Say what you will about “The Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel, which opens this weekend, but superhero movies have come a long way in the last few decades. Part of that has involved filmmakers embracing the characters as they appear in the comics.
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is, in some ways, a more faithful adaptation of the character than most fans could have ever hoped for.
Just like some other iconic comic book heroes, though, Spider-Man has had a long and bumpy journey to the big screen, including numerous attempted versions that, thankfully, never quite came together — as well as a couple that did, but only in the loosest of senses.
Here’s an overview of the strange, mostly forgotten history of some of the more out-there attempts at adapting Spider-Man for film and TV.
Steve Krantz’s Spider-Man (mid-’70s) — The first in a long line of unproduced Spider-Man movies, this one kind of sets the tone for some of the oddball ideas that would follow in later years.
Krantz, who produced a couple animated series based on Marvel characters in the late ’60s, including the Ralph Bakshi-directed “Amazing Spider-Man” that ran from 1967-1970, acquired the rights for a live-action movie in the mid-1970s. His initial plan? A big-budget fantasy musical.
He later rethought that and instead opted to just adapt Gerry Conway’s seminal “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” (from “The Amazing Spider-Man” No. 121-122), but with a 100-foot-tall robot and Nazis. The rights lapsed before he got around to filming either version.
“Spider-Man” (1977) — People still like to talk about how great the original Spider-Man trilogy was, referring to the Sam Raimi movies of the 2000s with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. What they don’t always realize, though, is that those films weren’t actually the original Spider-Man trilogy — not by a long shot.
That distinction belongs to a trio of made-for-TV titles starring Nicholas Hammond, an actor who’s still probably better known for playing one of the Von Trapp kids in “The Sound of Music.” The first movie, 1977’s “Spider-Man,” spawned a TV series on CBS (“The Amazing Spider-Man”) that ran for two seasons. Those episodes were later cannibalized to make two sequel movies that were released theatrically overseas, “Spider-Man Strikes Back” and “Spider Man: The Dragon’s Challenge.”
While hardly comparable to any of the Sony movies, the 1977 “Spider-Man” did pioneer a few elements that some argue might have directly influenced the 2012 version of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” including POV shots as Spidey swings around Los Angeles — er, I mean, New York.
Japanese “Spider-Man”/”Supaidāman” (1978-1979) — The 1970s were a busy decade for ol’ webhead. As part of a licensing agreement with Toei (the company behind the “Super Sentai” series, which became “The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” in the U.S.), Spider-Man also had his very own TV series in Japan.
Lasting for a total of 41 episodes, it saw him battle a panoply of building-sized monsters with the help of his giant robot Leopardon (what is it with Spider-Man and robots?) that could also transform into a spaceship. Oh, and in this version, Spidey, who spent his non-superhero time as a professional motorcycle racer named Takuya Yamashiro, gained his powers after being injected with the blood of an alien named Garia from the planet Spider.
Tobe Hooper’s Spider-Man (mid-1980s) — No less bizarre than the Japanese Spider-Man was this unrealized concept for a live-action movie from the heads of Cannon Films, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus (cousins who were responsible for such gems as “Superman IV: Quest for Peace” and the 1987 He-Man movie “Masters of the Universe”).
Apparently unfamiliar with the comics, Golan and Globus took the name “Spider-Man” at face value, according to future directorial candidate Joseph Zito — meaning, a half-human/half-arachnid monster in the vein of Lon Cheney’s Wolf Man. Operating under this rather large misconception, they hired Leslie Stevens, creator of “The Outer Limits,” to write a draft with Tobe Hooper of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” signed to direct.
Thankfully (or not?), Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee stepped in and put the kibosh on this one. But Golan and Globus weren’t finished with the character yet.
Joseph Zito and Albert Pyun’s Spider-Man (late 1980s) — The second attempt under the Golan-Globus regime — a period of Spider-Man movie history known as the Cannon years — was a major upgrade in the sense that it at least portrayed Spider-Man as a superhero.
With the switch from horror to costumed heroics, Cannon hired action director Joseph Zito (fresh off a number of Chuck Norris movies) to film a script that still did away with vast parts of Spider-Man’s mythology, including his origin story.
This version, however, was set to carry a pretty decent price tag ($15 million, a hefty sum for back then) and was looking at serious actors to play key parts, including the brilliant Bob Hoskins (who just passed away this week) for Doctor Octopus and either Audrey Hepburn or Lauren Bacall for Aunt May.
Endless script revisions and Stan Lee’s protective eye kept Zito’s version from ever getting off the ground. He was eventually replaced by “Masters of the Universe” helmer Albert Pyun, who hoped to film his “Spider-Man” simultaneously with “Masters of the Universe 2,” using the same sets for both movies in order to cut costs. Neither film ended up getting made, but Pyun managed to recycle the sets for the Jean-Claude Van Damme sci-fi vehicle “Cyborg.”
James Cameron’s Spider-Man (early 1990s) — If your first thought upon seeing this heading was something like, “A James Cameron Spider-Man movie? Where can I sign a petition for that?” then prepare to be disappointed. Although he’s still probably the highest-profile writer/director to ever be associated with Spidey — and that’s including Raimi and Webb — the two attempts he made at adapting the character were easily as offbase as many of the other ones on this list.
Attempt No. 1, for which Cameron was credited as a co-writer and earned a staggering $3 million paycheck, centered on “Professor” Octopus (to have been played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his nefarious plot to steal a physics paper from a student, Peter Parker. Yep. To be fair, though, that physics paper did hold the secret to destroying the entire planet.
Rather confusingly, in this script, both Professor Octopus and Spider-Man got their powers from radioactive spider bites, and both referred to themselves as Spider-Man.
Attempt No. 2, which swapped out the villains for barely recognizable versions of Electro and Sandman with completely different names, was a much darker, edgier version than had previously been seen, full of profanity and a bizarre love scene atop the Brooklyn Bridge in which Spider-Man mimics the mating rituals of arachnids.
According to Rebecca Keegan, author of “The Futurist: The Life and Times of James Cameron,” Stan Lee “adored” Cameron’s second treatment (as quoted on Slashfilm). So what stopped this version from getting made? Apparently, Marvel had sold the character’s film rights to multiple companies over the years, which threw things into legal limbo for pretty much the rest of the ’90s as MGM, Columbia and Fox all duked it out.
Eventually, Columbia (a subsidiary of Sony) was able to secure sole control of the character after trading its claim to another disputed property: James Bond.
“Spider-Man 4” (circa 2011) — Fast-forward several years; under the direction of Sam Raimi, Sony has produced three box-office hits based on the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko character, and although the third movie was widely regarded as a misstep, the studio is pushing full-steam ahead on a fourth installment with tentative plans for a second trilogy.
Obviously, “Spider-Man 4” never happened, let alone 5 or 6. Instead, Sony opted to reboot the franchise in 2012, marking the 50th anniversary since the character first appeared in “Amazing Fantasy” No. 15.
But it came close. “Spider-Man 4” would have seen everyone’s favorite wall-crawler, once again played by Tobey Maguire, battling John Malkovich as the Vulture with future Catwoman Anne Hathaway being eyed for Felicia Hardy, aka the Black Cat, and fan-favorite actor Bruce Campbell rumored for Mysterio.
Ultimately, what halted production was Raimi’s refusal to rush things the way he had been forced to on “Spider-Man 3.”
Sources: io9.com's "The Secret History of Spider-Man Movies," spidermanfilms.wikia.com, comicbookmovie.com, weminoredinfilm.com's "6 Spider-Man Movies That Almost But Thankfully Didn't Get Made," wikipedia.com
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. Along with the Deseret News, he also contributes to the film discussion website TheMovieScrutineer.com.