Note from Eden: My friend, who writes under the name DB Borroughs, kindly wrote this review for my blog. He watches more movies than anyone else I know (check out his wonderful blog showcasing little-known films or movies worthy of another look Unseen Films. I am privileged to contribute to it every so often) but is also an avid theater-goer and comic book fan. When he said he was seeing this, I knew I had to get his thoughts on it and share them.
Now that I’ve seen it, I’ve been trying to figure out something to say about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. I’ve been going back and forth since I saw it Thursday night and I couldn’t really come up with something.
And then around lunch time on Friday, I had an exchange with Eden about the infamous shoe song. For those who don’t know, there is a song in the second act about shoes. Eden was having a hard time getting her head around the notion that the show, about a superhero, has a song about shoes. She was wondering what the context was. The song comes in the second act when Arachne, the character from Greek Myth and the villain, of sorts, becomes angry that the Daily Bugle doesn’t cover her robbery of 40 (or is it 50?) shoe stores. This prompts Arachne and her spider cohorts (think multilegged babes wearing helmets that are similar to those worn by the Jack Kirby’s New Gods) to sing about the joys of shoes. The idea that anyone would have thought this song belonged in a play such as this kind of explains how wrong things can go when people who don’t understand comics try to use the characters and archetypes to make a buck when they don’t understand what they are dealing with.
The play proper begins, after a riff on the death of Gwen Stacy, when four kids (the Geek Chorus) decide to rethink Spider-Man to make him more like today. During the discussion the myth of Arachne is brought up. She was a beautiful woman who offended the gods by being the best weaver ever, She beat one of the gods in a weaving duel but ended up committing suicide before being turned into a spider.
The myth allows for the most beautiful sequence in the play, but at the same time it’s staged in such away that it seems to be imported from another show (like from anything else Julie Taymor has directed).
The inclusion of the myth itself is the first thing wrong with the show. Taymor, who I’m sure brought it into the play, is relying way too much on the notion that comics are the modern-day myths. Yes the Marvel comic universe is full of mythic characters (Thor, Hercules), but at the same time they just weren’t brought in randomly and there was ground work laid for it. The people who did it — Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and others — knew that we wouldn’t accept it just because they said so. Taymor doesn’t understand that. Instead, she simply throws Arachne in to the mix and then pushes her aside for most of the first half of the play.
After the Arachne bit, we get Peter Parker and his relationship with Mary Jane.
There is a duet where both Peter and MJ go home (run-down houses in Queens) and sing of their troubles. MJ fights with her dad and Peter fights with Aunt May and Uncle Ben. This is the first real indication that the creative team doesn’t know their source material.
They changed the characters. Peter and the relationship with his aunt and uncle is strained, but ridiculously so. There is no sense of love between them.The play marginalizes them so Ben has almost no presence other than to die and Aunt May becomes a witty sarcastic cypher. I was watching that early scene and I had no sense of them. How could Peter have turned out as well as he did if they all behaved like that? Worse when Uncle Ben dies (killed not by gun shot by a crook Peter should have stopped, but by a car thief stealing a friend;s car) you can’t understand why it affects him so.
We then meet Norman Osborne and his wife who are doing genetic manipulation for the military. When Peter and his class arrive at the lab he’s bitten. The next day he beats up his tormentors for the hell of it and then goes into a wrestling ring to get enough money to buy a car to impress MJ. What?
Eventually he becomes Spider-Man, and it’s at this point the really cool flying happens over the audience.
Norman Osborne becomes the Green Goblin and suddenly (and I do mean suddenly) he has kidnapped Spidey, stolen a piano and taken them to the top of the Chrysler Building (There is a huge plot hole here that is explained away by a few howlingly awful lines of dialogue). There he asks Peter to join him in taking over the world. Of course Peter refuses and they fight over and in the audience (it’s really cool). However the Goblin has a failsafe and he pushes MJ — whom he also has kidnapped — off the Chrysler Building while tied to the piano. But Peter tells the Goblin he’s really tied to the piano and it pulls the Goblin to his doom, while Peter saves MJ.
That’s the end of Act 1, so you’re probably wondering what’s left for Act 2.
In Act 2, they threw out everything but the Greek myth and in the process, burn down the main character that has survived and thrived for half a century. In a play called Spider-Man, they pretty much don’t have him appear.
The plot of the second act has Spidey giving up his superhero life for MJ (somehow he loses his powers, though why or how that happens is never explained). Arachne and her minions banish the Geek Chorus and they bring a reign of chaos led by the Sinister Six — Kraven, Electro, Swiss Miss (a new character created for the show that looks like Grace Jones in shiny armor), The Swarm, Carnage and the Lizard. They also resurrect the Goblin, who appears on TV screens even though there is a citywide blackout.
Arachne wants Peter to love her. But since he loves MJ, he refuses to leave her and doesn’t become Spider-Man for almost all of Act 2. This means lots of meaningless chatter and songs as Peter proves he’s as emo as they come. It all comes to a head when the Sinister Seven kidnaps Mary Jane and takes her to the Brooklyn Bridge. She falls seeming her to her death and Peter overcome with grief leaps to his death.
He doesn’t die since Arachne saves him from death, but doesn’t anyone have a problem with Peter Parker killing himself for a girl?
At what point in the 50-year history of the character would he have done this?
Taymor and her cohorts obviously don’t understand the way comics function. As much as they are touted as myth, they don’t behave like them. They behave according to their own rules which are not the same. For example the end of the play — where Arachne gives Peter back MJ and his life because he offers to stay with her comes off as extremely silly.
What were they thinking? This angsty nonsense is not Spider-Man.
This being a comics blog, I’m not going to go into all of the technical problems with the show. You don’t need to know that the music by Bono and The Edge has only one song that works in context, that the dancing is among the worst I’ve seen and that the performances, with one exception, range from wasted to awful (Reeve Carney as Peter Parker has no business being on the stage)
It’s spectacular during the flying sequences and if they rewrote the first act and cut off the second act they might have something. But I doubt that is going to happen.
Ultimately, it’s a waste of time and money.
It’s probably the worst comic adaptation ever. Not because its bad (the first act could work and I have seen much worse) but rather because it’s asking the public to pony up and pay as much as $145 a seat (not including premium seats) to watch a bunch of way-too-clever intellectuals over-think a simple iconic story to such a degree that it no longer resembles what they started with. This play is an affront to comic lovers everywhere.
Do yourself a favor and forget it ever existed.