Last Christmas, I received a late gift from my parents that arrived in the mail after they had left town: Excelsior, the autobiography of former Marvel Comics publisher Stan Lee. In one interesting passage, Lee talks about how he tried to get a Spider-Man film off the ground in the early-1990s, with James Cameron as the director of the movie. Unfortunately, through a complex series of legal disputes and Hollywood backstabbings, the movie never got off the ground.
The book was published in 2002, the same year that Spider-Man, starring Tobey Maguire as the webslinger, was released in theatres. Fans of the hero, including yours truly, were ecstatic to see their favourite Marvel character – finally – on the big screen. Still, though, it would have been interesting to see a James Cameron-directed Spider-Man movie. As I read through the book, I thought, how would Cameron have interpreted Spider-Man? What would he have done with the famous Marvel hero?
These may seem like odd questions to pose about a fictional comic-book hero, but the fact is Spider-Man is one of the most adaptive heroes who has ever been created. Whereas the tales spun of Batman, Superman, and most of the X-Men and Avengers typically stay the same with each retelling, Spider-Man stories spin webs of many shapes. You can see this yourself in two movies that are now streaming: Spider-Man: Homecoming, starring Tom Holland and currently available on Netflix; and the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, currently available on Crave.
On the face of it, Homecoming certainly appears to be a generic adaptation in the Spider-Man canon: awkward teen in high school, super-strength, sticks to walls, Mary-Jane and Aunt May. But most of the similarities end there. We never actually see the radioactive spider bite Peter Parker; this is a key distinction, since the before/after transformation of Parker into Spider-Man is a big part of the story. After all, you can’t have a metamorphosis without actually seeing the change take place. Gone, too, is Uncle Ben, the elderly caretaker of Peter and whose death causes Spider-Man to realize that “with great power comes great responsibility.” And Aunt May is there, but instead of the usual casting of a grey-haired sweet old lady, she’s played by the foxy Marisa Tomei, who also provides some of the best scenes alongside Tony Stark/Iron Man (played by Robert Downey, Jr.), who flirts with her constantly.
Stark himself is also a new addition to the Spidey oeuvre. In the early comic books, Iron Man and Spider-Man sometimes cross paths, but only after they have become firmly established as crime-fighting super-heroes. In Homecoming, Stark is the one who discovers Peter Parker (which has its roots in another Marvel movie, Captain America: Civil War), and he also serves as a father figure, mentoring the teenager from awkwardness into maturity. Well, enough maturity as is possible when the main character spins webs from his wrists and sticks to walls …we’re still talking about comic books here.
Admittedly, I was initially skeptical about Homecoming before I decided to go see it: while I enjoyed Maguire’s turn as Spider-Man in the first movie, that franchise soon fell apart, and I never even considered seeing Andrew Garfield’s Spidey a few years later. However, the sheer fun of the movie, and the great chemistry between Holland and Downey Jr., are worth the price of admission. At first it seemed strange to me that the main villain in the movie turned out to be the Vulture (Michael Keaton), who in the comics plays on the B-squad. But it works, somehow: the flights of the Vulture complement the webslinging whimsy of Spider-Man nicely. In short, it’s a good movie, a good re-boot of the franchise, and a good re-imagination of the character.
The animated Into the Spider-Verse takes the adaptability of Spider-Man, and then adapts it again, and again, and again, and again. In this re-telling, Spider-Man already exists before a radioactive spider bites a young man named Miles Morales, who becomes Spider-Man. Huh?! Without giving away too much of the plot, I’ll just say that a big machine in the New York subway system creates a tear in the fabric of space-time – or something like that – which brings a whole bunch of Spider-People into the same dimension.
Spider-Verse introduces some of the side-Spiders that have appeared in the Marvel Comics canon, and mashes them all together in the same place. There’s Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), who first appeared in the “Noir” series of Marvel comics in 2009; basically, he’s a super-hero from the 1930s in the tradition of the best film noirs. And Peni Parker, who controls a giant robotic spider that looks like something out of a Japanese-animated cartoon. There’s Spider-Gwen, who seems to be an offshoot of Spider-Girl. And, my favourite, Spider-Ham, the cartoony pig who is the alter-ego of Peter Porker. Spider-Verse is based on the comic book of the same name, which contains many other variations of the webspinner.
The movie itself is a visual feast. The animation is superb, floating between abstract sketches to realistic depictions of the streets of New York. Each Spider-Person also brings along their own animation milieu, and somehow the directors of the movie made it all coherent. Other than the climactic battle scene – which bordered on extra-sensory overload – this mashup makes sense, which is no small feat when you consider all the different artistic aesthetics that needed to get blended into each other. Although there’s a special place in my heart for the original Spider-Man televised animated series, Spider-Verse is a great addition to the animated arachnid’s archives.
As for James Cameron’s take on Spider-Man, we may never know what the director of Terminator, Avatar, The Abyss, True Lies, and Titanic would have done with the webslinger. Perhaps he would have built some sort of high-flying drone to film hyper-realistic scenes of webslinging through the streetscapes of New York. Or maybe he would have found a way to create a 3-D/virtual reality first-person perspective. At the very least, I think Cameron could have drawn on his past work with an alternate interpretation on one of Spider-Man’s enemies, perhaps a cross between the parasitic Venom and the liquid-metal Terminator T-1000 series. I’d definitely make the trip to an IMAX theatre to see that.
In case you’re interested in the many installments of Spider-Man movies out there, check out these TV/streaming channels:
The Amazing Spider-man
The Amazing Spider-man 2
CRAVE + MOVIES + HBO
Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse
Spider-man: Homecoming: Netflix