By Robin S. Rosenberg
I recently saw a preview for the musical Spider-Man: Turn Out the Dark. It’s not really a musical; it’s a spectacle. It succeeds as a spectacle, fails as a musical, and hangs itself as a Spider-Man origin story. It’s easier to find good things to say about the spectacle aspect, so I’ll start by reviewing that aspect of the play.
Spider-Man: The Spectacle
Director/writer Julie Taymor and co-writer Glen Berger wanted to create a spectacle-something that was more than a musical. They succeeded. The sets were a wonder to behold (especially in the first half of the show). Aerialists, dressed as Spider-Man, the Green Goblin, and Arachne, flew about the stage and balcony, allowing viewers to feel a part of the production. In fact, because of the numerous injuries suffered by actors during rehearsals and previews, when the aerialists flew overhead it made me wonder-what if their cables broke and they fell on the audience? (And wouldn’t that be analogous to what New York’s pedestrians would wonder if an actual Spidey and actual Green Goblin were duking it out in the skies above Manhattan, without the cables?)
Even as a spectacle, though, the pacing of it didn’t work for me. Most of the spectacular elements were in the first half of the show, so when the effects and wow elements were fewer (and repeating) in the second half, it was a let down. During the last hour of the play, I kept looking at my watch. If you see the play and leave at intermission, you’ll see the best parts. Grade for spectacle (especially the first half): A.
Spider-Man: The Musical
In a good musical, the songs move the story forward. Unfortunately, the music in this play didn’t do this very effectively. The actors often spoke a “recap” of the gist of the song in order to transition to the next scene or to move the story along. (If you see this play, bring along some tissues or napkins to stuff into your ears: some songs were so loud that I had to cover my ears with my hands; I didn’t enjoy those.)
As you may know, the songs were written by Bono and The Edge, and it showed. The songs didn’t have the structure or feel of a “Broadway musical,” which is okay in theory, but not in this execution. Sad to say, none of the songs were memorable – they didn’t have a great “hook” as do many Broadway songs or even U2 songs. Plus the feel of the music didn’t match up with Spider-Man’s character or story. Grade for music: B- (I’m being generous here, taking effort into consideration in my grade)
Spider-Man: The Origin Story
I’ve read (or seen) almost every Spider-Man origin story there is because I’m writing a book on origin stories that includes a chapter on Spider-Man’s origins. I was looking forward to this musical to see how it compared with previous origin stories of the Webbed Wonder. I was disappointed. There isn’t a whole lot of character development here, and there isn’t much more of a plot; what plot there is focuses too much on Mary Jane and not enough on Peter. Even though Peter/Spider-Man is a comic book character, his story is rich in the human drama of shouldering the burden of being talented and figuring what to do with those talents – how to put them to good use.
In Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, he’s not even a two-dimensional character – he’s one-dimensional. He’s less real and nuanced than ever. I’ve read that that director Taymor et al. wanted to convey Peter’s burden and sense of responsibility – which makes a great story and what makes Spider-Man an everyman hero – but their efforts fell short of the mark. Peter comes across as a whiney guy, overwhelmed with his newfound abilities and gifts and he never gets the hang of how to be a hero. Yes, he saves people; yes, he defeats the bad guys and offers to sacrifice himself, but he never slings to the heights of becoming a hero.
In fact, in this musical, Peter Parker does not actually appear to be a nice guy. We see him being thoughtless and selfish with Aunt May and Uncle Ben, who are portrayed as nags rather than caring people clearly trying to do their best. Moreover, he’s whiney and preoccupied when he’s with Mary Jane. (Why she’s attracted to this version of Peter Parker is a mystery.)
Let me also say a word about why audiences might be leaving the theatre confused by the ending (at least as reported in the press). At the start of the play, Taymor and Berger create a narrative structure of a play within a play: a group of high school comic book geeks discuss different Spider-Man storylines and characters – they argue what would happen if… These kids, in essence, frame the action of the story during the play. But Taymor and Berger break that frame by having these same teenagers in scenes with Peter Parker (which is confusing enough), and to top it off, the teens don’t appear at the end of the play to close the story. As framing narrators, they should come back to complete their story. In the second half of the play, the lines of the character Arachne make that frame even more confusing. Grade for story: C-/D+.
Based on the preview version I saw, if you’ve got money to burn and want to see a cool spectacle, then by all means, see Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. If you want to see a good musical, see something else. If you’re a Spider-Man fan, buy some Spidey comic books or graphic novels.
Dr. Robin S. Rosenberg is editor of The Psychology of Superheroes, co-editor of What is a Superhero, author of Superhero Origins: What Makes Superheroes Tick & Why We Care (forthcoming 2011). Take the SUPERHERO SURVEY! Listen to The Oxford Comment podcast featuring Dr. Rosenberg.