Spider-Man: Turn On the Schadenfreude

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 8 2011 2:13 PM

Spider-Man: Turn On the Schadenfreude

After months of hand-wringing ,it's finally here: The day we find out what all the critics think of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark ,the much-hyped, equally beleaguered new Broadway musical.

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The general consensus? It'sa mess . Critics are divided, though, over whether it's ahot mess or anutterly unredeemable one .

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Reading through the reviews this morning, it became clearthat the main character in this drama isn't Peter Parker it's Julie Taymor. Theaterdirectors rarely receive the kind of mainstream attention that their Hollywoodbrethren do. (Do you know who Daniel Sullivan is?) But in this case, the specter of steely, uncompromisingTaymor looms large over the critical discussion.

There's a reason for this: Spider-Man is very clearly Taymor's production, stamped with hertrademark mix of spectacle and folklore. (She first gained widespread fame forher shadow-puppets-on-the-savannah production of The Lion King .)And she seems to have created a proxy for herself with Arachne, Spider-Man 's ancient, eight-legged antagonist.In Vulture, Scott Brown one of the few reviewers who seemed captivated, if notconvinced, by the show writes :

[Often] I was equally transfixed bythe palpable  offstage  imagination willing it all intoexistence. See,  Spider-man  isn't really about Spider-man. It'sabout an artist locked in a death grapple with her subject, a tumultuousrelationship between a talented, tormented older woman and a callow young stud.Strip out the $70 million in robotic guywires, Vari-lites, and latex mummery,and you're basically looking at a Tennessee Williams play.

Meanwhile, here in Slate ,Jason Zinoman notes that theshow is a "train wreck," but that fixating on its flaws misses "the real story" thatJulie Taymor has defied the odds to create "a deeply personal story that isdefiantly her own":

Steven Spielberg and James Cameronoccasionally do auteur work on this scale in film, but in a Broadway landscapedominated by timid, corporate entertainments,  Spider-Man  is ananomaly: a mass entertainment that at its heart is one woman's wild ego trip.

Other critics are less taken with the director's supposedlymisplaced hubris. In his pan, the LosAngeles Times 's Charles McNulty writes ,"the real villainy is Taymor's overreaching desire to top herself."

I'll admit as a female theater fan, I would have loved tohave seen Taymor make a second Broadway slam dunk. But the fact that she's beingtaken seriously as an auteur, in a way that women often aren't (or aren't givena chance to be), is oddly heartening.

Photograph of Julie Taymor by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images.

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