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Why James Cameron's Spider-Man Never Got Made

Blockbuster director and lifelong Spider-Man fan James Cameron convinced the Carolco studio to option the film rights to the web-slinger in the early '90s. While many elements of his envisioned Spidey film would later be used in the Tobey Maguire version, Cameron's production was ultimately tangled in an inescapable web. Why couldn't one of Hollywood's most powerful directors get this film made?

The script was too edgy

Cameron's Spider-Man "scriptment," which is a long film treatment with dialogue and screen direction, has become something of a Hollywood legend. According to Rebecca Keegan's book The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron (via SlashFilm), Spidey creator Stan Lee absolutely loved it. Ultimately, many elements of the script—which has been leaked and even illustrated online—made it into the Sam Raimi-directed film that ultimately saw release in 2002, though Cameron never received even informal credit. See if any of this rings a bell: Peter's fever dream/waking up not needing his glasses; Mary Jane as his love interest; Uncle Ben's carjacking death; Peter's indifference while an employer gets robbed; and most notably, Spider-Man's organic, not man-made web shooters. If you're now saying to yourself, "Wait, that's like, the whole Tobey Maguire movie"...yeah, it pretty much is, and those elements were all in Cameron's version.

But he also has Peter peeping in Mary Jane's window while she gets dressed, then later shows them having sex on the Brooklyn Bridge while Peter describes the creepy, and frankly, quasi-rapey ways that spiders mate. Uh, what? Also, Peter uses intense profanity throughout the story, to the point that it would be completely inappropriate for kids (and most likely R-rated, as the majority of Cameron's films had been to that point). Production never advanced far enough for a final, greenlit screenplay to get developed, so who knows whether Cameron could have been persuaded away from the edgier stuff, although his history suggests he would have wanted to make Spider-Man his way or not at all.

The budget was probably too low

Cameron would likely have made Spider-Man right after Terminator 2, which had a $100 million dollar budget. According to Janet Wasko's How Hollywood Works, Carolco only gave Cameron $50 million to work with—a huge step backwards for him. And if the reported budgets of his next two films, True Lies ($100 million) and Titanic (a record-setting $200 million) tell us anything, it's that Spidey's balance sheet wasn't going to fly. The script has Spider-Man fighting both Electro and Sandman, as well as multiple scenes atop the World Trade Center. None of those set pieces would have come cheap.

The casting was wrong

There were consistent rumors that Cameron wanted to cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doc Ock, and given his history with the Austrian strongman, they're easy to believe. Schwarzenegger even intimated his involvement in an interview with Empire, only going so far as to vaguely say the studio "went in another direction." The laughable Batman & Robin would prove Arnie indeed had comic book movie aspirations (albeit misguided ones). But Cameron's script didn't even feature the villain, so who knows if there were further talks.

According to Moviepilot's breakdown of Cameron's dream cast, however, there were other strange choices. For example, Edward Furlong was supposed to be Peter Parker, and Leonardo DiCaprio was to play Harry Osborne. Nope and nope. First of all, Leonardo isn't playing second fiddle to just anyone. Johnny Depp? Sure. Eddie Furlong? Not a chance. Second, with the hindsight from Spider-Man 3 at our disposal, we already know what an emo Peter Parker looks like, and it's not good. They also cite Drew Barrymore as Gwen Stacey, which would have been fine, and R. Lee Ermey, who played the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, as J. Jonah Jameson. That would have been perfect, but nailing the casting of the guy who probably has ten lines at best wouldn't have been enough to make up for tanking the principal cast.

Litigation over film rights

While the script, casting, and budgeting issues all could have become later stumbling blocks, what ultimately squashed Cameron's Spider-Man were legal issues. Cameron told Collider that when Carolco collapsed—which happened a few years after they acquired the rights to Spider-Man—he already had Titanic in his sights and no longer wanted to pursue it because there were too many competing interests for the rights. A number of former writers and producers all claimed to have had a hand in developing the project, and they all came calling after Marvel's 1996 bankruptcy scattered multiple holding deals to the wind. How Hollywood Works details how, after Marvel recovered from bankruptcy, they basically paid off everyone who was trying to sue for the rights to Spider-Man, which in turn freed them up to once again sell the film rights, this time to Sony—who've since gone on to make five Spider-Man films (and counting) and more than $2 billion in franchise revenues.

Meanwhile, Cameron turned one of the greatest maritime tragedies of all time into a billion-dollar smash, so don't feel too bad for him. He didn't get to make his favorite comic book movie and might have missed out on making a ton of Spider-cash, but don't worry—he still did just fine.