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Any list of the greatest unrealized genre projects in Hollywood history would almost certainly have to involve Oscar-winning filmmaker James Cameron's efforts to make the first big-screen Spider-Man adventure in the 1990s. Fresh off the success of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron turned his eye to the Marvel Comics icon, got creator Stan Lee's blessing, and went in deep on a new take on the Wall Crawler's story. With loads of blockbuster momentum behind him after T2 and Aliens, it seemed like Cameron would be the guy to get it done.
Then...it didn't happen. Cameron had The Terminator production company Carolco in his corner to buy the Spider-Man movie rights, but then Carolco went bankrupt, and rights issues meant that the filmmaker couldn't convince 20th Century Fox to step in and pick up the movie instead. James Cameron's Spider-Man died on the vine, and a few years later Columbia Pictures teamed up with Sam Raimi to make 2002's Spider-Man. In his new book Tech Noir: The Art of James Cameron, Cameron calls his Spider-Man project "the greatest movie I never made."
So, what would have made it great? Speaking with Screencrush to promote Tech Noir over the weekend, Cameron zoomed in on some key elements of his Spider-Man story, beginning with an idea several of Spidey's most famous creative minds have emphasized: When it starts, Peter Parker is just a boy.
“The first thing you’ve got to get your mind around is it’s not Spider-Man," Cameron said. "He goes by Spider-Man, but he’s not Spider-Man. He’s Spider-Kid. He’s Spider-High-School-Kid. He’s kind of geeky and nobody notices him and he’s socially unpopular and all that stuff.”
With that approach, Cameron imagined a film that would unpack the metaphor of “that untapped reservoir of potential that people have that they don’t recognize in themselves. And it was also in my mind a metaphor for puberty and all the changes to your body, your anxieties about society, about society’s expectations, your relationships with your gender of choice that you’re attracted to, all those things.”
Cameron's big puberty metaphor included things like organic web shooters, something Raimi would later work into his version of the story, as well as a lot of Spider-Man grappling with New York City and with his own design for his superhero persona along the way.
“I wanted to make something that had a kind of gritty reality to it,” he said. “Superheroes in general always came off as kind of fanciful to me, and I wanted to do something that would have been more in the vein of Terminator and Aliens, that you buy into the reality right away. So you’re in a real world, you’re not in some mythical Gotham City. Or Superman and the Daily Planet and all that sort of thing, where it always felt very kind of metaphorical and fairytale-like. I wanted it to be: It’s New York. It’s now. A guy gets bitten by a spider. He turns into this kid with these powers and he has this fantasy of being Spider-Man, and he makes this suit and it’s terrible, and then he has to improve the suit, and his big problem is the damn suit. Things like that. I wanted to ground it in reality and ground it in universal human experience. I think it would have been a fun film to make.”
Of course, Cameron famously didn't get to make the film, and while he still considers it his greatest unrealized project, he also considered Spider-Man's failure a great lesson in how to approach his future film efforts. In the late 1990s he made Titanic, a film that tied the record for most Academy Awards won by a single movie and, for a while, was the highest-grossing movie of all time until it was eclipsed by another Cameron movie, Avatar.
“I made a decision after Titanic to just kind of move on and do my own things and not labor in the house of others’ IP," Cameron said. "So I think [Spider-Man not coming together] was probably the kick in the ass that I needed to just go make my own stuff.”
Tech Noir: The Art of James Cameron is in stores December 14.