Since the new Spider-Man reboot is out, I’ve been thinking a lot about the shuttered vision James Cameron had of the project when he planned it as his next film in 1991. In her book The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron, Rebecca Keegan explains that Cameron’s Spider-Man, which tapped into his past as a science nerd, was the toast of the town when he wrote it.
The reason it didn’t get made was that Carolco, the production company Cameron was writing for, didn’t have the rights it thought it did. By the time a protracted legal battle left Sony with the ability to make the film, Cameron had already moved on to Terminator 2. Think about the status of the superhero film in 1991 for a second: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy made $2.5 billion last decade. Ten years earlier, no one was even sure who owned the rights.
And, make no mistake, Raimi’s first installment owes a lot to Cameron’s writing. For example, in David Koepp’s script, Peter Parker’s web slingers are organic spinnerets—literally a part of him—whereas most comic book arcs make them a more realistic mechanical device. This decision was controversial at the time—shout-out to the aintitcool.com message boards I used to troll—but Cameron made it first. Oh, and does this scene from Cameron’s script look familiar?
The thief runs past him, and down the stairs. A security guard runs up... a fat guy who has no chance of catching the criminal. He recognizes the Spider Man costume and tells Peter to go get the guy because he can't. Peter, dejected and pissed off, shrugs. SPIDER MAN It's not my job. Peter secretly changes and returns to the parking lot to meet his uncle Ben... Only to find a small crowd of people gathered around someone lying on the ground. It is his Uncle. He has been shot in the chest by a car-jacker who pulled him out of his car and took off. Peter watches him die before the ambulance gets there.
Those similarities alone could have gotten Cameron a piece of a huge franchise, but he didn’t pursue arbitration. Koepp received sole credit. Cameron’s understated final word on not getting a “story by”? “I would say it wasn’t terribly polite of them.” King of the world bomb.
Besides those interesting takes on the character, Cameron predicted the dark, self-serious tone of something like Ang Lee’s Hulk or Christopher Nolan’s Batman. At the time, superheroes were still treated as children’s playthings, and studios were hesitant to make anything grittier than Burton’s Batman. But Cameron saw the tortured, conflicted possibilities of the story, particularly in Peter Parker’s limitations:
He busts some thieves only to find out that they are just a bunch of kids, like himself. One of the kids runs, trying to escape, and slips off a fire-escape. Peter tries to catch him but he can't. The kid hits the street and dies.
Plus, you know, there’s this:
Peter and MJ are locked together. He is mesmerizing, gentle, powerful. He pushes up her skirt. They make love, high above the world.
I don’t mean to fawn over Cameron though. The script manages to be both adult and maudlin at the same time. Cameron’s view toward adolescence is condescending and out-of-touch, even for 1991.
Peter is a bright kid. He doesn't have many friends. He is ostracized for his interest in science. Our MTV culture frowns on people who think too much. Intellectual curiosity is decidedly un-hip. Who cares about where the universe came from or how the Greeks hammered Troy? Did you hear the new Pearl Jam album?
For a guy who has written such strong female characters in the past, I wish Cameron had found more for Mary Jane to do—she’s downright boring here, a casualty to what would have already been a long film. (Also, I’m not sure he has ever talked to a Black person. That dialogue is kind of embarrassing.)
If nothing else though, you should read Cameron’s Spider-Man just for a look at his unique formatting. Since he can afford to do whatever he wants, he writes in a screenplay/treatment hybrid. For his purposes, it definitely works because his dialogue is typically weak, and he can summarize the gist of the scene without putting the beats in his characters’ words. Besides communicating complicated visuals, the scriptment format also allows him to directly explain the themes of the film, with text that might seem heavy-handed but gives an indication of tone that a traditional screenplay never could. For instance:
Peter feels outcast, persecuted, misunderstood... answerable only to himself... and he doesn't have the answers. He is alone in a moral wasteland, without a map or compass. He is totally isolated... with no parents to talk to, with no one to confide in who would understand what's going on inside him. He needs someone to tell him what to do, what to be. And there is no-one. He tries to ignore his powers... and the path of non-commitment is the guilt and pain of his uncle's death. He realizes he must accept responsibility and use his gifts, but how?
That’s basically the “with power comes responsibility” theme of the 2001 Spider-Man, but Cameron excels by spelling out the realistic motivation of the villain (Carlton Strand/Electro) as well.
The huddled masses exist, in their vicious ignorance and limitations, to lift a few exceptional people on their shoulders. However unwillingly. That's what human evolution is all about... the highest common denominator, not the lowest. Natural selection honors the efficient predator. And Spider Man has the instincts of a predator. The top of the food chain is always held by the most advanced predators that millions of years of evolution could produce... noble creatures like the wolf and the lion, not the cud-munching herd beasts... We honor competition right? We honor winners. But for every winner there must be a thousand losers. It's a law of nature. So you must ask yourself... am I a winner? Or a loser?
The scriptment comes off as an excited but detailed pitch for the film, and it shows the depth of thought Cameron gave to the world-building. We might only get glimpses of backstory in the final product, but he didn’t do any cheating. There’s a scientific explanation for everything. Check out this Sandman backstory, which we never even would have seen.
Boyd apparently was a low-paid maintenance man at a big military research project having something to do with SDI. They were experimenting with a quantum physics effect called bilocation. They thought they could find tunnels in the fabric of space, and transpose matter between the two ends of the tunnel... essentially teleportation. And this would be a really neat way to deliver a weapon payload to the bad guys, inside deep bunkers etc. Well, Boyd was fixing some pipes in a service tunnel under the main floor of the experiment and nobody told maintenance that day that they were going to test the big collider that generates the bilocation effect. Somehow, things went wrong. There was a runaway reaction, then an explosion, and Boyd got hit by the effect. He transubstantiated with the sand underneath him in the crawlway. His molecules and the sand molecules took on each other's characteristics.
Though he has been in the game for thirty years, Cameron has relatively few titles to his credit, so even his failed projects are interesting to me. I like Raimi’s origin story—and I love Spider-Man 2—but it’s a shame that we never got to see Cameron’s take on the material, especially since it seems as if it would have fit into his body of work so well.