite investing $1.5 million in pre-production, the producers shutdown the project in 1986. According to the article, "Cannon found itself in dire financial trouble last year, bailed out by Warner Bros to the tune of $75 million. The risk of losing $15 million stopped being acceptable." Ironically, Golan and Globus turned their attention to producing the more expensive (and eventual box office bomb) SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE. In the interim, Cannon Films temporarily lost the option rights to the Spider-Man series when they failed to make a timely payment to Marvel Comics. As a result, "New World Pictures, which owned Marvel [at the time] and the film rights to its line of superheroes appears to have jumped at the opportunity presented by this unfortunate gaffe." New World Pictures never made the film either.

Cannon would eventually get back in Marvel’s good graces and lined up a Spider-Man film again in 1988 for director Albert Pyun (THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER). Pyun told Cinefantastique “we’re working with Stan Lee and Marvel on SPIDER-MAN” and that a Christmas 1989 release was planned. The film was to be shot at Dino De Laurentiis’ studios in Wilmington, North Carolina. Amazingly, all of this was to be done by Pyun while also directing back-to-back the promised MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE 2, DELTA FORCE 2 and SUPERMAN V!  Cannon was so sure this was happening that they even logged SPIDER-MAN in Variety's "Future Films" section with an exact production start date of October 24, 1988:

Small article in a Cannon advert section in Variety talking about the film in 1988 (click for readable, full sized scan):

It obviously didn't happen.  Not to be deterred, they listed it again a few months later with a March 1989 start date; note the switch from screenwriter Don Michael Paul to Ethan Wiley in the interim.  Gee, I wonder why this project isn't getting off the ground?

Not surprisingly, the production was eventually postponed and didn't meet the Xmas 1989 deadline.  Cannon was still stoking the fire though by running a “1990 – The Year of Spider-Man” banner on every one of their ads in Variety the following year. The film never materialized.

German blurb from CINEMA magazine announcing the film circa 1990:

1991 Cannon ad in Variety for the project; notice new credited screenwriters Neil Ruttenberg (DEATHSTALKER II) and Joseph Goldman (HOT CHILI):

Interestingly, the rights fell into the hands of Carolco in the mid-90s and some dude named James Cameron (who?) was attached to direct it. They even ran simple ads announcing it in Variety. Cameron never got a chance to make it and word on the street is he hasn’t amounted to anything since it fell apart.

Disclaimer: A majority of this piece was originally from an entry I did that was added to Wikipedia in May 2007. It was subsequently removed/merged/altered by the fine folks there into the SPIDER-MAN films history. So, no, I did not rip off Wikipedia. And all photos/scans come from our personal collection.

4 Reactions:

  1. About 90% accurate. John Brancato and I never saw the Leslie Stevens treatment. I did, but only two or three years after we'd worked for Cannon. What we pitched was something of an oddity in Hollywood at the time: do the comic book. Don't change it, don't gag it up, don't smirk at it, don't try to "improve it, and don't write down "for the kids." Just do the goddamned comic book. Only after we'd done our treatment-- which was based on a brief outline by Stan-- did Joe Zito come aboard. He fought for the project in the same way and for the same reason we did-- we wanted to do the Spider-Man we'd read in the comics. We turned in the first draft; at that point Joe had them hire Barney Cohen, who read our draft and said to Joe, "Why change it? It's fine the way it is." Once they started to have financial troubles-- THAT is when the next 3 or 4 writers came in, each told to make the scope of the story smaller and cheaper. When Menahem went out on his own, he chucked the low budget scripts in a box and went back to the big-budget first/2nd draft. That remained the script through Menahem's pitch to Columbia (who wanted it) and through the Carolco era.

  2. Ted,

    Thanks so much for the comment and info. I'm going to amend my info to let readers know that they should make sure to read your comment.


    1. Tom Cruise was considered for the part of Peter

    2. One of the best scripts I ever read was Ted's Spidey script


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