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SUPER-HERO, SUPER-CHANGE: Evolution of the Spider-Man Characters in Development Process

The evolution of the screenplay for Spiderman and the many changes that the characters underwent before emerging on the big screen are fascinating ... and a useful study in development for any screenwriter.

Ken Bussanmas has been writing professionallysince the age of 16 and hasn't lookedback for fear of being turned into a pillar ofsalt. After hosting and producing his own dailytelevision series at the age of 18, Ken wentindependent and has written for print, televisionand independent film. Ken was the first American to write story materials for the BBC television series DOCTOR WHO. Follow Ken on Twitter: @akaKJB

Originally published in Script magazine May/June 2002

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PHOTO BY: Zade Rosenthal

Since the movie serials of the 1940s, Hollywood has tried to take the bright, four-color images from comic books and breathe life into them, usually with mixed results. The early superhero movies and serials were usually done fast and cheap with little attention paid to the comics themselves. After all, comic books were kiddie fare, not to be taken seriously, so who really cared if the films were faithful to the source material? Considering the often torturous process that comic book adaptations go through on their way to the big screen these days, I think most screenwriters and producers wish they had the creative latitude of their predecessors. As an example, I offer you Spider- Man, a project that has caused more creative frustration over the past couple of decades than just about any other film.

Films based upon established superheroes are always loaded with that extra baggage called the origin story, and Spider-Man is no exception. Treading that fine line between what would make a good film and staying true to the spirit of the character is one of the problems that all writers on comic adaptations face. Fans of comics hold the origin story in the same regard as creationists hold the Book of Genesis—it’s just something you don’t rewrite. This hasn’t stopped the people responsible for films like 1978s Superman or 1989s Batman from making substantial changes in the origin stories for those characters. While both films were successful at the box office, the results were mixed creatively. The less said about the changes made in the X-Men film the better. What all three films have in common is a focus on the superhero while deemphasizing the people behind the mask.

Unfortunately, those kinds of changes wouldn’t work with a character like Spider-Man, even if you wanted them to. Unlike Superman or Batman, who are superheroes first and use their civilian identities more as a cover, Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker, is every bit as important as the red and blue tights the character wears while fighting crime. Spider-Man has no gleaming Fortress of Solitude, no cave full of high-tech toys, or a mansion in the suburbs to operate out of. Our hero is lucky to keep a job to pay the rent on a single room apartment in New York City. With all that in mind, Canon Films set out to bring one of the most interesting and financially successful characters in comics to the screen in the early 80s.

 Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson) and Toby Maguire as Spider-Man ALL PHOTOS: Columbia Pictures Sony Pictures Entertainment Co.©2002 All Rights Reserved. PHOTO BY: Zade Rosenthal

Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson) and Toby Maguire as Spider-Man ALL PHOTOS: Columbia Pictures Sony Pictures Entertainment Co.©2002 All Rights Reserved. PHOTO BY: Zade Rosenthal

Work on the 2002 incarnation of the project goes back to a script treatment by Leslie Stevens in 1985, where the idea of the controversial “organic web shooters” began. Easily one of the largest points of contention among fans of the comics (and probably one of the biggest changes made to the character), Stevens proposed that Spider-Man would have gotten more than just super strength and the ability to stick to walls from that radioactive spider bite. By making Spider-Man’s ability to shoot webs a part of his powers rather than a scientific creation by a teenaged science nerd, Stevens was able to get through most of the basics of the origin story and into the central plot. While unpopular with the faithful, the concept works and has managed to survive just about every draft since.

Most of the work done in drafts and treatments since Stevens’ treatment, including drafts by Ted Newsom, Barry Cohen, Joseph Goldmari, and John Brancato, were combined into a “scriptment” (longer than a treatment, shorter than a script) by James Cameron in 1993 for Carolco, who had purchased the rights from Canon. Cameron had directed Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and the studio was eager to attach him for what they were hoping would be a very high-profile project.

In that scriptment, Cameron makes substantial changes to the established Spider-Man mythology and creates a camp-filled cringe-fest that includes an over-the-top villain in the form of Doctor Octopus, aka Doc Ock, who gets the often repeated catch line of “okey-dokey” throughout the script. It’s a far cry from “I’ll be back” and is only one of many, many problems in the Cameron draft.

Cameron’s vision of Spider-Man would have started the characters at college instead of high school—not a huge difference, but it changes a lot of the dynamics. Peter is already out of his Aunt May and Uncle Ben’s house, which makes all of the scenes with them forced. Considering that the death of his Uncle Ben is supposed to be the turning point in Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s life, the event just doesn’t carry any impact here.

Given the number of characters that have cycled through the pages of the Spider-Man comics over the years, you’d think there would be plenty of material to work with. Peter Parker has had at least four major love interests over the years, including a tragic love affair with Gwen Stacy, the daughter of a police captain trying to track down Spider-Man, and Mary Jane Watson, the proverbial “girl next door.” Unfortunately, Cameron tried to use a secondary character, Liz Allen, as the love interest. Presumably, this character was used to try to create something of a romantic triangle between Peter Parker, Liz and the bully in Peter’s life, Flash Thompson, Liz’s boyfriend—sort of.

Okay, let’s get your boyfriend.

Which one?

How many do you have? I meant Flash.

Well, Flash is not exactly my boyfriend ...

Unfortunately, in his efforts to show us that Peter has a shot at the girl everyone wants on campus, what he really shows us is that she’s a tramp.

Possibly one of the strangest character changes in this version is the change in Peter’s Aunt May. Not a young woman, May has always been portrayed the way most of us see our grandmothers. You wouldn’t dare swear or misbehave in her presence because you’re afraid she’ll keel over from shock, let alone talk about your sex life. Given this, it makes dialogue like this even more confusing:

Aunt May, listen to me.
I got bitten on the hand ...
by a poisonous spider.

She bit you.

No. I was in the bathroom and ...

Oh, you did it in the bathroom?
Peter, this is craziness.
Why don’t you use your bed?

Okay, I’ll admit that it’s probably a personal bias but I’d be creeped out if my mother talked to me that way, let alone my aged aunt who had raised me. The only word that comes to mind is ewwwwwww.

I am usually a fan of Cameron’s work, and there are few directors who can put together an action film the way he can. Having said that, I couldn’t be happier that he eventually passed on the project when the tug of war between MGM and Sony began over the production rights. It’s obvious from the work Cameron put in on Spider-Man that he had no clue how to approach the project.

 Willem Dafoe as Spider-Man’s nemesis, The Green Goblin. ALL PHOTOS: Columbia Pictures Sony Pictures Entertainment Co. ©2002 All Rights Reserved.

Willem Dafoe as Spider-Man’s nemesis, The Green Goblin. ALL PHOTOS: Columbia Pictures Sony Pictures Entertainment Co. ©2002 All Rights Reserved.

Fortunately for the audience, the people who took over must have come to the same conclusion. Most of the material in Cameron’s scriptment got flushed once David Koepp came on board in early 2000.

Koepp added a lot of personality to the characters that had been missing in previous drafts while also staying reasonably true to the source material. After initially trying to retain Doc Ock while adding classic Spider-Man arch-villain The Green Goblin, Koepp finally did a little streamlining, dropping Ock in favor of the Goblin. The end result formed a significant portion of what would become the final shooting script.

Also gone was the Liz Allen love interest in favor of Mary Jane Watson, the longest running love interest in the comic series and the woman who eventually marries Peter Parker after discovering his secret. Koepp manages to create love triangles that seem to make the girl of Peter’s dreams unattainable while not making her seem like the school slut. Mary Jane is a well-written, complex character who creates a happy facade to cover the fact that her home life is a mess.

If there is one complaint about the Mary Jane story arc, it’s the almost Lois Lane type of hero obsession she develops for Spider-Man while his poor alter ego gets the short end of the stick. It’s an obvious plot device that, while not treated horribly in the script, doesn’t really need to be there. There are plenty of things going on in the plot and more than a few well-developed characters which make a plot device this obvious completely unnecessary.

Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborn, gets substantially better treatment in the final drafts than he ever did in the earlier drafts. In the Cameron draft, Harry was relegated to the role of the token computer geek and little else. Here, Harry gets a lot more to do, having to deal with a father who is slowly losing his mind as he becomes The Green Goblin, while dealing with his own fragile mental state, brought on by years of mental abuse. Harry is a character who has some great conflicts in his life. While his father, Norman, pushes Harry to become the same kind of ruthless businessman that got Norman where he is. Harry has no idea who he really wants to be. He’s sort of a less-driven version of Lex Luthor in the Smallville television series—not a slacker but not sure he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, despite a lot of pushing from the elder Osborn.

 Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson) kisses Toby Maguire as Spider-Man PHOTO BY: Doug Hyun ALL PHOTOS: Columbia Pictures Sony Pictures Entertainment Co. ©2002 All Rights Reserved.

Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson) kisses Toby Maguire as Spider-Man PHOTO BY: Doug Hyun ALL PHOTOS: Columbia Pictures Sony Pictures Entertainment Co. ©2002 All Rights Reserved.

The Peter Parker/Spider-Man character also gets more internal conflict. A major character trait that separates Spider-Man from your average superhero is his own inner feeling that no matter what good he does, he still brings pain to the people around him. Koepp brought that out in his drafts while still putting in the trademark one-liners and quips while Spidey is in costume. It’s one of the best-written superheroes ever, showing that, in his own way, Peter Parker’s personality is almost as split as the personality of his arch foe.

Another standard of the superhero origin story on film is a tendency to make the origin the centerpiece of the story. The main character usually gets his super powers, faces some sort of big bad menace, and manages to survive to fight another day. Koepp succeeds in making the origin an important part of the story, as it should be, but not the whole story. This is really a story that unfolds over time as Peter gains his powers and embarks upon his career as Spider-Man. The film shows us the changes in everyone’s lives over years, not just days. Our main characters actually grow up a lot during the course of the film, going from high school to college and experiencing life. The result is the ability to break some of the first film/origin story mold and get into things that normally would not come in until the second film.

Some of those things you might not expect to see in the first film of an obvious franchise are cameos by characters that play a larger part later on in the series. Peter works for a time as an assistant to a one-armed college professor name Curt Connors, also known as the Lizard while a Daily Bugle staffer named Eddie Brock makes an appearance as well. In the comics, Brock becomes the villain Venom later in the series. There’s no telling if we’ll ever see these characters again or if the villains they represent will ever show up in the films, but the mere fact the characters are there will thrill fans of the comics.

Much to the dismay of the more vocal fans, the idea of Spider-Man being able to create his own webs has stayed but with some minor changes. As a sort of compromise, Peter Parker creates a mechanical device that helps him aim his webbing. This gives the traditional appearance of the web shooters from the comics but incorporates the capabilities that everyone involved, including director Sam Raimi, wanted in the script.

The shooting script shows the benefits of the rewrite process with some great throwaway scenes that add color and dimension to Spider-Man’s world. After Spidey starts fighting, he still has to deal with the perception that he’s a bad guy, a freakish mutant or just a grandstanding show off looking for publicity.

Never mind the vigilante thing,
you seen all those webs he
leaves all over the city?
I’m gonna cite the guy for littering!

You know, I always wondered who had to clean all those up.

You ever seen his face? Neither have I.
Wait until his wife finds out he’s
running around in tights!

This is not a man. My brother
saw it building a nest in the
Lincoln Center fountain.

If there is any substantial flaw in the script, it may be the villain. Norman Osborn’s growing psychosis as he becomes The Green Goblin is easier to take than the paper cutout Doc Ock from the previous drafts, but he’s still kind of hard to take. So much about the shooting script is so good that it’s a shame to blow some of it on a villain that’s not quite up to the rest of the script. He’s not awful, but he could have been better.

At times, the schizophrenia that separates Norman Osborn and The Green Goblin make for some interesting scenes, particularly a sequence where Osborn argues with the Goblin. Osborn looks in the mirror, only to see The Green Goblin staring back. It’s an effective scene that really adds some dimension to an otherwise stock bad guy and almost makes up for some of the more over-the-top sequences with the Goblin.

In the hands of a director like Sam Raimi, this script really came together. Much of the action in the script seems to be a perfect fit with the fast-paced style that Raimi has brought to films like Army of Darkness and Darkman, the best comic book film that didn’t come from a comic book.

“With great power comes great responsibility” is a theme that has stuck with Spider-Man since his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15, and it’s a theme that runs through the screenplay. As Spider-Man, Peter tries to live up to those words. In the words of the title character, sometimes you find your destiny, and sometimes your destiny finds you. This script’s destiny made it a blockbuster.

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