Who Is Spider-Man?

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane!

No, it’s another “Spider-Man” rumor.

For nearly seven years, speculation has run rampant among comic-book geeks and genre-film fanatics about the red-and-blue building-climbing superhero. Nearly every director worth his box-office salt has been linked to “Spider-Man” at one time or another, beginning with no less than James Cameron (“Titanic“) and ending with Sam Raimi (“A Simple Plan,” “For Love of the Game“), who is now supposedly the front-runner for the job.

One thing’s for certain: “Spider-Man,” one of the most highly anticipated films in memory, is now on the fast track at Columbia Pictures. The studio wants to release the film in summer 2001, and that means a director is expected to be hired soon — perhaps within a few weeks. At long last, Marvel Comics’ biggest franchise property will get his big-budget Hollywood makeover, a privilege that, until now, has been afforded only to characters from rival DC Comics (home of Batman and Superman).

“Spider-Man definitely has the potential to be a very successful franchise,” says Mirko Parlevliet, creator of the Spider-Man Hype! Web site (www.spidermanhype.com), launched in March 1999 when years of legal battles over Spidey’s theatrical rights ended and Marvel and Columbia struck a deal to make the movie.

“Unlike Batman and Superman, Spider-Man is a character many people can identify with,” Parlevliet adds. “Peter Parker [the web-slinger’s secret identity] is a teen-ager who is always picked on for the wrong reasons.” He says Spidey is more realistic and down-to-earth than his DC rivals, a positive role model and a “fun guy” to chill out with. “How can you identify with a millionaire orphan or an alien with superpowers?”

For the record, this won’t be the first live-action adaptation of the arachnid-man. There was a short-lived TV series in the late 1970s starring Nicholas Hammond as a pudgy Peter Parker. The show featured neato special-effects tricks, like tilting the camera sideways while Hammond crawled across the side of a wall. There also was a Japanese “Spider-Man” teleseries in the late 1970s, in which the web slinger drove around in a cool racecar. And the infamous Cannon Group proposed a Spider-Man movie during the 1980s but, thankfully, did not follow through. There have also been numerous cartoon series over the years.

The current Spider-Man project began as Cameron’s brainchild; he wanted to make the movie immediately after “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Cameron wrote a lengthy Spidey treatment and Carolco obtained the theatrical rights to the character — or so it thought. Pretty soon it seemed like everyone in Tinseltown was suing to get a piece of the Peter Parker pie.

By the time Sony/Columbia emerged as the Spidey legal sweepstakes winner, Cameron had signed an exclusive deal with Fox that basically barred him from directing the superflick. However, Sony got the rights to Cameron’s treatment, and screenwriter David Koepp (“The Lost World”) was hired to fashion a screenplay out of The King of the World’s outline.

For the record, the following names have been linked to “Spider-Man” since 1993:

James Cameron, Ron Howard, Tim Burton, Ridley Scott, David Fincher, Chris Columbus, Jan De Bont, Stephen Sommers, Ivan Reitman, Barry Sonnenfeld, Sam Raimi, the Wachowski brothers, Terry Gilliam and Robert Rodriguez, in no particular order, have been rumored to direct.

Charlie Sheen, Corin Nemec (“Parker Lewis Can’t Lose”), Michael Biehn (“Aliens,” “Terminator”), Bruce Campbell (“Army of Darkness”), Jason Patric, Leonardo DiCaprio, Owen Wilson, Jim Carrey and Australian actor Heath Ledger (“10 Things I Hate About You”) have all been rumored to star as Peter Parker/Spidey.

In the villain department, Jack Nicholson has been pegged as Spider-Man’s arch nemesis, the Green Goblin, while Arnold Schwarzenegger could play either Doctor Octopus or Venom, according to the rumor mill. There hasn’t been much talk about who might play Peter’s girlfriend, Mary Jane, or his editor at the Daily Bugle, the hot-headed J. Jonah Jameson.

David Mamet, if you believe the latest word, has been secretly hired by Columbia to revamp David Koepp‘s screenplay.

For the uninitiated, “Spider-Man” (the comic book) is the story of Peter Parker, a high school whiz kid who is bitten by a radioactive spider during a biology experiment. The bite gives Peter some nifty powers, like the ability to walk on walls, and enhanced strength and agility, plus a “spider sense” that enables him to detect danger.

Peter is also a gifted inventor; he creates wrist-mounted “web-shooters” that spray a sticky compound resembling a spider’s web, from which he swings from skyscraper to skyscraper. Peter dons a Spider-Man suit and greedily uses his powers for personal gain (he becomes quite a celebrity) until his uncle is killed by robbers and he re-dedicates his life to fighting crime. Peter becomes a newspaper photographer, using a well-placed, timer-activated camera to snap pictures of himself (as Spider-Man) in action.

One major issue that remains to be decided is whether Columbia’s film will be based on the old-school, idealistic Spidey comics of the 1960s, or one of several more recent incarnations, such as comics guru Todd McFarlane’s dark, moody version.

“I’d prefer to see Spider-Man done old school,” said Rob Worley, Webmaster of the Comics 2 Film Web site (www.comics2film.com), which tracks (what else?) comic books optioned by Hollywood. “The thing that made Spider-Man great (the thing that current writers of the comic have forgotten) is that the character, under the mask, was so relatable. Peter Parker is an Everyman. He’s not some square-jawed, iron-willed vision of perfection. He’s a kid who has all the normal problems that a regular young man has, in addition to the monkey wrench of having the great power that he feels compelled to use responsibly.”

Now it remains to be seen whether Spidey can escape the curse — real or imagined — that has plagued film adaptations of other Marvel Comics franchises in the 1990s.

Witness “Captain America,” a 1992 film version of Marvel’s Nazi-fighting hero, starring Matt Salinger. In this barely watchable, low-budget film (which was widely advertised for a theatrical release, then instead went straight-to-video), the Cap’s evil foe Red Skull is inexplicably Italian, not German, and the villain wears an embarrassing rubber mask.

Then there is “The Fantastic Four,” a $2 million epic shot by Roger Corman’s (say no more) Concorde Pictures, and then suddenly shelved before release when Marvel cut a new deal with 20th Century Fox wherein Chris Columbus was to direct a new megabudget version.

“I have a sentimental attachment to The Fantastic Four, and I was heartbroken to think it might appear only as a low-budget quickie,” Marvel godfather Stan Lee told Entertainment Weekly. That was way back in 1994. There has been nary a peep about the film since.

Rights have been acquired and screenplays have been written for film versions of The Incredible Hulk and Silver Surfer, two Marvel properties with amazing potential, but both have landed in development hell.

So far, the only Marvel property to get a (fairly) big-budget film adaptation is New Line’s “Blade” (1998) starring Wesley Snipes. New Line is currently developing an Iron Man movie, with Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott (“The Mask of Zorro“) writing the screenplay and Tom Cruise supposedly interested in the starring role as reclusive billionaire/inventor/superhero Tony Stark.

Worley says one reason that Marvel’s film adaptations have mostly been low-budget has to do with poor licensing decisions made by the comic book company that gave Marvel little say in the way the movies were made.

“I recall readi g a letter from Stan Lee [in a comics trade magazine] around the time the low-budget Fantastic Four movie was due to come out. Lee said fans asked him all the time why Marvel movies sucked. He promised fans that it was due to bad negotiating on Marvel’s part and … no movies would be made from that point forward without Marvel having a say in things. So Marvel sold off their movie rights, cheap, to filmmakers who didn’t get it.”

Now all fanboys’ eyes will be on Fox’s “X-Men,” due out this summer from director Brian Singer and starring Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos.

“In the past, it seemed the low-budget constraints hurt Marvel’s superhero adaptations,” says Parlevliet. The X-Men film, he says, will be Marvel’s big test. “If it succeeds, the film will set the stage for many similar projects in the future. There really is no such thing as a Marvel curse. It’s just hard to adapt a comic book and make it believable on the big screen.”