No-Spin Zone?

I have more conversations about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark with folks who don't read comics than with folks inside the hobby and business. Part of that, I suspect, is because I'm not very plugged into the comics world anymore. But part of that is also because the show's talent, spectacle, and travails are intriguing — yet "comics people" already know, in a way that others might not stop to realize, that the show has very little to do with comics at all.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark promo poster © 2011 Marvel Entertainment. 

Art & Design: Unknown.

Spider-Man comics, as well as the in-revival Spider-Man movie franchise and general merchandising, will be fine no matter what happens on stage.
Neither Tim Burton's 1989 Batman film nor the Christopher Nolan takes in 2005 and 2008, all of which were blockbusters, had any appreciable affect on comics readership except in ancillary fashion: The long-running Batman animated series that launched on Fox in 1992, one of the most definitive and well-respected versions of the Dark Knight mythos, was influenced by — more to the point, made attractive to Fox and Warner Bros. by — the 1989 film's success and the 1992 release of Batman Returns. Many of the creative personnel of that series worked on comics set in the animated continuity (yes, it's art imitating art imitating art) or other projects at DC and elsewhere, and Harley Quinn, created as The Joker's gun moll especially for the show, was eventually introduced into the mainstream Batman comics. In terms of brand awareness through DVD sets and related items like toys, Halloween costumes, and not-quite-comics storybooks, more kids might have been introduced to Batman than would have had Bruce Timm and friends' string of animated series (which culminated in the action-figure bonanza Justice League Unlimited) not been such a success, but the films themselves didn't drive adult moviegoers to comics shops; a Spider-Man musical is going to interest far more comics readers in Broadway than it will Broadway regulars in comics, and even that number will be small for practicality's sake.

It's possible that one of the new characters developed for Turn Off the Dark could, like Harley Quinn, make the move into the pages of Marvel's Spider-Man saga — although not likely. Co-writer and director Julie Taymor has peeved some purists by altering key aspects of the traditional Spider-Man story. Woven into his origin is Arachne, of Greek legend, and among his rogues' gallery is not only a severely redesigned Green Goblin but the new-to-the-musical Swiss Miss. Arachne's involvement and the usage of villains who've 
heretofore only appeared in the comics (and various animated series) aside, the book of Turn Off the Dark seems to generally follow an arc that will be familiar to those who've seen the Spider-Man films, as put-upon Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, endures personal tragedy and romantic travails with love interest Mary Jane Watson, saves lives in his costumed identity while working as a photojournalist for The Daily Bugle, and learns, in the immortal words of Stan Lee — who with artist Steve Ditko created the hero in 1962 — that "with great power there must also come great responsibility."

Reeve Carney as Peter Parker from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark © 2011 Marvel Entertainment. 
Photo: Jacob Cohl.

When I first heard about Turn Off the Dark, I was skeptical but intrigued. The music and lyrics are written by Bono and The Edge of U2; Edge contributed the opening theme to a new, non-Timm Batman animated series in 2004, and Bono is certainly known for pushing his band beyond straight-up, great rock-and-roll into realms of theatricality. Having staged operas, brought Disney's The Lion King to Broadway with brilliant puppetry, and directed some likewise visually arresting films, Taymor is certainly a creative force to be reckoned with — but her ambitious interpretation of the Beatles oeuvre in Across the Universe was less than the sum of its parts and, even before 
Turn Off the Dark's technical difficulties became a running joke (not particularly funny, at that), its reimagining of Spider-Man came across as a bit over-the-top even given the admittedly outrageous subject matter and source material.

Yet I refuse to wish the project ill — even should it end up making an outright mockery of Spider-Man — if only because of the stakes involved. Unless or until Turn Off the Dark is truly deemed to be unsafe for its cast and crew, in which case I'll be the first to say shame on all who are proven negligent (shunning their future work in the bargain), it doesn't seem right to root against Taylor and her collaborators' dream of some great multimedia pop-circus storytelling experience no matter their hubris, not when the sweat, pride, and money of so many persons have been expended.

Aerial stuntwork from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark © 2011 Marvel Entertainment.

Photo: Jacob Cohl.

I don't really feel qualified to weigh in on whether it's kosher for critics to review Turn Off the Dark while it's still in previews, since I'm not in the thick of New York theater, but my gut tells me that the creators of the show have — through both publicity and repeated postponements — put themselves out there to the point that writing about it is justifiable. As comics and television writer/historian Mark Evanier, who offers frequent updates on the project, tells us, numerous critics for major outlets have filed reviews, while one wrote about why he wasn't writing about it; Entertainment Weekly recently linked to a fan-made video splicing quotes from the reviews into the opening of the 1967 Spider-Man animated series. The performance of a song on The Late Show with David Letterman this week by leads Reeve Carney, Jennifer Damiano, and T.V. Carpio was rather uninspiring, which at the very least doesn't bode well for the soundtrack on its own terms, but of course seeing the whole shebang in its home environs with set design, video, aerial stunts, and narrative context is another matter. I honestly do despair at this point that the thing will be pretty bad, which as a fan of U2, Spider-Man, musicals, and creative experimentation makes me unhappy — although I admit that an experimental Spider-Man musical with songs from (the better-known half of) U2 doesn't strike me as a can't-miss prospect, or even something that I thought I'd ever see; I've just never been big on schadenfreude.

Other notable links include a New York Times report from Taymor's discussion of the show at the recent TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) conference; November's 60 Minutes piece, in which Lesley Stahl interviews Taymor, Bono, and Edge; and November's Vogue article on the show, written by Adam Green and photographed by Annie Leibovitz, showing the designs for Green Goblin, Swiss Miss, and Carnage. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark's latest scheduled premiere date is Mar. 15th — but that may have changed by the time you read this.


Teebore said...

As a fan of both Spider-Man and musicals, I wish nothing but the best for this show.

But everything I've heard, true or false, is that it's an absolute train wreck. I just hope nobody dies...

Arben said...

You're both kinder to the production than I am, I think, — although I do take your point, Blam, about the livelihood of so many innocent bystanders being on the line. The idea of an angsty Spider-Man rock musical strikes me as deserving of failure, though.

Anybody remember those way-premature ads for the Captain America musical in mid-'80s Marvel comics? Or the ads for the angsty Spider-Man rock album from mid-'70s Marvel comics? I was always really curious about that one.