Review: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
Julie Taymor's rock-comix creation goes splat.
Fri Feb 11 2011
Photograph: Jacob Cohl
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>1/5
By now, everything that could be said about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark seems to have been said: in magazines, tweets, blog posts and Facebook threads; in lobbies during intermission; around the water cooler; in late-night-TV monologues and radio reports; and between folks who have seen it and those who have not (but act like they have). Then there are the "premature" reviews that hit five weeks before the production's latest postponed opening date. Several critics filed disgusted, hooting notices, eager to stomp all over Julie Taymor, Bono and the Edge's $65 million work-in-regress. So the final word has been uttered, right? Spider-Man is colossally excremental. Worst show in Broadway history. Unfixable. Unwatchable. Obscene waste of money and sad squandering of talent. But here's the thing that hasn't been said: What if...?
Yes, the naive, elliptical interrogative that keeps hope alive in the breast of comix fans and theater folk alike. What if Julie Taymor, the woman responsible for this sorry mess, reads the reviews, makes some cuts and rewrites, trims the show to 90 minutes and, on March 15, opens a much-improved product that critics (should they return) might almost like?
I know: You might as well expect Doctor Octopus to open a nail salon. If Taymor were receptive to serious creative input, Spider-Man would not have become the overbudget vanity project it is. Having seen the show twice—once with Reeve Carney playing Peter Parker/Spider-Man and once with his understudy (Matthew James Thomas), and both times sitting through technical malfunctions—I have concluded that although Spider-Man is ready to be reviewed, it's not worth reviewing.
That's because the majority of theater critics—myself included—have no interest in a show like this. It's not aimed at us. It's built for families or tourists, people with money to burn who don't care about narrative coherence, innovative music or thematic complexity. In effect, Spider-Man is a crummy, pandering kids' musical pretending to be a new form of entertainment—a "circus rock drama," as Taymor claims with Barnum-level swagger. Why invite the press at all?
Other critics have already enumerated the work's various inanities and shortcomings, but let's recap: The U2-flavored music is banal and repetitive; the book is lame, clunky and frequently incoherent; the flying sequences are underwhelming; and the attitude toward the source material is weirdly sloppy and tone-deaf.
Taymor's biggest misstep is the conceit that permits her to deconstruct and mock the original Marvel mythos: She frames the story as a Ritalin-addled free-association by a group of teens called the "Geek Chorus" (yes, that is the level of wit here). One geek-girl interrupts her male buddies' chatter with the Greek myth of Arachne (T.V. Carpio) and splices it into the Marvel story. Arachne has an implicit connection to the genetically modified (not radioactive) spider that bites Peter Parker (Carney); Arachne gives Peter his iconic red-and-blue tights; and, naturally, she falls for her creation. In other words, Taymor turns the story of a dorky teen who becomes the city's most beloved masked crime fighter into a parable about a misunderstood female artist who must sacrifice her love for the sake of society. Or something. This cornball-feminist spin essentially makes Spider-Man a wildly expensive piece of slash fiction. (True, it worked for Wicked.)
Playing around with continuity is fine; Marvel's writers, artists and screenwriters do it all the time. What's remarkable is the hostility you feel toward comix and fanboys—not to mention the girls who love fanboys. Peter is a personality-free nerd who becomes a superpowered cipher and Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano) is just a weak, passive girl who wants to be a musical-theater actor.
One of the saddest things about Spider-Man, in fact, is how dehumanized and humorless the whole affair feels. One thinks of the goofy but cheerful insults that the web-slinger usually lobs at his enemies in the middle of huge fights; there's an attempt to inject one-liners here and there, but they don't land or prompt a giggle. Villains are usually good for campy fun, but none of Patrick Page's strenuous mugging and vocal contortions as Norman Osborn (later the Green Goblin) yield any relief from the nonsensical, tin-eared book.
Taymor's visual palette is postmodern in the most showy, outdated way, with images echoing Bread & Puppet, Dick Tracy, her own Balinese borrowings, and an unending series of cartoony, forced-perspective sets that blend two- and three-dimensional illustrative views. While these visual (and flying) effects can appear briefly grand from center orchestra, they're much less impressive (if not downright confusing) from house left or right. Taymor seems to have directed the whole thing from the center, never realizing that a lateral view of the action registers much more poorly. Spider-Man may be worth $75 from the front, but not much from the side.
So the production is a deeply confused, ugly, ultimately boring example of artistic hubris enabled by financial excess. If Taymor takes the savage but honest reviews to heart, she could save the damsel in distress. But right now, Spider-Man is a theme-park ride that lost its theme.
Foxwoods Theater (see Broadway). Music and lyrics by Bono and the Edge. Book by Julie Taymor and Glen Berger. Dir. Taymor. With Reeve Carney, Jennifer Damiano, T.V. Carpio, Patrick Page. 2hrs 45mins. One intermission (barring technical glitches).