Few directors dominated the 1990s like James Cameron. After a blockbuster decade in the 1980s, collaborations with Arnold Schwarzenegger on Terminator 2 and True Lies cemented his status as a bankable action director of the ’90s. Then the unprecedented success of Titanic sent him through the stratosphere. But there was one property that remained out of his grasp: Spider-Man.
In a Zoom roundtable with ScreenCrush and others promoting his new book, Tech Noir: The Art of James Cameron, Cameron discussed what he calls in Tech Noir “the greatest movie I never made.”
Traces of Cameron’s Spider-Man exist all over the place. A Variety article from 1993 says Cameron had turned in a script, and an anonymous agent crows that it is “going to be as big as the Batman movie,” referencing the Tim Burton franchise. In 2015, Leonardo DiCaprio told Empire that he “had a couple of chats” with Cameron about taking on the webslinger, and felt that Cameron was at least “semi-serious” about the idea.
While DiCaprio did not seem to mourn the lost opportunity to play Peter Parker, saying he wasn’t sure “anything would have changed” in his career if the movie had come to fruition, Cameron was eager to point out that his version of the character would have been very different than modern iterations.
“I wanted to make something that had a kind of gritty reality to it,” Cameron said on Zoom. “Superheroes in general always came off as kind of fanciful to me, and I wanted to do something that would have been more in the vein of Terminator and Aliens, that you buy into the reality right away. So you’re in a real world, you’re not in some mythical Gotham City. Or Superman and the Daily Planet and all that sort of thing, where it always felt very kind of metaphorical and fairytale-like.
“I wanted it to be: It’s New York. It’s now. A guy gets bitten by a spider. He turns into this kid with these powers and he has this fantasy of being Spider-Man, and he makes this suit and it’s terrible, and then he has to improve the suit, and his big problem is the damn suit. Things like that. I wanted to ground it in reality and ground it in universal human experience.”
But in many ways, Cameron was seeing the same things that would later appeal to Sam Raimi. This includes both making Parker’s web-shooting a biological function as well as the character representing “that untapped reservoir of potential that people have that they don’t recognize in themselves.”
In 2000, IGN offered an overview of Cameron’s script. Many parts of it feel similar: Peter Parker, an awkward high schooler who lives with Aunt May and Uncle Ben, has a crush on Mary Jane Watson. Uncle Ben is killed by a robber, but that’s where the story starts to diverge. The police take Spider-Man into custody for Uncle Ben’s murder, who then busts out. A local TV reporter, J. Jonah Jameson (there’s no Daily Bugle), starts to declare that Spider-Man is a menace.
With references to Franz Kafka’s classic novella The Metamorphosis, Cameron’s story becomes about Electro and Sandman trying to recruit Parker into a criminal organization for super-powered villains. Parker resists, sleeps with MJ, curses up a storm, and eventually defeats the two on top of the World Trade Center. The ’90s!
In the early 1990s, Marvel was a struggling comic book company whose last movie was Howard the Duck. Desperate for cash and getting the cold shoulder from a film industry that had been staying away from superheroes since the financial disasters of 1983’s Superman III, the only person who would buy the rights to Spider-Man in 1985 was Israeli producer Menachem Golan, who thought Spider-Man was like the Wolfman.
Eventually, Golan sold the theatrical rights to Carolco Pictures, the production company behind blockbusters like Rambo, Total Recall, and Cameron’s Terminator 2. But when Cameron turned in his 1993 script, Golan bounced from the project. To quote a 2002 BusinessWeek recap of the situation, “before long, everyone was suing everyone else.”
Within a year, Carolco, Golan’s company The Cannon Group, and Marvel had all declared bankruptcy. In 1998, when Marvel emerged from financial disaster, courts determined that Golan’s rights to the character had expired, the rights were sold to Sony, and the stage was set for Tobey Maguire.
So while Cameron’s Spider-Man never got made, the visionary project-on-paper ended up influencing Hollywood anyway.