Most casual fans of comic book films probably don’t realize that almost every major comic book adaptation has gone through what the industry has termed “development hell.” What If? looks at our favourite heroes trapped in a “developmental Phantom Zone,” if you will. This first edition looks at the Cannon Films’ Spider-Man.
The first big screen appearance of Spider-Man didn’t come to fruition until Sam Raimi’s excellent 2002 film, yet Marvel had been pushing for a film based on everyone’s favourite neighbourhood web-slinger for nearly two decades. After the film rights to Spider-Man bounced around for a few years between Columbia Pictures and Roger Corman, they fell into the hands of Israeli producing duo Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus. The two were the heads of Cannon Films, a studio notorious for low-budget, schlocky action films.
When they acquired the rights to the character, screenwriter Leslie Stevens (TV’s Buck Rogers, Return to the Blue Lagoon) began work on a script which radically changed the character. Peter Parker would have worked for the Zyrex Corporation, and would have been an unsuspecting pawn in an experiment by the evil Dr. Zyrex. Doused with radiation, Parker became a mutant of sorts, described as a half-man, half-tarantula. At this point in time, Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper was to helm the project.
Stan Lee rejected the story, Stevens and Hooper left the project when a new draft was commissioned. Scheduled for a Christmas 1986 release, Spider-Man was written by Ted Newsom (Evil Spawn) and John Brancato (The Game, Catwoman), and directed by Joseph Zito (Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Missing in Action). This new script (which you can actually read here) is more faithful to the source material, and pits Spidey against Dr. Octopus, with Liz Allen as a love interest. Spidey’s origin is close to the one in the comics, though now it’s tied to the ill-fated experiment that creates Doc Ock. Cannon were really gearing up for this, spending as much as $2 million on pre-production, and going so far as prematurely releasing a teaser trailer (using music from Richard Donner’s Superman).
The film was to star stunt man Scott Leva as Peter Parker and Bob Hoskins as Doc Ock (though Hoskins never actually committed to the film). Some comics readers may remember the cover of The Amazing Spider-Man issue #262 from March 1985 and wonder what that was all about. Well, it was a promo shot of Leva as Spidey (in some tight, tight jeans). The Christmas ’86 release date came and went without Spider-Man, theoretically disappointing millions of fans who had heard rumblings of the film and seen the teaser. For reasons not fully known (but probably attributed to budget complications, disapproval from Stan Lee) by the end of 1986, the project went on hiatus and Zito jumped ship. In the interim, Cannon produced another comic book film, the proverbial nail-in-the-coffin that is Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
Sometime around 1989, the whole thing landed in the lap of director Albert Pyun who stayed with the project for another couple of drafts, where Doc Ock was dropped as the villain and replaced by The Night Ghoul, a vampire-like creature (not dissimilar to Morbius, just lamer, I suppose). Yet another draft was written, this one dropping The Night Ghoul in favour of a new villain known as “Doc” (not of the Octopus variety), peddling a dangerous new drug known as “T-Devil.” Finally, the whole thing was shelved, though producer Menahem Golan and director Pyun did bring another superhero to the screen with 1990’s Captain America.
The property left the Cannon Film Group in 1990 and was picked up by Carolco, where James Cameron became involved. But that’s a whole other tangled web…