Was the Jean-Claude Van Damme film Cyborg Originally Meant to Be Two Films, Including a He-Man Film and a Spider-Man One?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: The Jean-Claude Van Damme film Cyborg was originally going to be both the sequel to the Masters of the Universe film AND a Spider-Man film.

Cannon Films was one of the most interesting film companies of the 1980s. The company began life as a small film distributor during the late 1960s, doing a number of different films. However, they were in dire financial straits when they were purchased by cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus in 1979. Golan and Globus had a fascinating game plan for their new company. They would basically purchase tons of scripts for little money and make a lot of low budget films, under the theory that even if seven out of ten films bombed, that the three successful films would make enough money to pay for all of the films because of the low budgets. Their plans worked during the early 1980s as they had a string of low budget action films become major hits, most notably their series of Chuck Norris films (with Norris’ Rambo-esque Missing in Action likely being their biggest hit). However, by the end of the decade, the company began to experience what I guess you would call Icarus-syndrome. They became so successful that they tried to get closer and closer to the sun. They began spending more and more money on their films, financing them at least partially through the junk bond market. With bigger budgets, films that failed suddenly had a much bigger impact on their bottom line. They took over production on Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and even though they cut the budget on the film dramatically from its original budget, it was still their biggest film to date and it failed spectacularly. By the end of the decade, with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigating their finances and the junk bond market collapsing around them, things were bleak for the company. It was during this time that they had begun making a sequel to their film, Masters of the Universe, based on the toy line from Mattel. Similarly, they had the rights to do a film based on Spider-Man, the popular Marvel Comics character. They began an ambitious plan to do both a Masters of the Universe sequel AND a Spider-Man film, both directed by Albert Pyun at the same time. Things fell apart, though, and through bizarre circumstances, those two films instead became the 1989 film Cyborg, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, the last film produced by Golan and Globus under the Cannon Films label.

Read on to see how it all happened!

The original Masters of the Universe film starred Dolph Lundgren as He-Man and it was typical of most Cannon Films productions in its low budget production (it actually cost more than a typical Cannon film, it was just a lower budget than what most other film companies would have spent on a similar film).

It was still a decent enough film, though, and even though it appears to have actually slightly lost money for Cannon, they were confident that a sequel would do even better at the box office. Lundgren, though, did not want to do the sequel, so surfer Laird Hamilton was cast to be the new He-Man.

However, Cannon’s rights agreement with Marvel required Cannon to release a Spider-Man film by 1990, so they came up with a clever approach. Writer/director Albert Pyun explained how it would work:

The concept was to shoot 2 weeks of “Spider-Man” first. The section of Peter Parker’s story before he was bitten. Then we would shoot 6 weeks of “Masters 2″. The actor cast to play Parker would undergo a streneuous 8 week workout regimen supervised by a fitness professor at UCLA, Dr. Eric Sternlicht to build size and muscle mass. After shooting “Masters 2″ we would resume shooting “Spider-Man”.

Pyun does not recall who he cast as Peter Parker. The films were both set to be filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina. They had already built all of the New York sets for the early Spider-Man sequences as well as building all of the sets for the Masters of the Universe film, along with having all of the costumes for the Masters film. Pyun estimates that the budget for the Spider-Man film was roughly $6 million (the largest budget he had ever worked with) and the Masters film was roughly $4.5 million. Mattel had submitted all of their permissions and things were ready to get started.

Then, two weeks before filming began, the bottom fell out.

Cannon had bounced their licensing checks to both Marvel Comics and Mattel. Negotiations fell apart as Cannon had very little money to spend. Suddenly, neither film was going to be made. Pyun was now sitting there with all of these sets and costumes all finished but unable to start filming. Pyun, though, had an idea. Cannon was already in the hole about $2 million on sets and costumes. So why not just do a DIFFERENT film that would incorporate the sets and costumes and would not require licensing fees? Cannon agreed and Pyun spent the weekend putting together a script for a new film to be called Cyborg.

Pyun recalled:

I wrote a first draft of what became “Cyborg” over a weekend and brought in a young actor – who wanted to be a screenwriter – to do polishes. His name was Don Michael Paul and he has gone on to write and direct “Half Past Dead” and Harley Davidson and the “Marlboro Man”.

Pyun wrote the script with Cannon star Chuck Norris in mind for the lead role, but instead he was given Jean-Claude Van Damme, who had just starred in the Cannon-financed film, Bloodsport, the previous year. Naturally, Pyun had to re-write the lead character (originally an over the hill ex-Army Ranger) to the mercenary character Van Damme eventually played in the film. Pyun recalled that the budget for the new film, with Van Damme’s salary included, was roughly $500,000.

The film was a modest hit, taking in over $10 million at the box office. It has become a cult classic in the years since. However, from an ingenuity standpoint, it was clearly a major success.

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Thanks to Albert Pyun for the information, courtesy of a great interview with Nicanor Loreti in La Cosa Fantastico. Pyun, by the way, is selling a director’s cut of Cyborg. You can e-mail him at curnanpictures@gmail.com if you’re interested in purchasing a copy.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

9 Responses to “Was the Jean-Claude Van Damme film Cyborg Originally Meant to Be Two Films, Including a He-Man Film and a Spider-Man One?”

  1. For your information, the first movie MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE was not that low of a budget at $17 million (which even ended up costing more than $20 million) and was the other biggest Cannon film.

    Actually producer Ed Pressman ended up making the movie with Cannon because they were the only studio willing to put more than $15 million on the project, which was the budget prior to this when it was supposed to be made by Howard Kazanjian (“Return of the Jedi”) and RKO Pictures / Warner Bros…

  2. Wild story.
    Cannon sounds a lot like AIP, except AIP was even lower budget (and, I imagine, even more profitable).

  3. Thanks for the info, Jox! Just curious, were you a fan of the Masters film? I just wonder how the film is viewed among Dolph fans.

  4. ParanoidObsessive on March 2nd, 2013 at 4:20 am

    What I always remember when talking about the Masters of the Universe film was that I thought it was horrible as a kid (it was a really terrible adaptation of what it was supposedly based on), but that over the years I’ve heard people constantly talk about how it actually works better as a Jack Kirby “Fourth World” story than it does as a Masters of the Universe story. Including a certain popular Internet-based debunker of comic book myths – http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2006/11/02/comic-book-urban-legends-revealed-75

    I refuse to watch it again to see if those people are right, though, because all I remember about it at all is that it was terrible.

    Oh, and that a young Courteney Cox was in it, who at that point I really only knew as “That girl from Misfits of Science”.

    I’m like the last person left on Earth who remembers “Misfits of Science”, aren’t I?

  5. Me, I remember the young Courtney Cox as the girl in the video for the Bruce Springsteen song “Dancing In The Dark”.
    Cannon actually had another big budget film out in 1987 – the Sylvester Stallone arm wrestling drama “Over The Top”. Warner Bros. handled the distribution of that. Stallone was paid a then-record $12 million salary for the film. Menahem Golan directed the movie himself. It failed spectacularly as well.

  6. Yeah, that film is a perfect example of how Cannon fell apart. They kept betting bigger and when they failed, they failed harder.

  7. Actor / stuntman Scott Leva was cast as Spider-Man in the Cannon film. There are various promotional pics of him in costume out there on the Web. He also portrayed Spider-Man and Peter on the photo cover of “The Amazing Spider-Man” #262.

  8. The MOTU movie was one of the biggest disappointments of my youth. I was so fired up about it, and got my Dad to take me on a rare trip to the theater to see it. It was so very lackluster. I’ve since grown to appreciate it as a decent movie when taken on its own merits, but as ParanoidObsessive says, it truly is terrible as an adaptation of the MOTU mythos(any of the various MOTU mythoi, take your pick). It has one thing going for it that makes me like it despite all its shortcomings, however: Frank Langella. His Skeletor ranks among the greatest screen villains of all time, and it’s a shame that this performance doesn’t get the respect it deserves simply because it’s in this movie. Even if we eventually get a big-budget MOTU movie with an amazing cast at some point, I really doubt we’ll ever get a better Skeletor than Frank Langella. He elevates the entire movie and single-handedly makes it worth watching.

  9. Yeah, that’s fair. It is a decent film in and of itself, but it wasn’t a good adaptation.

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