All the Spider-Man movies we didn’t get to see—from James Cameron to Donald Glover

Leonardo DiCaprio could have been first to play the web-slinger.
Leonardo DiCaprio could have been first to play the web-slinger.
Image: Sony/Columbia Pictures
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Yet another Spider-Man movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming, will be released in the US today.

For those keeping score, this is the sixth live-action movie and third franchise devoted to the Marvel character attempted so far. The latest Sony reboot, starring Tom Holland and directed by Jon Watts, places the young superhero back in high school and, for the first time, in the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the help of Marvel Studios.

The hero’s origins are familiar to most by this point, but there were plenty of Spider-Man stories that tried—and failed—to make it to the big screen.

More Wolfman than Spider-Man

Before Sam Raimi made Spider-Man in 2002, others tried to bring Marvel’s friendly neighborhood superhero to the big screen. Cannon Films was the first to try. The now-defunct independent studio reportedly optioned the property from Marvel Comics in 1985, but had a fundamental misunderstanding of the character. They ordered a treatment that was more horror story than superhero epic. It turned Peter Parker into an “giant eight-legged tarantula,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2002.

Joseph Zito, the first director hired for the movie, told the publication the studio’s chiefs “didn’t really know what Spider-Man was. They thought it was like the Wolfman.”

Realizing its mistake, the studio ordered rewrites to Spider-Man’s origin story that drew from the superhero’s early comic-book storylines, and pitted Spidey against Doctor Octopus. Tom Cruise, who was at the height of his game after Risky Business and Top Gun, reportedly topped the studio’s wish list for actors to play Peter Parker.

However, the strapped-for-cash company didn’t have the budget to do the movie the way it wanted to, and later sold the film rights.

James Cameron’s Spider-Man

James Cameron was next up. In the 1990s, at the height of powers around the time Cameron made Terminator 2, he reportedly convinced the independent studio that produced it, Carolco Pictures, to buy the film rights to the Marvel character, and then submitted a “scriptment,” or story outline with a bit of dialogue.

This wasn’t going to be your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Cameron’s 1991 scriptment was profanity laced (“I’ll kill you! Motherfucker! You hear me?! You’re dead, you sick bastard,” Peter Parker says at one point) and adult-oriented (in one sequence, Spider-Man woos Mary Jane with some amorous talk about arachnid mating rituals and they have sex have atop the Brooklyn Bridge).

None of those elements made it into the 1993 screenplay by Barry Cohen and Ted Newson, based on Cameron’s scriptment. There was a completely different plot and cast of villains. Where the scriptment pitted Spidey against villians Electro and Sandman, the screenplay featured Spider-Man nemesis Otto Octavius, also known as Doctor Octopus.

Cameron reportedly wanted Oscar-winner Leonardo DiCaprio to play Spider-ManArnold Schwarzenegger in the role of Doc Ock, and Maggie Smith was rumored as the favorite for Aunt May. The casting didn’t progress very far by the time it all fell apart over legal and financial issues. Rebecca Keegan reportedly wrote in her bookThe Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron:

The James Cameron version of Spider-Man never happened, because Hollywood’s real idea of super villains descended—lawyers. When Carolco filed for Chapter 11 in 1995, it became clear the company’s claim to the Spider-Man rights had been tenuous all along.

“Here I am working on Spider-Man and it turns out that there’s a lien against the rights and Sony’s got a piece of it and Carolco doesn’t really own it even though they think they own it,” Cameron says. With Carolco down, Cameron tried to get Fox to go after Spider-Man. The studio would have been happy to buy their top-earning director his pet project if it had just been a matter of rights, but procuring Spider-Man now meant entering a nasty legal fight and potentially a bidding war involving multiple other studios and producers with overlapping claims on the project dating back to when Marvel had first put the film rights up for sale in 1985. “They’re so risk-averse,” Cameron says. “For a couple hundred thousand dollars in legal fees they could have had a $2 billion franchise. They blew it.”

Cameron also didn’t have time to pursue the project then because he was busy with the 1997 blockbuster Titanic, and other projects.

Sony and Columbia Pictures ultimately nabbed the film rights to Spider-Man in 1999 and brought Sam Raimi in to direct the film. The studio did option the Cameron scripts and scriptment, and screenwriter David Koepp reportedly used them as a basis for the 2002 Spider-Man.

Sam Raimi’s second trilogy

Raimi gave us two great Spider-Man movies, and one that doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. Spider-Man 3, the lackluster conclusion to the Raimi trilogy, was weighted down by an emo Peter Parker, a shallow interpretation of one of Spider-Man’s greatest comic-book foes, and a tangled web of a plot that simply took on too much.

Yet, the movie still made a whopping $891 million at the box office—more than any other Spider-Man movie, including the 2012 reboot starring Andrew Garfield.

Hollywood being what it is, plans were soon afoot for fourth film in the franchise—and a fifth and a sixth.

Raimi sought to redeem himself with Spider-Man 4 in the eyes of fans, who didn’t hold back their disappointment with the third movie. Passion for Spider-Man was palpable in 2007. This was when superhero movies still felt like a novelty, and comic-book characters were held sacred among hardcore fans. “I messed up with that third Spider-Man,” Raimi admitted in a 2014 Nerdist podcast. ”People hated me for years. They still hate me for it.”

In Spider-Man 4, Raimi planned to cast John Malkovich as the Vulture, the villain he originally wanted to appear in Spider-Man 3, until Venom was forced upon him. (The character never appealed to Raimi, so he couldn’t do it justice. “If the director doesn’t love something, it’s wrong of them to make it when so many other people love it,” he said in the podcast.) And Mysterio and Felicia Hardy, better known as the Black Cat, were also expected to appear. Anne Hathaway would have played the latter. (She did eventually get to play another feline-inspired comic-book character, Selina Kyle, in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.)

Raimi, Spider-Man actor Tobey Maguire, and other members of the original cast were also signed on for the film.

Sadly, Raimi never got to make it. The studio pushed for a May 2011 release, and Raimi said he couldn’t do it right by that deadline. Rather than disappoint fans with another subpar feature,  he walked, and the cast along with him. He told Vulture in 2013:

I was very unhappy with Spider-Man 3, and I wanted to make Spider-Man 4 to end on a very high note, the best Spider-Man of them all. But I couldn’t get the script together in time, due to my own failings, and I said to Sony, ‘I don’t want to make a movie that is less than great, so I think we shouldn’t make this picture. Go ahead with your reboot, which you’ve been planning anyway.’

That reboot was the unloved Marc Webb version of The Amazing Spider-Man. (Also, did you know there were supposed to be four Amazing Spider-Man movies? But after the lukewarm response to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the plans were delayed, Webb decided not to direct the fourth film, and Sony ultimately decided to reboot the franchise again with Marvel.)

And after all these years, the Vulture villain will finally come to life, played by Michael Keaton, in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Donald for Spider-Man

In May 2010, there was small-but-vocal faction of fans on the internet who campaigned for comedian Donald Glover, of Community and Atlanta, to play the web-slinger.

The suggestion was made online, and blew up on Twitter. There was the trending hashtag, #donald4spiderman. Comic-book writers including Brian Michael Bendis and Alejandro Arbona backed the idea. An 8,000-member Facebook group emerged. T-shirts were made. And even Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee got on board for Glover to audition.

It didn’t happen though. Andrew Garfield was cast as Peter Parker in Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man a few months later. And the rest was history.

Glover joked about the social-media campaign, which also saw a lot of people come out against casting a non-white Spider-Man, in his 2012 stand-up special, Donald Glover: Weirdo, and rapped it about on his first studio album under the pseudonym Childish Gambino. (“Couldn’t see me as Spider-Man, but now I’m spittin’ venom.”)

And the actor, who will take on the role of Lando Calrissian in the Han Solo film next year, does, in fact, make an appearance in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

A different kind of Spidey

In 2015, when word broke that Marvel cut a deal with Sony to produce the next Spider-Man movie—and bring the web-slinger into the Marvel Cinematic Universe—speculation arose amongst fans as to how the movie studios would reboot the live-action franchise for the second time in decade without revisiting the same old origin story. How do you introduce Peter Parker for a third time without boring audiences to tears with how “great power comes with great responsibility?”

Fans had an idea: Cast a different Spider-Man. Some rooted for Miles Morales, the first black and Latino Spider-Man. (The character first appeared in 2011, in Marvel’s Ultimate comic-book universe, after Peter Parker died for a time.)

The studio went with Parker and cast Tom Holland in the role. Holland recently told ScreenRant that he’s rooting for Morales to join the MCU. He said he’d like to see Peter mentor him in the way Tony Stark takes young Peter under his wing in Homecoming, when asked by the publication.

“That would be something that I would be very up for doing, it’s something that I would really really hope to happen,” said Holland. “I think Miles Morales is a great character. I think it would be fantastic to have an actor of color playing a superhero on screen and I just think it’s going to be something very cool and something very exciting for this universe.”

Morales will star in an animated Spider-Man feature that will be helmed by former Han Solo directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. He’ll be voiced by The Get Down‘s Shameik Moore in the film, slated for a 2018 release.


and other spinoffs

Sony was already thinking about building a cinematic universe of spin-offs based on other Spider-Man villains and characters before Marvel made world-building cool. In 2007, before Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sony contemplated making a Venom movie with Spider-Man producer Avi Arad. Gary Ross was hired to rewrite and direct the movie in 2009, but then left to make The Hunger Games. And that was the end of it for awhile.

That was, until The Amazing Spider-Man reboot, when Sony started thinking more seriously about kickstarting a universe around Spider-Man foes like the Sinister Six. But the franchise wasn’t strong enough to hang an entire world on. It now looks like Sony will get its Venom movie, after all—with or without Spider-Man. Tom Hardy is slated to play the character opposite the villain, Carnage, in a standalone spinoff, due out in October 2018.