Cannon Film’s Spider-Man

Posted: February 9, 2017 in Baer
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Hey! It’s been a while. I haven’t been updating much lately due to life and other things getting in the way of talking about comic book movies. Luckily Brian C. Baer has no such concerns. Here, he brings us this look at the adaptation of Spider-Man that we may have had in the late 80’s had things taken a different turn. Enjoy!

Spider-Man had an amazingly, sensationally, spectacularly troubled path towards the big screen before Sam Raimi’s 2002 adaptation. While the end product would help usher in the modern superhero movie genre, there were several near-misses that sounded much less promising.

Between projects planned by Roger Corman in the early ’80s and James Cameron in the early ’90s, the rights to the character belonged to Cannon Films. The movie studio was already infamous for its schlocky output and questionable accounting at the time. After they were convinced that Spider-Man should not be a monster movie like The Wolfman, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the Israeli cousins who owned Cannon, hired screenwriters Ted Newsom and John Brancato.

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Their script, dated November of 1985, nailed the character of Spider-Man perfectly. “It maintains the basic integrity of the character in the original story,” Marvel Comics president James Galton wrote to the studio. “I have now read approximately twelve Spider-Man scripts or treatments, and this is by far the best of the lot!”

In a twist on the well-known origin story, Peter Parker is an Empire State University college student studying under the crackpot Dr. Otto Octavius. In an unsanctioned experiment to discover a theoretical fundamental force of the universe, Doc Ock accidentally rips a hole in the fabric of reality – Concrete around him melts, gravity reverses, and matter, like the mechanical tentacles he’s using, merges with other matter, like his body. Various lab animals are effected, too. One such animal, a spider, bites Peter when he crosses the police tape to take photos of the surreal wreckage for the Daily Bugle. His superpowers manifest almost instantly.

Merging the two characters’ origin stories does wonders for the structure and pacing of the story. While never particularly deep or sympathetic, Octavius is still given time to grow in his insanity and thirst for revenge against the University for thwarting his ambitions. Peter has enough space to get a feel for his powers and how they can turn his life around. His supporting cast of Harry Osborn, Flash Thompson, Betty Brandt, and Liz Allen, the story’s love interest, are allowed to shine.

This pacing makes the screenplay feel more focused on Peter’s emotional arc. We see him at his lowest before the accident, trying to win over Liz as a broke college kid, and being belittled by J. Jonah Jameson. Then his rise to power is filled with cameo appearances from Hulk Hogan and David Letterman. He really does seem like he’s on the top of the world before the death of Uncle Ben, which happens at the story’s midway point. From there, it’s much more traditional Spider-Man action. His two confrontations with Doctor Octopus are saved for the end.

Newsom and Brancato’s script also managed to capture the smart-alecky humor of Peter Parker. He and Liz have a fast-paced, flirtatious banter akin to old-timey films like His Girl Friday, and the result is a bit quirky, and frankly, charming as hell. Here’s an example from an early scene:
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But the screenplay was ambitious for the mid-80s, and possibly too ambitious for a studio like Cannon. It describes massive set-pieces when Doc Ock’s reality-warping device activates. The film would need to show subway cars levitating through liquefied New York streets and into Salvador Dali-eqsue holes in skyscrapers. The finale calls for the ESU science lab to levitate into the clouds as Spidey battles Octavius across the building’s façade.

The writers pushed hard for their version to stay intact, though, even penning a letter to Golan and Globus to recommend stylish ways to get the story across without breaking the bank. They suggested practical effects, like rotating sets to aid wall-crawling, updating webshooter effects from the ‘70s Amazing Spider-Man TV show, tight editing, and “body horror” style prosthetics in the vein of The Thing or Videodrome.

“Spider-Man doesn’t have to cost a fortune,” Newsom and Brancato wrote. “It’s not a miser’s dream, certainly, but with preplanning, storyboarding, and clever intercutting, the special effects bills can be kept down. Star Trek II and Terminator only had medium-scale budgets, and their special effects are tremendous.”

Convinced, Cannon Films hired director Tobe Hooper just long enough to have his name listed in their early promotional materials. He was quickly replaced by Joseph Zito, who brought on Barney Cohen to do some rewrites. Cohen’s draft added the character of Weiner, Doc Ock’s bugler underling, who was responsible for the death of Uncle Ben. His draft was then revised by Golan himself. And so on. It was edging further away from the screenwriters’ original intents, but at least it was on the fast-track to production.

peterCasting ideas were kicked around, including Katherine Hepburn as Aunt May, Bob Hoskins as Doctor Octopus, and Stan Lee himself as J. Jonah Jameson. Stuntman Scott Leva had already spent time in the Spider-Man tights for various events and photoshoots, and was all but officially cast as Peter Parker.

But it was not meant to be. Two big-budget flops, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Masters of the Universe, combined with a collapsing junk bond market complicated Cannon Films’ financial standing. Spider-Man was still recognized as a bankable property, so Golan and Globus worked to slash the budget as much as possible.

After spending $1.5 million on scripts and storyboards, the producers told a frustrated Joseph Zito they could invest no more than $10 million. According to Zito, “I said, ‘Ten million? Look, we’ve got a five-million-dollar effects budget. You’re kidding yourself.”

The director left the project and was replaced by low-budget master Albert Pyun, who was determined to make the film on a shoestring budget. The script was revised yet again, this time extensively. It replaced Doc Ock with a stand-in for Morbius, the Living Vampire, called “Night Ghoul”. The story turned brutal and bloody, but it was still seen as too expensive.

In order to keep Cannon’s Spider-Man movie under $5 million, Newsom and Brancato’s script was tossed out altogether. The new script involved another new villain, a cross between Spidey rogues the Lizard and the Scorpion, and focused on a grim, inner-city drug epidemic. To save money on sets, much of the action would be relegated to a single warehouse.

spidey2By this point, it was too late. Cannon Films’ money troubles had overwhelmed them, and this new screenplay was also shelved. Any completed costumes and sets in North Carolina were repurposed into Pyun’s Jean-Claude Van Damme film Cyborg.

Bankruptcy had split the Israeli cousins, and Menahem Golan kept the rights to Spider-Man when he forms his own company, the 21st Century Film Corporation. Golan returned to the original Cannon Films script, as it had already been storyboarded. The only difference made to it was amending the cover’s date from 1985 to 1989. A new director was attached and minor script revisions were underway before Carolco and James Cameron got involved.

However, the character’s convoluted rights history spoiled everyone’s plans. It would be stuck in courts until finally resolved 1999. Three years later, Sam Rami’s Spider-Man came to theaters.

Throughout the many changes in the planned Spider-Man film in the ‘80s, it’s remarkable how much revolved around Newsom and Brancato’s draft. Long after Golan and Globus lost the rights to the character, voiding their screenplay, elements of it still wound up in completed films. The introduction of J. Jonah Jameson, for example, plays out very much the same in Raimi’s Spider-Man. Other elements, like Doc Ock’s experiment, were all but recycled into Spider-Man 2.

The Spider-Man films that were completed have been a mixed bag. Some, like Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, matched the tone and pathos of the comic stories while Peter Parker was flat and dull. The Amazing Spider-Man, on the other hand, had a charming, dynamic Peter Parker while the story was muddled and disappointing. The less said of Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the better.

After a very promising appearance earlier this year in Captain America: Civil War, the wallcrawler’s upcoming film, Spider-Man: Homecoming, has many fans excited. With any luck, Marvel Studios’ focus on character and humor will match the gold standard of Ted Newsom and John Brancato’s screenplay.

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