With Great Power Comes Great Irresponsibility
Spider-Man is a wild, sexed-up, Greek mythologized train wreck. But it's Julie Taymor's train wreck, through and through.
Considering the hype, the brand names involved, and great expense of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the show will probably run for a long time, perhaps even long enough to break even. But if it flops, I doubt $65 million will ever be wasted on a Broadway stage as compellingly again. This is not your typical train wreck.
Imagine the gall it takes to have Spider-Man wrestle a cheap-looking blow-up doll in the most expensive musical in history. Or to have an almost incoherent book so witless that what passes for a joke is a character misunderstanding the difference between "free will" and Free Willy. Then there's the Bono-and-the-Edge anthem about shoes, and the more mundane issues such as inconsistencies of character (Peter Parker transforms from a nerd to a brooding hipster faster than he does from a man to a spider), of period (His Girl Friday or The Social Network?), and of style (comic books or Greek myth?).
Fixating on Spider-Man's many problems, however, misses the real story. Julie Taymor took music from one of the most famous bands in the world, a beloved character cemented in the popular imagination, and, working in the most collaborative, homogenous form in American theater, created a deeply personal story that is defiantly her own. Actually, what she's done is even bolder than that. Taymor, who directed, co-wrote the book, and designed the masks, has made a comic book musical that seems to have no affection for comic books or musicals. Its central theme could be described thusly: Sometimes great power requires great irresponsibility. Steven Spielberg and James Cameron occasionally do auteur work on this scale in film, but in a Broadway landscape dominated by timid, corporate entertainments, Spider-Man is an anomaly: a mass entertainment that at its heart is one woman's wild ego trip.
The first hint that we're in for something eccentric comes early on, when a quartet of comic book fans referred to in the program as the "Geek Chorus" debate the meaning and story of Spider-Man. This device, one of many meta elements, introduces us to the real villains in this story: the die-hard fans who insist on conservative fidelity to the source material. The free-thinker of this clique is its one girl. She mocks the boys for reading too many comic books and introduces them to the tale of the first spider: a woman named Arachne, whose story of transformation from mortal weaver to immortal spider was told in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Arachne, dressed darkly with a severe expression, appears from the rafters along with a few sister weavers holding columns of yellow cloth. They swing back and forth toward the audience, while horizontal ribbons emerge from stage right and left. The swinging action weaves the vertical and horizontal fabrics into a tapestry. It's the most stunning, inventive stagecraft of the show, if not the season.
But what in the world does Arachne have to do with Spider-Man? Taymor makes you wait until the second half of the show to find out. The remainder of the first act hews closely to the traditional story of Spider-Man. Humble nerd Peter Parker gains super powers, dedicates his life to fighting bad guys after the death of his uncle, faces off with the Green Goblin and wins. Curtain. With this obligatory material out of the way, Taymor returns to what she really cares about: Arachne, who can often seem like an alter ego for Taymor. She is an outsider in a vulgar world, an artist "weaving worlds," and at times she sounds like a mystical poet who came of age in the 1960s. "I descended from the astral plane," she says.
In the second act, Spider-Man is relegated to a supporting role. He retreats from crime-fighting, though his fame only grows. Spider-Man hot dogs and Spider-Man underwear are sold on the streets; rumors about him spread through the press. The cynical merchandising of Spider-Man is an ironic theme for a show that has its own gift shop in the theater lobby where T-shirts cost $40. So is the cruelty of Internet-age media for a show that has been attacked more ferociously before opening than any other in history. Whether intentional or not, this show continually, crazily draws attention to itself. The spider-woman from Ovid (who, not coincidentally, sings the title song "Turn Off the Dark") is at the center of the media circus, but while others want to use Spider-Man to sell papers and retail, she has other intentions. Backed by new-age music that gives the stage more the feel of a massage parlor than a Stan Lee comic strip, she seduces Peter in what can only be described as a wet dream. Peter floats into the sky and circles Arachne erotically. Parents may have trouble explaining this scene to their kids, in part because they won't understand it themselves.
Arachne doesn't just want Peter Parker's affections—she wants them on her terms. She wants him to come to her as Spider-Man. To convince him to put his spidey suit back on, she invents a vast, preposterous illusion that New York is under attack by a confederation of villains Spider-Man vanquished. She essentially creates her own epic show out of the raw material of a Marvel comic strip. Like Taymor, she darkens it, ruins the plot, and teases you with the idea that there's a disaster in the making.
Jason Zinoman writes about theater for the New York Times. He is the author of Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images.