There's a reason AICN's been covering SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK, even though many of our Talkbackers have been screaming bloody murder every time we bring it up. Spider-Man as a character has gone through so many types of media and so many story iterations that I shouldn't have to bring them up here. The idea of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's character being brought to Broadway for a major production is just something a site like ours can't pass up. We're a geek site, after all - we cover film, television, comics, and it just goes without saying that any kind of new show or presentation old Webhead gets is going to be covered. But throughout all the controversy, throughout all the tumultuous staff and writing changes, throughout every bad review written on the play, I haven't read one yet that's come from the perspective of our readers - the geek perspective. I'm not saying it's the right perspective, either. I'm a firm believer that at this point in our media saturation studios and artists might do some good and listen to geeks less. That way we can still be surprised and amazed. A filmmaker or artist should give us the art we didn't know we wanted, and not the art we expected.
So the idea of Julie Taymor tackling this classic story from a Broadway musical standpoint shouldn't be automatically dismissed. Now I realize she's been released from the production, so what I saw tonight may be drastically different from what we'll see in June. This was a preview performance, one of a record many at this point, and I have no idea what's going on behind the scenes and what changes are being made. But I don't know how much they can change at this point, because even though the play has all these amazing action pieces and beautiful scenery and set design, the play I saw tonight is a disaster of epic proportions, a complete evisceration of the Spider-Man story, and full of songs written by two guys who have no idea how musicals work in any way.
The thing is, the moments in TURN OFF THE DARK that made me the angriest were when the play worked. The action setpieces and set design are transcendent, and I really mean that. When Spider-Man fights the Green Goblin 50 feet in the air, or when the sets change at a moment's notice, it's breathtaking. Every penny of the reported $65 million spent on this play is on stage. Visually, I've never seen anything like it, not live, not like this. I'd recommend it on those things alone, but not to this crowd, not to you readers, because the things Taymor and company do to the Spider-Man story here will have you reaching for a tomato.
The play starts with four of the most annoying characters first, which turned me off on the play pretty quickly. They're trying to write a Spider-Man comic and it's obvious from the very first moments that whoever wrote their dialogue has no idea how comic geeks communicate. It's stilted and cliched, like Nerd 101. Too many of the characters in TURN OFF THE DARK are written like that - they aren't written with an ear for any kind of natural dialogue, and at first I thought it was Julie Taymor writing the way she thought comics are like instead of what they actually are - like something out of the BATMAN TV show. We're even treated to a few BAMS! and THWOKS! And then one of the characters adds some context to the story by talking about the Greek Arachne myth, because someone read it in Ultimate Spider-Man, and so a character that doesn't fit in any way contextually to the story is shunted in. I get the feeling that they threw in the Ultimate line because they thought they could score brownie points off the geek crowd. There's a lot of decisions in TURN OFF THE DARK like that, utterly cynical to the audience. And then we're treated to yet another version of the origin story, filtered through the Raimi films, like we didn't already know this story, like we hadn't read it or seen it half a dozen times.
That's the most egregious thing about Julie Taymor and Glen Berger's play (and I know they've been replaced as writers) - they don't respect the character of Spider-Man. For example, in the play, the death of Uncle Ben isn't because he was shot by a robber, but instead he is run over trying to stop a thief from stealing Flash Thompson's car after Peter failed on purpose to do so. It may seem a minor difference, but it's a key one. In the comic and film, Uncle Ben died violently and cruelly because Peter not only failed to act, but Peter was directly responsible for letting the robber get away. Here, Ben's simply run over as the thief drives off. Uncle Ben's murder was a shock to Peter and it propelled him to become Spider-Man - here, it's simply inevitable because otherwise the plot couldn't move forward. The moment is completely devoid of pathos and instead of Peter deliberately making a terrible mistake, the play treats Peter's failure to act as something minor. There's lots of moments like that where the writers either fail to understand the pathos and truth of Spider-Man as a character, or they just don't care. I'd prefer the former, because the latter means that this play is just a cynical cash grab, and I'd like to think the better of people, even when mangling a well beloved character like this.
I'm a U2 fan. But there is a fundamental difference in writing a rock song and a song in a musical, and Bono and the Edge have completely missed the boat on that. Songs in musicals have goals in mind from the first note to the last. They are meant to transport the audience to the character's emotional state of mind and to move the plot, even if by a couple of inches. Someone once said that characters in musicals sing because they simply can't do anything else at that moment. In that regard there's only three songs in TURN OFF THE DARK that meet that criteria. Those songs work perfectly in the context of the play and for those brief moments the audience is moved. But those moments are few because Bono and the Edge haven't written songs that work. All of the most memorable pop and rock songs work because they mean something different to everyone. Everyone writes their own story to fit what they're hearing. But when thrusting songs like that into a contextual story, you can't write generic songs to fill the space - you have to propel the plot and make an emotional connection to the characters, and Bono and the Edge are simply not equipped to do that with the majority of these songs. It's nothing against their songwriting abilities - they just don't write music for musical theater, and they don't know how.
But there's moments - fleeting, but they're there - when everything is working - the music, the set design, the acting, the stunts - and we as an audience are simply transported. The action setpieces are amazing. The various stuntmen playing Spider-Man in the various fights are to be commended, because at times it really does seem like a comic book come to life. I think Reeve Carney as Peter Parker/Spider-Man does tremendous work here and he could very well become a star after this. If Taymor doesn't get the character, Carney certainly does, and he strikes the right balance between the pathos of the character and the moments where he just transcends the material and shows us something amazing. It's because of him that three of the Bono/Edge songs do work - "Bouncing Up The Walls" when Peter discovers his powers for the first time, and he literally bounces off the ceiling and walls, with the help of some really innovative set design; "Rise Above," when Peter decides to become Spider-Man after Ben's death, and the play's signature number, "The Boy Falls From The Sky" as he takes up his mantle again after he quits being Spider-Man (many of the plot points of this play were stripped directly from the Raimi films, even including lines of dialogue!). Carney's damn good in the part. So's Jennifer Damiano as Mary Jane Watson. Carney and Damiano's duets together are quite good, even if the songs are fairly clunky. They both have terrific voices. The villains in the play look incredibly silly and are given lines of dialogue that are just terrible. The only villain that even comes close to working is the Green Goblin, and Patrick Page seems to have fun with the role, but the character's written so awfully that all Page can do is mug for the audience. Some days I think Jack Nicholson has a lot to answer for, with his Joker performance, because everyone seems to copy it now. We're given two new villains - Arachne, who haunts Peter in his dreams, and Swiss Miss, who looks like the Silver Surfer fucked the Statue of Liberty. Swarm, a guy made of bees, sounds a lot cooler than he actually appears. Carnage looks awful, and Kraven just as bad. We're given the Sinister Six, along with Green Goblin, as villains, but they act stupidly and feel shoehorned in. It's embarrassing how silly their costumes are. I get the feeling that with those character designs Taymor is actively giving the finger to the comic fan audience. That's how bad they are.
I've written far too much on this thing. SPIER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK, in the form I saw tonight, is a cynical, mean thing that didn't have the guts or the faith to stick to the source material. That's the thing - instead of trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole, Taymor and company should have trusted the source enough to make it instead of this overly glamorized and stylized take on the character. I got no beef with the action or the set design. Like I said, the show looks like they spent the money they did on it. But this thing can't be fixed. There's no way. You'd have to break it down completely to its foundations to do so and start from the bottom up. As for this version, all that money and all that talent can't seem to find, except in fleeting moments, what we Spidey fans have known and loved about the character since his inception - the strong, joyous heart.