With Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man turning 20 this month, it would be easy to focus on the movie’s incredible post-release legacy. After all, the smash-hit 2002 blockbuster is easily one of the most important films of the last two decades, not least of all because – together with 1998’s Blade and 2000’s X-Men – it laid the groundwork for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But as compelling as it is to consider what happened after Spider-Man hit cinemas, it’s even more fascinating to look at what happened before then. Because not only did this flick take more than 15 years to make, but it was also very nearly made by someone else, too.
That someone was none other than Oscar-winning director James Cameron. In the early 90s, Cameron – who already had instant classics like The Terminator and Aliens under his belt – signed on to write and direct a movie headlined by Marvel’s most iconic superhero and produced by Carolco Pictures/MGM. He even penned a 57-page scriptment for the project in 1991 which makes it clear that a James Cameron Spider-Man movie would have been very different to what Raimi eventually delivered – and not in a good way.
Because while Cameron is widely regarded as one of the best directors of all time, Raimi – despite his more modest filmmaking pedigree – was ultimately the best director for Spider-Man.
What we know about James Cameron’s Spider-Man movie
Of course, anyone who’s read James Cameron’s Spider-Man scriptment knows that it shares several major similarities with the shooting script for Raimi’s version. Heck, Cameron was even eligible for a writing credit on the film, however, he (along with script doctors Scott Rosenberg and Alvin Sargent) allowed David Keopp to claim sole authorship. Both the scriptment and Raimi’s movie share most of the same basic plot beats – which makes sense, considering they’re based on the same source material – as well as at least one major deviation from established Spider-Man canon. Following Cameron’s lead, Raimi dispensed with Peter Parker’s trusty mechanical web-shooters in favour of giving him the power to spin bio-organic webs.
Yet the 1991 Spider-Man scriptment and the 2002 film also diverge in several key ways. For starters, Cameron planned on pitting the wall-crawler against two villains – Electro and Sandman – unlike Raimi, who only employed one antagonist, the Green Goblin. Cameron also took far more liberties with his baddies, giving them different names and backstories. Electro was now wealthy corporate mogul Carlton Strand (not blue-collar crook Max Dillon), with Sandman portrayed as his bodyguard, Boyd (not escaped convict Flint Marko). By contrast, Raimi’s take on Green Goblin and his civilian alter-ego Norman Osborn was more or less the same as what Spider-Man creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko first imagined.
Then there are the action set pieces in Cameron’s Spider-Man scriptment, which differ wildly from those in Raimi’s movie. Generally speaking, Cameron wanted things to unfold on a much grander scale than his successor. The scriptment included an elaborate sequence where a newly minted Spidey swings into action at the New York Stock Exchange, and it ends with a dramatic showdown atop the World Trade Center. Raimi set his sights a little lower, serving up modest-yet-effective set pieces located in Times Square, a burning apartment building, and the Queensboro Bridge.
Cameron and Raimi didn’t agree on how Spider-Man should end, either. Cameron’s treatment wrapped up with the webslinger revealing his secret identity to Mary-Jane Watson, setting the stage for them to further build on their romantic relationship in future sequels. In Raimi’s film, Peter Parker never confesses his double life to MJ (although she suspects the truth). The result is a slightly more bittersweet finale than Cameron envisioned, which also sets up a different status quo for Raimi to explore in 2004’s Spider-Man 2.
But really, the biggest difference between James Cameron’s Spider-Man scriptment and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movie is tonal. The violence Cameron describes is raw rather than cartoonish, the world he builds more gritty than idealised, and everyone – even Spider-Man! – cusses a lot more than they do in either the comics or Raimi’s movie. There’s even a sex scene between our hero and MJ that plays out on a gigantic web and explicitly references actual spider mating rituals that is just… weird. In a similar vein, Cameron’s scriptment really leaned into the puberty themes that Raimi’s film only alluded to, right down to an episode in which Peter wakes up covered in web fluid – a decidedly blunt wet dream metaphor.
Would James Cameron’s Spider-Man movie have been good?
All of this begs the question: would James Cameron’s Spider-Man have worked? It’s hard to say, but – even accounting for some of the scriptment’s more bonkers elements – the answer is very much “yes”.
Cameron is one of the most accomplished action directors of his or any other generation, so pairing his virtuoso talents with the Spider-Man property is a bit of a no-brainer. It’s not just that the Canadian filmmaker came up with bigger set pieces than Raimi, it’s also that he has a proven track record of orchestrating these big showstopper scenes with unparalleled inventiveness and precision. Raimi’s action scenes in his first Spider-Man movie are admirably physical, but also slightly workmanlike, something that’s never been said of Cameron’s body of work.
This extends to the visual effects side of things, too. Sure, Raimi and Sony Pictures Imageworks whipped up some good (at times, great) digital effects for Spider-Man, yet the film’s CGI was hardly revolutionary and has aged terribly in places. Meanwhile, Cameron’s whole deal is that he always pushes technology forward; his movies don’t just dazzle on opening night – they continue to blow audiences’ minds decades later. As good a job as Raimi did wrangling Spider-Man’s visual effects, it’s virtually a given that the best shot in his movie would’ve been as good as the worst shot in Cameron’s.
That said, as with the rest of his projects, Cameron didn’t prioritize spectacle over emotion in his Spider-Man scriptment. As with his other CGI-driven blockbusters Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Titanic, and Avatar, Cameron injected a lot of heart into his version of the story. The scriptment never loses sight of Peter’s journey and his relationship with Mary-Jane, and finds time to flesh out its lead villain, too. These threads come together brilliantly during the third act, with the final exchange between Spider-Man and Carlton Strand a particular stand-out.
Why Sam Raimi (not James Cameron) was the best choice to direct Spider-Man
So, if James Cameron’s Spider-Man was set to be so amazing, why was Sam Raimi ultimately a better choice to direct the movie?
For one thing, Raimi had an even better knack for balancing comics canon with mainstream sensibilities than Cameron. Characters’ names and histories in the 2002 Spider-Man movie are far more in-line with what comics fans would expect than they are in Cameron’s scriptment – just slightly recalibrated to accommodate franchise newcomers. At the same time, like Cameron, Raimi knew some of the more outlandish elements of the comics wouldn’t fly with pre-MCU audiences, which explains why he embraced bigger tweaks to established continuity such as bio-organic web-shooters.
But most importantly of all, Raimi had a stronger handle on the source material’s tone and, crucially, an even greater understanding of who its protagonist really is. He knew that nobody (fan or otherwise) needs to see kinky arachnid sex scenes in a Spider-Man movie, any more than they want to hear ol’ webhead swearing a blue streak.
And while Cameron felt we needed to see Peter Parker who possessed a harder edge (including a short-lived yet pronounced appetite for cruelty), Raimi knew this was a mistake. Instead, he and Koepp combined the borderline incel tendencies of the Lee/Ditko incarnation of Parker with the more loveable geek traits he would later in the comics’ run – creating a likable yet still compelling take on the character.
So yes, James Cameron is a better director than Sam Raimi, but when it comes to actually getting Spider-Man? Let’s just say Raimi has that all webbed up.