How does Arachne manage this? Like Glenn Beck, one of the musical's most devoted fans, she masterfully stokes fear, paranoia, and panic, manipulating the press into an obsession with Spider-Man. (Sound familiar?) Whereas the first act is a jumble of comic book designs, the second has a much more assured aesthetic: perversely dark, nightmarish and sexual. "You know how spiders chase their mates?" Arachne asks Spider-Man in a climactic battle. "By attacking."
Julie Taymor isn't out to attack her audience, but she doesn't pander to it, either. In her breakthrough hit The Lion King, Taymor conquered the musical theater by showing that theater traditions she learned downtown and abroad could beat Broadway razz-ma-tazz at its own game. Now she aims to win over comic book fans not by adapting the story of Spider-Man so much as building her own competing fantasy world to overshadow him. Her chutzpah is staggering. When Peter Parker sings about the power of believing, one of the most clichéd sentiments in musical theater, it has an edge. Believing in this context means being duped by a fake, a simulation of the world as opposed to the real thing. Choosing to believe is a delusion.
And yet, the show doesn't let us forget that this twisted delusion began as an act of love. (Spoiler alert, I suppose.) Arachne, who seems at times like a villain, emerges eventually as a romantic hero. Her stubborn obsession to do whatever it takes to get what she wants including creating an artistic fiction that sends an entire city into chaos is the most interesting thing onstage by far. The problem is that Taymor's theatrical world is not as realized as Arachne's. Spider-Man eventually ends up with Mary Jane, which may mean that he decided to join the real world as opposed to the world of illusion, or more likely, it's a concession to convention. Taymor can take some risks, but she can't have Spider-Man ditch his sweetie for an eight-legged sexpot who has convinced New Yorkers that they are headed for the apocalypse. While Spider-Man passionately kisses Arachne at the end, he must eventually do what all super heroes do and stay faithful to the nice, safe girlfriend. Taymor stops short of giving Spider-Man over completely to Arachne. Trying to fulfill and subvert the expectations of a blockbuster musical competing with Mamma Mia! and Wicked may be a hopeless act of hubris.
The Broadway Gods insist that art must eventually make a deal with commerce. A production on as epic a scale as Spider-Man must draw packed houses of tourists for at least two or three years to earn a profit. Families visiting Times Square aren't paying $150 to see a show. They want an experience. Spider-Man qualifies, but not for the reasons you expect. When the super hero flies over the orchestra, in one of several high-speed aerial effects, it's a jolt. But Cirque Du Soleil, whose veterans helped with stunts, has pulled off more impressive acrobatics. Spider-Man is ultimately not unique as spectacle or a rock musical. But as an act of pure artistic will, it's truly something to behold.