Giving Notes on the Spider-Man Movie

So SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME appears to be one of the most successful movies ever put to film (metaphorically, since these days teh media is largely digital.) But it wasn’t all that long ago, relatively speaking, when the idea of a Spider-Man film was a long-chased dream. Because the rights had been optioned in the 1980s and changed hands several times, the situation was difficult for studios who might have wanted to attempt such an undertaking to navigate. But as the 21st century loomed, eventually enough ducks were lined up in a row where such a picture could be attempted. This is where I come in.

In 1999, Avi Arad was heading up Marvel’s efforts to put theri characters onto the big screen, and making a Spider-Man movie was seen as the lynchpin of any such effort. Avi had been a part of the ToyBiz effort to take control over Marvel after the company had gone into bankruptcy, and he was always clear-sighted as to the potential represented by the Marvel characters. So he was the person most relentlessly pushing for Marvel’s expansion into film, and heading up the development efforts. As initial treatments for the proposed movie were worked on, at a certain point he drafted in myself and Spider-Man editor Ralph Macchio as consultants. We had a couple of long discussions with Avi concerning what the story of the film should be (Ralph is almost single-handedly responsible for the villain in the first movie being the Green Goblin, and the nature of his relationship to Peter Parker, as he was working on stories featuring teh villain at that moment with Paul Jenkins, and he was convincing in his expression that the Goblin represented the web-slinger’s most notable adversary.)

In any event, I came across a memo or two that I wrote up during this time period, giving feedback on what was then teh latest draft of the film. This was all way before what became the eventual movie–the villains in this draft, for example, were Electro and the Sandman. But a number of the beats and scenes made it through to the eventual 2002 film helped by Sam Raimi. So, since there seems to be a bunch of interest swelling around these pictures once again, I thought I’d share the contents of that document with you here. It isn’t quite the same thing as actually reading one of those early attempts at a screenplay, but it does give something of a sense of the flavor of where the movie then stood.

11/15/99

From: TOM BREVOORT

To: ALL INVOLVED PARTIES

Re: SPIDER-MAN 11/5/99 draft

Here are some of my thoughts on the 11/5/99 draft of the script for SPIDER-MAN.  I’ll start with the broadest points first, and then tackle things more chronologically. As always, make use of what seems to make sense in the following, and discard those elements that don’t work:

1) The villains’ plans are repetitious and uninvolving. While it makes a certain amount of real-world sense for Electro to manipulate the stock market (although I don’t quite understand how he makes money if all of the stocks in the country plummet and never correct), it’s not really a very compelling scheme for a super hero picture. There’s no visual element, nothing for Spidey to strive against. Also, the fact that Electro did the same things again and again (manipulate the market, cause a blackout) got old pretty quickly. There wasn’t really any escalation of threat or tension.

2) The various set-pieces didn’t seem terribly colorful or interesting. We see Spidey engaging in the same sorts of actions again and again in similar environments–Electro’s penthouse, the Stock Market, etc. And Electro and the Sandman are never really given an arena in which to demonstrate their powers to greatest effect. While a certain amount of this will be improvised by the director and the special effects guys during production, I think everyone will be better off if they have more and better raw material to work from.

3) For the leading female role, Mary Jane came off as pretty bland and uninteresting, almost as though she were just going through the motions. In the comics, she was always a vibrant, flamboyant character who was fun to watch. Here, she’s positively drab, worn down by life, and colorless. Even though her life hasn’t been turning out the way she’d want it to, Mary Jane would mask her unhappiness with her wild party-girl persona. The script talks about her using such a mask, but after the first reel, we never see it. She doesn’t really go through a satisfying character-arc–her family problems are established early on, but they don’t really build to any sort of pay-off by the end of the movie. Her primary characteristic is that she’s an opportunistic bimbo, which makes her less than sympathetic, even if she’s got good reasons for being that way.

4) Spidey’s dialogue could use a polish-pass for humor. Spidey has traditionally been the wittiest of super heroes, tossing off a constant stream of quips and one-liners so as to rattle his enemies. As such, his dialogue throughout could stand to be punchier.

5) Aunt May really needs a moment early on where we see that she cares about Peter, and vice versa, so that the audience can care about her. She’s somewhat nondescript at the moment–we don’t quite understand emotionally why Peter cares about her. In lieu of snappy dialogue throughout her scenes in the first reel, we could stand to see some real heart. The same is true of Uncle Ben, but he fares a little bit better in that he gets the heart-to-heart talk with Peter.

6) On page 15, Peter stops wearing his glasses, yet nobody–particularly his doting Aunt and Uncle–so much as mentions it. Seems like something they’d at least question.

7) There’s no good explanation given for why Pete doesn’t tell his Aunt and Uncle about his spider-powers. He wakes up covered in webbing that’s oozing from his arms, and yet, instead of freaking out about it, he deliberately conceals it from his Aunt. He’s a science whiz–isn’t he worried about what could be happening to him? And shouldn’t he confide in the only two people who’ve ever treated him well? If not–and I agree he shouldn’t–we need a reason.

8) I don’t see a point in adding the mechanical aiming-device to Pete’s web-shooters. If we’re going to make the change from the books, and make the web-shooters biological, I think this just adds complications to no good effect–especially since it never becomes an issue again. Now, if Electro were to damage or destroy the aiming devices during his final battle with Spidey, and that’s why Spidey can’t control his webbing well enough to save Electro when he plummets off of the World Trade Center, then there’s a payoff. As it stands, the script is trying to have it both ways, when that’s really unnecessary.

9) Why does Pete hide his identity from the folks at the wrestling match, going so far as to not even telling them his name? While it’s necessary for him to do this in order to maintain his secret identity for later, we need some sort of rationale. In the comics, he’s afraid of failing and becoming a laughingstock–maybe something like this could be adapted. It makes sense that he’d create a costume for himself–showmanship, and all that–but not that he wouldn’t reveal his identity to the folks running the event.

10) In the comics, Pete finds confidence by putting on the mask–it releases his inhibitions and liberates him to do and say the things he’s always wished he could. But this transformation occurs too quickly in the script–he’s pretty much Spider-Man from the moment he enters the ring. I’d prefer to see him tentative at first–he’s still shy and unassuming under the mask, after all, and he’s never really tested his spidery powers like this. And then, as he continues to run rings around Metal-Man, he becomes more flamboyant, more outgoing, playing to the crowd. This is where he really starts to become Spider-Man (and also why he’s feeling so cocky when the burglar runs by, and he doesn’t stop him–he’s flushed with his first taste of fame and the spotlight.)

11) I don’t think Electro and the Sandman should be around for the finale of the origin–while it’s perfectly fine for Electro to see Spider-Man on television, having him send Boyd to deliver a message introduces another element into the origin sequence that goes nowhere. And then, after having tried to contact Spider-Man once, Electro doesn’t follow up for another year (due to the time jump.) Having Boyd on the scene adds nothing and just distracts from the really important stuff that’s going on.

12) I don’t buy that the promoter would pay Spidey in cash. You simply cannot do this sort of thing anymore–there has to be a paper trail. Maybe he cuts Spidey a check (which is where the discussion about his true identity can come in), and Spidey doesn’t realize until later that he can’t cash it.

13) At the end of the first act, Aunt May has a heart attack and is carted away. To anybody who hasn’t real Spider-Man before, to all appearances it looks like she’s dropped dead. It’s only pages later that we learn that she’s still alive, albeit in an off-handed way. I think we need to clearly establish that she survives–maybe the scene with Pete slumping on the bed in anguish could instead take place at the hospital, as he slumps over Aunt May’s unconscious-but-alive form in a hospital bed.

14) I think there’s one more beat that’s needed before we fast-forward a year. There’s an important line in the original comics, where Pete vows that,”never again will an innocent person come to harm because Spider-Man failed to act.” The line (or a version of it) makes a great segue into the montage of Spidey action that comes after the time-jump, and further clarifies why Spidey does what he does.

15) Electro taking Spidey to his apartment without unmasking him is incredibly dumb, particularly since he’s going to lament not knowing Spidey’s true identity in twenty pages. Nobody is this stupid. Perhaps this would work better if Electro does unmask Spidey–but, since Pete is just one nonentity in a city of three million, Dillon has no idea who he is.

16) The scene on page 63 with Boyd crying tears of sand comes off as just dopey.

17) On page 71, Spidey learns that Electro is responsible for the blackouts and the stock market manipulation, and yet he subsequently does nothing about it. Couldn’t he tip off the police, or the people at the stock market anonymously at the very least? Doesn’t his inaction make him responsible for everything that happens after this?

18) On page 73, Spidey’s spider-sense would surely warn him in time to dodge the Creep’s blade–we’ve already seen him use it to confound three attackers at once.

19) In that same scene, Mary Jane comes off incredibly slutty–she throws herself at this masked man she’s only just met. You might be able to find the right balance to make this sequence work, but she totally loses my sympathy as a character in this sequence.

20) Why does Electro go to all the trouble of investing in the Daily Bugle? If he wants to ruin Spidey’s reputation, all he has to do is what he’s doing–hiring folks to impersonate him and blacken his name. The only reason he does this is so he can later have access to Jameson’s rolodex, and be able to find Peter Parker that way. But he’s an expert computer  hacker–he should be able to accomplish this without Jameson. Heck, isn’t Peter Parker listed in the phone book?

21) I don’t think that Jameson and the Bugle’s dislike and distrust of Spider-Man should be because of Electro’s investing in the paper–for one thing, this makes Jameson, already a thin character in the script, even weaker. Jameson’s hatred of Spidey should be genuine, though he’s not above making a buck by selling newspapers covering the wall-crawler.

22) I think either Electro or the Sandman should impersonate Spider-Man, rather than some nameless actor. Either of them could mimic at least some of Spidey’s powers, making the impersonation more genuine. And they could stand up to opposition–I found myself wondering why the crowd that’s gathered as the fake Spidey beats up the Priest doesn’t do anything to intercede, and realizing that the fake Spidey would be in serious trouble if they did.

23) On page 81, the mysterious safety deposit box rears its head again. For all of the set-up this thing gets in this script, there isn’t any payoff–it’s clearly here as a set-up for a sequel. But it’s given so much attention that it’s utterly unsatisfying that the matter isn’t addressed. When Spidey needs money to save Aunt May’s house, why, rather than going back and taking Electro’s cash, doesn’t he sneak into the bank and open up the box? It’s his, after all–even if he can’t open it legally for a few more years. Surely if Spidey’s going to compromise his principles, he’d do it in this way rather than going for Electro’s money. I think it would be cleaner all around not to mention the safety deposit box at this point–leave the one mention early on if you want to plant it for the sequel. But playing it up this much makes it stand out as an unresolved element, and weakens the movie as a single, satisfying unit of entertainment.

24) On page 96, am I the only one disturbed by the bondage elements in the Spidey/MJ romance scene atop the bridge? Why is this here? It adds nothing substantial to the story, and instead inserts a disconcerting subtext to Spidey and MJ’s relationship. A steamy scene atop the bridge should be plenty.

25) Once Electro and the Sandman have the photo of Spidey and MJ, why do they print it in the Bugle? As a story element, it doesn’t lead anywhere. If anything, I’d think it would make snatching Mary Jane up more difficult, since she would be sure to be hounded by paparazzi and reporters wanting the inside scoop on Spider-Man. Now, maybe this could be an element. Perhaps, by the picture’s end, Mary Jane has been beginning to pick up acting roles, due to her notoriety as “Spider-Man’s girlfriend.” This could reinforce Pete’s feelings of confusion about their relationship–does she really care for him, or just Spider-Man, and what he can do for her?

26) On page 108, when Spider-Man crashes into the Stock Market to confront Electro, why does Electro suddenly start zapping down cops? The police think he’s a respectable businessman, and that Spidey is a criminal who’s out to kill Dillon, remember? In zapping the various cops, all Dillon does is reveal his true colors stupidly because the plot calls for it. If Electro is going to be revealed as a menace, it should make a little more sense than this.

27) Mary Jane spends something like ten script pages with her heart stopped. I don’t buy that she can make a miracle recovery after that much time.

28) In the climactic battle between Spidey and Electro, though the script tries mightily to exonerate Spidey, I still come away thinking that Spidey deliberately killed Electro–and then, having hurled him eighty stories, he carries him back up to the top (wouldn’t his body have pretty well liquefied after such an impact?) so he can save Mary Jane. Spidey doesn’t seem terribly heroic here.

29) I’d like to see some indication by the end of the movie that Aunt May gets to keep her house–and I’d prefer that Pete be directly responsible. Sure, with Electro gone, the stock market will right itself, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the bank will call off its mortgage recall. It would also be nice for Pete to exonerate himself in Aunt May’s eyes, after the incident with Electro’s money. Perhaps Pete can get photos of Electro’s defeat, and hold up Jameson for the money needed to cover the mortgage. In any event, I feel we need at least a line of dialogue stating that May’s house is safe. As it stands, it’s a story element that just fades away after a bit.

Hope it helps.

6 thoughts on “Giving Notes on the Spider-Man Movie

  1. Strong points. The characters’ arcs, what Spidey needs to struggle against, the motivations of all the characters. Great insights.

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  2. Excellent look back. Thanks for your insights.

    Quick question, because I’m not sure on the timing. Is this back when James Cameron was still involved, or had he moved on at this point?

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  3. Considering that not one of the ill-conceived story points you brought attention to made it into the actual movie, I hope someone at Marvel gave you a bonus or at least bought you lunch. Well done, Tom!

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