COMICS TO CAMERA: Spider-Man, Part I
When Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby worked together on the final lead story for a comic book anthology series lined up on the chopping block, they probably weren’t expecting the main character – a timid teenager whose life was forever changed by a spider bite – to become the multibillion-dollar juggernaut he is today. Peter Parker’s adventures as the amazing Spider-Man took America by storm, with the character eventually becoming the flagship character of Marvel Comics itself. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the webslinging wonder would also prove to be one of the company’s most popular and profitable characters across various media.
Spider-Man’s long and colorful journey from the four-color page to the boob tube and silver screen is particularly interesting, as it is full of the same drama, suspense, and adventure that propelled the popularity of his comic book into the stratosphere. Let’s take a look at the wall-crawler’s career as a film and television icon, from the very beginning:
Television: Spidey Super Stories (1974)
Most people start counting Spidey’s live action appearances with the 1977 television series starring Nicholas Hammond (which we’ll get to in a bit), but this is technically where his TV career began. In 1974, the children’s television series The Electric Company started running a skit called Spidey Super Stories, which featured a perpetually silent wall-crawler portrayed by Danny Seagren. This version of Spidey was always in costume; audiences didn’t get to see Peter Parker here.
In order to help the children tuning in to learn how to read, Spidey communicated solely through word balloons. Additionally, due to budget constraints, his web-shooting activities were kept to a minimum. On the bright side, he had a catchy theme song!
This version of Spider-Man fought living walls, Napoleon cosplayers with hammers, and mad scientists selling hot dogs made out of fleas and flies. I guess it’s a good thing we didn’t see this guy in the recent Spider-Verse comic book event, because he would have gotten his butt kicked faster than you can say “Easy Reader.” (EDIT: Actually, he WAS there; however, due to rights issues, he was only hinted at, and never outright shown or acknowledged.)
Fun fact: Some of these Spidey Super Stories skits were narrated by none other than Morgan Freeman himself, who was an original cast member.
Film: Spider-Man (1977; also known as The Amazing Spider-Man)
The next live action incarnation of Spidey first appeared in a two-hour special intended to be a backdoor pilot for a TV series. Starring Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, the TV movie aired on CBS on September 14, 1977, and was eventually released outside the United States as a full-length feature film. So yeah, if you really want to get technical about things, this was the first Spider-Man movie. It was received well enough to get the aforementioned TV series a greenlight, and even “spawned” (read: opened the floodgates for subsequent TV episodes to be re-edited and repackaged as) two more movies.
Television: The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-1979)
Despite mixed reviews and deviating from the source material, the film led to the creation of The Amazing Spider-Man, a 2-season, 13-episode TV series that aired on CBS in 1977.
This version of Spider-Man had round, silver eyes and exposed webshooters. He also wore his web cartridge belt over his costume (which, if you think about it, is a much more acceptable fashion choice than Batman or Superman wearing their undies over their pants).
The show was popular, but for the wrong reasons. The lack of established characters from the comics (only J. Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, and Robbie Robertson appeared alongside Peter), complaints about the overall tone and storylines, and expensive production costs eventually doomed the series, but not before it could produce enough material for the next two Spider-Man “films.”
Film: Spider-Man Strikes Back (1978)
Spider-Man Strikes Back, which was released outside the United States as a feature film, was essentially a re-edited episode from the first season of the show. The film revolved around three university students who stole some plutonium and turned it into a bomb to raise awareness about the hazards of nuclear power. Things rapidly spiral into chaos as the weapon falls into the wrong hands, prompting Spider-Man to take action before the bad guys blow up California and kill the President. (Oh, how I wish I were making this up.)
Television: Toei’s Spider-Man (Supaidaman) (1978-1979)
As part of Japanese company Toei’s deal with Marvel, it produced a 41-episode TV series loosely based on Spidey. When I say “loosely based,” what I really mean is they took Spider-Man’s costume, slapped a wrist gadget on it, and developed the concept into a show that truly lived up to Japan’s special WTF brand of creative insanity.
This version of Spider-Man was a motorcycle racer named Takuya Yamashiro (played by Shinji Todo) who got his powers via blood transfusion from an alien hailing from Planet Spider. This gave him the ability to shoot webs, sense danger, and control a giant robot called Leopardon. This unusual take on Spider-Man started the tradition of using giant robots in Super Sentai television shows, and the sheer novelty of the concept allowed it to attain cult-favorite status, eventually earning Supaidaman a significant role in the Spider-Verse comic book crossover.
Film: Toei’s Spider-Man (Supaidaman) (1978)
The series’ popularity resulted in Toei creating a special movie that chronologically takes place between episodes 10 and 11 of the show. This film was shown at the Toei Manga Matsuri (Cartoon) Film Festival on July 22, 1978.
Film: Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge (1979)
Meanwhile, the crafty guys at CBS found another way to make the most out of the series finale of The Amazing Spider-Man. The two-hour episode entitled The Chinese Web, which featured a lot of scenes shot in Hong Kong, was released abroad as Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge. It had everything: martial arts, espionage, and cultural stereotypes, too!
Development Hell: Cannon Films / Carolco Pictures / James Cameron (1980s to 1999)
This section marks the beginning of Spider-Man’s long and brutal battle with a foe that proved to be much more formidable than the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, or the Sandman: development hell.
By the time the 1980s rolled in, Spider-Man was deemed ready for a Hollywood feature film adaptation. Unfortunately, comic book adaptations weren’t very high on the Hollywood hierarchy at the time, rendering the character stuck with Roger Corman (yes, that Roger Corman) until 1985. Corman and Lee worked together on a plot that had Spidey single-handedly putting an end to a nuclear war in Russia. Come to think of it, this would have been a so-bad-it’s-good film; it’s a shame it never saw the light of day.
Eventually, the rights went to Cannon Films, who immediately set to work in developing the first of many script proposals that proved exactly how clueless Hollywood executives were about the right way to handle Spidey.
Cannon’s first shot at making a Spidey movie involved a script that was written by people who had absolutely no idea how the character worked. In this proposal, Peter Parker was a photographer who was exposed to heavy radiation and mutated into a hideous tarantula-type humanoid monster. This was more of a monster film than a superhero caper, with Parker battling other mutants like him until he defeated the mad scientists who were trying to overrun the world with monstrous hybrids and ultimately died.
Yeah, I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in.
To no one’s surprise, Stan Lee balked at this hilariously terrible concept, prompting Cannon to commission a second script that featured, among other things, Peter Parker and Otto Octavius (his longtime nemesis, Doctor Octopus) gaining powers in the same accident. Tom Cruise (who was a rising star at the time) and professional stuntman Scott Leva were the clear favorites to play Spidey. Leva already had experience with portraying the webslinger, as he was Marvel’s official Spider-Man cosplayer for public events, photo shoots, and even a few photo covers for the comic books.
However, even after spending about $1.5 million, Cannon’s money woes and the script progressively declining in quality after every rewrite meant that the project had to be scrapped.
Still, some hope for the project remained, as the scriptwriters worked feverishly to push the project towards other prospective producers. Eventually, it was reported that Carolco Pictures was backing the project, based on a screenplay written by James Cameron. Targeted for release in 1993, the film was likely to have featured Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doctor Octopus. Given the way he portrayed Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin, can you imagine all the octopus-related puns we could have heard from the Governator if this film had gotten the green light?
“Get ready to suffer, wall-crawler – you’re standing in arm’s way!”
“Water you waiting for? Make my day, arachnid!”
“Eight’s time to die, Spider-Man!”
Man, I could do this all day.
Cameron soon came up with another scriptment. This time, it featured the following details and plot points:
- A capitalist villain named Carlton Strand, who was basically Electro, but wasn’t!
- A mutated goon named Boyd, who was basically Sandman, but wasn’t!
- Peter Parker completely destroying Flash Thompson’s car, in a fit of adolescent rage!
- Peter having biological webshooters as a clever metaphor for wet dreams and puberty! Nudge-nudge, wink-wink!
- Peter and Mary Jane having sex on top of the Brooklyn Bridge!
Unfortunately, Spidey’s film career seemed cursed at this point in time, and in 1992, Carolco stopped working on the project due to a combination of legal trouble and financial constraints. Spidey’s box office future was once again thrown into limbo, and would stay there for about seven more years.
What became of Spider-Man’s initial, somewhat unsuccessful foray into the world of Hollywood? Did the old Parker luck somehow find its way into the real world, or was Spider-Man eventually able to save the day (and his budding film career)? Find out in the next installment of COMICS TO CAMERA.