"The True Story of WCW's Arachnaman"
In 1992, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) fans saw the debut of a masked wrestler in a familiar-looking costume. That wrestler was Arachnaman. He wore a costume eerily similar to the Amazing Spider-Man except where Spidey’s costume was blue and red, Arachnaman’s was blue and yellow. Arachnaman even shot out webs during his entrance, completing the resemblance. As you might expect, Marvel Comics was not happy with this and threatened legal action. Arachnaman disappeared. Conventional wisdom has it that this was yet another bad gimmick by WCW to boost business but the truth is much more complex. Arachnaman was originally supposed to be a licensed version of Marvel’s flagship hero, the Amazing Spider-Man and a tie-in to a Spider-Man film set to debut that year. Join me as I look back at the amazing (no pun intended) story of Arachnaman and what might have been.
With the proliferation of superheroes in film and television, you may be surprised that they were once considered a difficult project to pull off. Special effects were not what they were and producers wondered how people would react to seeing costumed heroes after the campy Batman series in the 1960’s. DC changed this with its release of Superman: The Movie, a wildly successful film that led to a successful sequel Superman II and two not so-successful sequels. In 1989, DC hit the jackpot when Tim Burton’s Batman broke the box office, showing that there was a demand for good comic book films.
By 1992, Marvel had been the undisputed king of comic books, long having taken over DC’s spot as the top comic book publisher. Surprisingly though, Marvel had no films, despite a treasure trove of characters such as the X-Men, Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Captain America. Marvel’s properties had been adapted for live-action TV but other than the Incredible Hulk, they usually met with little success (Look up Doctor Strange and Captain America on YouTube if you doubt me). The Incredible Hulk ran five seasons and although the Hulk was different than the comics, it was (and remains) a well-regarded dramatic series.
Marvel’s only other success was The Amazing Spider-Man, a show that lasted for two seasons but that had trouble finding success as CBS bounced it from timeslot to timeslot. CBS was concerned that it would be known as the superhero network since it also aired the Hulk and Wonder Woman.
During the 1980’s, Hollywood finally seemed to realize that Marvel’s characters would make for some blockbuster films. The X-Men and Spider-Man were among the first Marvel properties to be optioned with the rights to make a Spider-Man film going to Cannon Films. Unfortunately, the path from optioning to opening was long and convoluted.
Spider-Man bounced around from director to director. At one point, Joseph Zito (whose best known film is Invasion USA, a Chuck Norris vehicle) was going to direct it with Tom Cruise playing Peter Parker, the teenager under the Spidey mask; and Bob Hoskins playing Spidey’s foe, Doctor Octopus. Rumors abound that screen legends Lauren Bacall or Katherine Hepburn were sought after to play Peter Parker’s Aunt May, and that Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee would play Daily Bugle editor, J. Jonah Jameson. Unfortunately, this version never got far as Cannon Films was in serious financial trouble (partly from the superhero film Superman IV: The Quest for Peace bombing at the box office), and they slashed the budget for Spider-Man so much that Zito walked.
In 1991, Spider-Man was more popular than ever, thanks to the work of artists Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld. James Cameron wrote a screenplay, aiming the film at an older audience. Arnold Schwarzenegger was reportedly interested in playing Doctor Octopus. The problem was that the rights to Spider-Man were up in the air. The cash-strapped Cannon had sold the rights to Columbia Pictures but Sony Pictures had bought the rights to Spider-Man after the option expired. The film was tied up in litigation.
Enter Ted Turner, billionaire owner of the Turner Broadcasting System and WCW. Using the negotiation skills that had earned him the nickname, “Captain Courageous,” Turner offered to contribute financially so Sony could settle the case with Columbia. Turner knew the value of Hollywood tie-ins as he had engineered WCW’s wildly successful pay-per-view, Capitol Combat: The Return of Robocop. In exchange for helping Sony out, Turner secured the licensing rights for a Spider-Man character for wrestling. Stan Lee was intrigued by the idea as long as it was done right. Marvel saw this as a chance to expand awareness of Spider-Man further and help fuel eagerness for the film. Lee knew a successful Spider-Man film could launch a franchise for Spider-Man as well as Marvel’s other characters. At the time, Marvel Comics was publishing a WCW comic book so this seemed like a natural fit.
Although Cameron had moved on from the film, there were no shortage of people willing to work on a Spider-Man film. Once Columbia had locked the rights down, they decided to try something different and brought in a young director by the name of Dan Poole. Poole had caught Hollywood’s attention with a student film about Marvel’s character Wolverine.
Poole drafted the screenplay alongside veteran screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (known for co-writing many films including The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark). Spider-Man: The Green Goblin’s Last Stand took an approach similar to Tim Burton’s Batman, skipping the superhero’s origin and focusing on a hero already in the midst of his crime-fighting career. Poole (a huge comic book fan) convinced Kasdan to adapt the controversial story "The Night Gwen Stacy Died". The Spider-Man film would focus on Spider-Man’s arch-enemy the Green Goblin, but also feature appearances by Mysterio and oddly enough, Bullseye (one of Daredevil’s foes).
With Spider-Man now greenlit and the film scheduled to open on Christmas Day 1992, Ted Turner mobilized WCW to get their Spider-Man wrestler out in time for the film. With Marvel doing the WCW comic, WCW had complete access to Spider-Man’s creative team. Ted Turner told the people at WCW that he wanted a return on his investment. Not only had Turner obtained the rights to Spider-Man and his characters but Turner had a small percentage of profits from the film. Promoting Spider-Man in WCW was an example of corporate synergy.
Behind the scenes, WCW’s higher-ups had mixed feelings about introducing Spider-Man as a wrestler. WCW President Bill Watts (a former wrestler and one-time owner of Mid-South Wrestling) was against the move. Watts was a traditionalist, and the thought of a wrestler based on Spider-Man was anathema. During an interview with Pro Wrestling Torch, Watts said “Turner must have been smoking crack when he came up with this idea.” However, since only about 15 people subscribed to the Torch (half of its current audience), no one outside of Wade Keller’s family saw the interview.
WCW producer Tony Schiavone felt that WCW had damaged its reputation as more of a sports-based promotion with characters like “Rapmaster” P.N. News, “Heavy Metal” Van Hammer, Norman the Lunatic, Johnny B. Badd, and others. At least Spider-Man was a recognized name and he might bring in the younger demographic WCW was looking to steal from the WWF.
Announcer Eric Bischoff thought the Spider-Man gimmick was a sure-fire way to boost business. At the time, Bischoff was merely an announcer and his opinion was ignored. In his book Controversy Creates Cash, Bischoff praised the move, saying it inspired him to create Glacier and Mortis, two Mortal Kombat-inspired characters during the Monday Night War.
Despite Watt’s misgivings, WCW proceeded with adapting the character. There was no question that Spider-Man would be portrayed as a light-heavyweight star given the comic book character’s speed and size. Tony Schiavone felt this would be a good way to invigorate WCW’s light heavyweight division. The light-heavyweight title had been recently retired but it was going to be brought back as a showcase for Spidey.
The next question was who to play Spider-Man. WCW wanted someone who could dazzle the fans with high-flying moves. The obvious choice was “Flying” Brian Pillman, a wrestler who had worn the light-heavyweight belt and wowed the fans during his series with Jushin Thunder Liger. The problem was that Pillman refused to work under a mask. He had spent considerable time building himself up as a star and had no desire to wrestle incognito.
WCW decided to go with Brad Armstrong, a second-generation star who had held WCW’s Light-Heavyweight Title until a knee injury sidelined him. Armstrong was a fantastic worker and more than capable of playing Spider-Man. He had worked under a mask as Badstreet (originally called Bradstreet until WCW officials it might tip off fans to his identity), an ally of the Fabulous Freebirds. Armstrong had no reservations about wrestling under a mask.
With Spider-Man cast, WCW decided to put him in a feud against another light heavyweight, who would portray the Green Goblin (tying in to the upcoming film). WCW spent a quarter million dollars on an elaborate entrance where the Goblin would fly on a wire into the ring on his Goblin Glider. Several names were suggested such as Tiger Mask, Kid Pegasus, or Cobra. However, that soon became moot.
Suddenly, the bottom fell out on the Spider-Man film. Cannon’s creditors decided to sue Columbia Pictures and Sony, claiming Cannon had no right to sell their option on Spider-Man to Columbia (or settle with Sony). Suddenly, a forty-five-million-dollar film was being held up in court. Somehow, Cannon’s creditors obtained an injunction against the film. Marvel Comics told WCW to cancel the Spider-Man wrestler due to the lawsuit. The Spider-Man film was never released, becoming one of the most sought-after films ever since Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four.
WCW was determined to get a return on their investment. They redesigned the Spider-Man costume, creating Arachnaman, a wrestler still played by Brad Armstrong. Tony Schiavone was defiant, calling Arachnaman, “the greatest creation in professional wrestling history.” After a cease and desist letter from Marvel Comics’ attorneys, Ted Turner threw in the towel.
The fallout was tremendous. It’s estimated that WCW took a hit close to half a million dollars in developing Arachnaman and another quarter million developing the Green Goblin. Fortunately for Turner, he recouped the money he invested with Sony once the rights to Spider-Man were sorted out. WCW President Bill Watts’ remarks came back to haunt him when someone faxed a copy of his Pro Wrestling Torch interview to Ted Turner. Brad Armstrong’s career didn’t suffer as he was under a mask while playing Arachnaman (one of the advantages of a secret identity). As for Sony, they eventually won the rights to Spider-Man, producing five films based on the character.
Of course if you believe any of this, all I can say is remember today is April Fool’s Day. The story above is mostly fictitious (although I did include some true history of the development of Spider-Man in film). By the way, if you’re looking for a fun fan-made film, check out Dan Poole’s The Green Goblin’s Last Stand on YouTube. The film was made in the early 1990’s when practical effects were the norm so don’t expect a CGI filled extravaganza.