It’s hard to overstate just how big a deal Sam Raimi’s 2002 comic book adaptation Spider-Man was. The film was coming on the heels of the success of 2000’s X-Men (which put a serious spin on the superhero genre) and perhaps buoyed by that film’s achievement, Spider-Man lit up like a rocket when it hit theaters on May 3, 2002. The movie was famously the first ever to score over $100 million on its opening weekend, taking in a total of $114.8 million in its first few days of release. This was unheard of, and that record stood a full four years until the first Pirates of the Caribbean sequel surpassed it—but make no mistake, Spider-Man broke the $100 million ceiling and set into motion full-blown superhero fever at every studio.
That included Sony Pictures, which tapped Raimi to return and direct Spider-Man 2 to critical raves and $783 million worldwide, which was then followed up by the Raimi-helmed Spider-Man 3, which grossed a franchise-high $890.8 million worldwide but suffered a poor reception from critics and fans. The wheels were in motion for Raimi to return for a creatively invigorated Spider-Man 4, and he’d gotten pretty far along in the development process, but Sony suddenly scrapped the film and fast-tracked a brand new reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man.
So what happened to Spider-Man 4? Why did Sony trash the project at the last minute? What did Raimi have planned for his fourth superhero film? The sequel is one of Hollywood’s more fascinating “what ifs” in that it would have kept the same creative team intact despite the previous film being something of a stinker, and by all accounts Raimi seemed intent on righting the ship. So let’s dig in.
To understand what happened to Spider-Man 4 we must first go back to the development and production of Spider-Man 3. One of the biggest criticisms lodged at the sequel is that it’s overstuffed with too many villains. There are some other character issues here and there, but the movie really falls apart when Venom enters the fray. There’s a good reason for this: Sam Raimi never wanted Venom in the movie.
Indeed, while Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 brought to life the villains Green Goblin and Doc Ock, respectively, Raimi had his sights set on Sandman as the primary villain of Spider-Man 3 while also bringing back James Franco’s Harry Osborne to wrap up his character’s storyline. However, producer Avi Arad reportedly convinced Raimi to also include Venom, a character the fans loved but Raimi didn’t—the filmmaker said he couldn’t get over Venom’s lack of humanity. Indeed, while Raimi played nice and tried to execute the character as best he could, he said this in 2015 about the film:
“It’s a movie that just didn’t work very well. I tried to make it work, but I didn’t really believe in all the characters, so that couldn’t be hidden from people who loved Spider-Man. If the director doesn’t love something, it’s wrong of them to make it when so many other people love it. I think [raising the stakes after Spider-Man 2] was the thinking going into it, and I think that’s what doomed us. I should’ve just stuck with the characters and the relationships and progressed them to the next step and not tried to top the bar.”
So while Spider-Man 3 was a commercial success, critics and fans were not so high on the sequel. Thus, in developing Spider-Man 4, Raimi wanted to set things straight again. He began work with Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt in 2008 after Spider-Man scribe David Koepp passed, and David Lindsay-Abaire and Gary Ross did further script revisions. The entire core cast was set to return, but this time around Raimi was intent on finally bringing to the screen a Spider-Man villain close to his heart: Vulture.
Indeed, Raimi considered Vulture for Spider-Man 3 with Ben Kingsley in the role, but ultimately cut the character. This time, though, he wasn’t going to be talked into using a character he didn’t like, and he had none other than John Malkovich set to play the antagonist. As the script developed, Raimi also threw Felicia Hardy into the mix with Anne Hathaway in the role, though instead of becoming Black Cat the character would become the villain Vulturess in the film.
But as work continued on Spider-Man 4, Raimi couldn’t quite get the script right. He was continually unhappy with the story, and Sony wanted to bring the Lizard into the fold, finally capitalizing on Dylan Baker’s role from the first three movies. Raimi was admittedly exhausted—this was still only a year or so after Spider-Man 3 came out, and the filmmaker hadn’t made a non-Spider-Man movie since 2000’s The Gift. And thus, he and Sony decided to part ways, with the filmmaker describing the split thusly: