Wild Wild West Wasn’t a Hit in the ’90s But At Least It Had That Giant Spider

Wild Wild West made no one happy... except for super producer and spider enthusiast Jon Peters.

Photo: Warner Bros. PIctures

Most of Wild Wild West plays exactly in the way you would expect, as a uglier, less charismatic version of Men in Black. Sure, Will Smith still has his ineffable cool and Kevin Kline’s always lovable, even when playing a motor-mouthed and egotistical inventor. But the two just don’t click like Smith did with Tommy Lee Jones, and Barry Sonnenfeld’s direction feels forced and mechanical instead of electric. So when Smith’s secret agent Jim West and Kline’s U.S. Marshal Artemus Gordon find the secret lab of mad scientist Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), the audience feels just as unimpressed as the characters. As the exhausted duo mocks Loveless’s offerings, they ask “What has he got?” listing off his failures. The same question could be posed to Wild Wild West, with its garish set-pieces and flat humor.

But then, with a rumbling of rocks and a turning of gears, Wild Wild West introduces something that not even Men in Black attempted. “An 80-foot Tarantulla,” mutters West, looking up in horror. Gordon agrees with a simple “impressive.”

It’s not impressive, at least not to most people. But there is one guy who was very happy to see the movie’s giant spider: producer Jon Peters, who can still smile about his achievement a full 25 years after all those scathing reviews and lead actor disavowals.

The Unlikely Rise of Jon Peters

Most genre movie fans first learned about a producer who loved humongous spiders through Kevin Smith, the indie director turned pop culture commentator. Smith met Peters while working on a script for Superman Lives, the unmade Tim Burton movie about the Man of Steel’s death and return. An avid comic book fan who was a hot property after the success of Mallrats, Smith was hired to punch-up the Superman Lives script, which was being produced by Peters. And as part of his popular speaking engagement video, An Evening With Kevin Smith, the filmmaker infamously described the unlikely way his frank criticism of the existing Superman Lives script got him a meeting with Peters.

Ad – content continues below

Apropos of his self-deprecating style, Smith frames the path that took him from a New Jersey convenience store to sitting in the home of a powerful Hollywood producer as a giant cosmic joke. But Peters’ own story is just as outlandish.

Peters came to Hollywood not as an actor, writer, or director, but as a hairdresser. To be clear, hairdressers—like every other crew person in Hollywood—play vital parts in making the movies you love. But such positions rarely earn much acclaim and never really lead to a producer’s chair. Peters is the exception because of a wig he made for a very powerful client, Barbara Streisand.

After meeting on the 1974 movie For Pete’s Sake, Peters and Streisand started a romantic relationship that soon turned professional. Peters took an active role in Streisand’s career, taking a producer’s credit on her albums and then on her 1976 remake of A Star is Born. From that position, Peters got involved in a number of high-profile projects which allowed him to stay relevant even after he broke ties with Streisand.

Casual movie fans got a peak at the madness of Jon Peters in the 2021 Paul Thomas Anderson film Licorice Pizza, in which Bradley Cooper portrayed a comedic caricature of Peters. When young Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and his crush Alana (Alana Haim) deliver a waterbed to Peters, they must deal with the super producer’s wild swings in attitude and intensity. Outrageous as Cooper’s performance gets, most agree that it’s accurate. Peters was a guy whose oddball energy helped him get what he wanted. And what he wanted most in the mid-to-late 1990s was to see a giant mechanical spider on screen.


As he gained influence beyond Streisand, Peters gained the rights to oversee major projects, 1989’s Batman and then any reboots of Superman included. But, at least as Smith tells it, Peters had no idea what to do with Superman. After pitching his idea to Peters, Smith said the producer said, “You and me get Superman, you know why? … Because you and me, we’re from the streets.” When Peters suggests Sean Penn for the role, he points to the actor’s performance as a death row inmate as evidence of his abilities, citing his “eyes like a caged animal.”

Most famously, Smith recalls three requirements that Peters set down for his Superman movie. No suit, no flying, and Superman must fight a giant spider in the third act. His reasoning? “[Spiders] are the fiercest killers in the insect kingdom.”

Ad – content continues below

In his defense, Peters does connect his fascination to a more wholesome point, as he remembers being awed as a kid by the reveal of King Kong in the 1933 movie. Many filmmakers cite the reveal as one of the most exciting in cinema history, including Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. Peters isn’t wrong to want to recreate that feeling for modern moviegoing kids. But Peters’ love of giant spiders go so far as to corrupt his projects, apparently reimagining Superman as a caged animal who can only match his might against an amazing arachnid. Obviously, such a fight never made it into a Superman movie, at best getting a lame wink during the awful multiverse sequence in last year’s The Flash.

Instead Jon Peters got his wish in a movie better suited to the material: Wild Wild West.

Mild Mild West

Wild Wild West adapts to the big screen an adventure television series from the 1960s, but that wasn’t its real appeal. Its selling point was seeing director Barry Sonnenfeld reteam with star Will Smith, the duo who made the fantastic Men in Black, in another high-concept summer buddy movie with sci-fi/genre trappings.

And it fails. Spectacularly. Kline and Smith feel like they’re in different movies, with the former doing broad wacky comedy, and the latter trying to play everything Big Willie Style cool. As the villainous mad scientist Dr. Loveless, Kenneth Branagh devours all the scenery he can. Worst of all, Sonnefeld and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who also served as director of photography on Goodfellas and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, accentuate every single element in the frame, making the movie a nauseating watch.

Peters, Sonnenfeld, and the creators ran up a $170 million price tag on Wild Wild West, which released to negative reviews and grossed only $113.8 million domestically. It became a punch line among movie fans, leaving a stink that lingered for few years. Smith still cites it as the biggest mistake of his career.

Twenty-five years later, Wild Wild West is a forgotten part of Smith and Kline’s filmographies, an ill-conceived act of blockbuster hubris that embarrassed everyone involved. Except for Jon Peters, who finally got his giant mechanical spider—something he can brag about back on the streets.

Ad – content continues below