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Why She Fell

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

directed by Julie Taymor, with music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge, and book by Julie Taymor and Glen Berger
at the Foxwoods Theatre, New York City

1.

The transformation of humans into monsters or animals is a standard feature of two great genres: classical Greek and Roman myth and American comic books. As those of us know who spent our childhoods and teenaged years greedily hoarding the latter, such transformations are only occasionally effected by a mere change of costume. Batman, for instance (introduced in 1939), is an ordinary Homo sapiens who simply dons his bat-like hood and cape when he wants to battle evildoers; his extraordinary powers are the fruit of disciplined intellectual and physical training. More often—and more excitingly—the metamorphoses occur at the genetic level. The Incredible Hulk, who debuted in 1962, is a hypertrophied Hercules-like giant, the Mr. Hyde aspect of an otherwise mild-mannered scientist named Bruce Banner, created during a laboratory accident involving gamma rays. Wolverine, one of the X-men, who sports lupine traits following his transformations, belongs to a despised race of “mutants” with remarkable powers. (The comic book series, now reincarnated as a hugely popular film franchise, debuted in 1963.)

mendelsohn_1-051211.jpg
Jacob Cohl
A scene from the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

Perhaps most famously of all, the crime-fighting Spider-Man—the character was introduced in 1962 and got his own comic series the following year—is really just an ordinary teenager from Queens named Peter Parker who undergoes a kind of human-arachnid hybridization after being bitten by a radioactive spider during a class trip to a science fair. It can be no accident that popular narratives involving gamma rays, mutants, and radioactivity should have gripped the imagination of young people in the early 1960s, when the cold war—and with it the seemingly constant threat of nuclear catastrophe—was at its height.

Two millennia before the Cuban missile crisis, the popular fascination with metamorphosis was already firmly in place. The gods of Greek myth regularly transform themselves, abandoning their everyday humanoid shapes for those of animals—often (if not always wholly explicably) for the purposes of seducing mortal girls: Zeus ravishes Europa in the form of a bull, Leda in the shape of a swan, and, in one odd variant, his own daughter Persephone in the shape of a snake. But the gods clearly enjoy transforming humans, too. Hence, for instance, the story of Actaeon, a young hunter who offends the virgin goddess Artemis and is turned into a stag that is then torn to pieces by his own hunting dogs—the hunter become the victim, in other words.

This by no means atypical narrative suggests a crucial difference between the ancient and modern models of human-to-animal metamorphosis. For today’s audiences, such transformations are liberating—literally “empowering”—whereas for the ancients, they were, more often than not, humiliations, punishments for inappropriate or overweening behavior. One of the most famous examples of this moralizing strain in ancient tales of shape-shifting is the comparatively late myth (there are no traces of it in the extant Greek material of the Classical Age) of Arachne, the girl who ended up a spider. The story is suavely retold by Ovid in his Metamorphoses—an entire verse epic devoted to tales of human transformations, completed when Jesus Christ was a boy of eight or so.

In the Roman poet’s version, Arachne is distinguished by her marvelous artistic talent at the loom and with the embroidery needle—a gift she rather dangerously refuses to credit to Athena, whom she goes so far as to challenge to a contest. Both females furiously weave their tapestries, which are described at considerable length. Athena’s, unsurprisingly, features mythic scenes of mortal arrogance punished by the gods (who transform the offending humans into trees, or mountains, or birds), while Arachne’s, just as pointedly, features mythic scenes of divine duplicity—among which are featured Jupiter’s seductions of Leda, Europa, and Persephone. Offended by her rival’s work, Athena strikes Arachne with her shuttle; in her great shame, the girl hangs herself, but is turned by the goddess into a spider, destined forevermore to “ply her ancient art of weaving.”

As it happens, a recent work for the popular theater puts both Spider-Man and Arachne on the same stage. I am referring to Julie Taymor’s ill-fated musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a work that has, Titanic-like, already assumed the proportions—and, more importantly, the moral suggestiveness—of myth. Its costs ran upward of a staggering $65 million (a record for the Broadway theater); its previews—as of this writing, the show has still not opened after five months of performances—were plagued by legal headaches, increasingly bitter squabbling among the artistic principals, and a number of horrific accidents resulting from the director’s Daedalus-like ambitions to make young men fly; and its confidence was dented by crushingly negative reviews from critics who decided they couldn’t wait any longer for the official opening (which was constantly being delayed to make time for improvements that, it seemed, couldn’t possibly improve things enough to make a difference).

The whole sodden mess may be said to have sunk, finally, when in early March the producers fired Taymor. Long the creative force behind the show, Taymor both wrote the book and directed what must have seemed, early on, like the culminating moment in a long and distinguished career as a director of serious theater, opera, oratorio, film—and of more popular entertainments that, in her nimble hands, were able to transcend the prefab, corporate aesthetic of the Disney Corporation (The Lion King). After Taymor was fired on March 8, it was announced that Spider-Man would close for three months, during which period it would undergo an extensive retooling at the hands of the commercially savvy director Philip William McKinley, whose successes include stints at the Ringling Brothers Circus.

As with the story of Actaeon, there was the unmistakable noise of baying in the air when Taymor went down; after all these centuries, it seems that we still find it hard to resist what looks like a story of hubris finally brought low. As innumerable critics have by now made clear, pretty much everything was wrong with the show—the incoherent, metastasizing plot (which grafts some Greek mythic material onto the iconic comic book narrative of Spidey’s career); the banal music and risible lyrics (by the pop stars Bono and The Edge of U2); and, not least, a series of breathtakingly gratuitous and overcooked production numbers that make “Springtime for Hitler” look like Die Winterreise (one such number features a monstrous female spider being shod with expensive shoes).

But these are merely symptoms. If Taymor’s show is a failure, it fails for interesting reasons—as it were, for genetic reasons. For the show itself is a grotesque hybrid. At the heart of the Spider-Man disaster is the essential incompatibility of those two visions of physical transformation—the ancient and the modern, the redemptive and the punitive, visions that Taymor tried, heroically but futilely, to reconcile. As happens so often in both myth and comic books, the attempt to fuse two species resulted in the creation of a monster.

2.

In fact, very little about Spider-Man—the original comic or, for that matter, its reincarnation as a series of enormously successful blockbuster films directed by Sam Raimi and released throughout the first decade of the 2000s—suggests an ideal vehicle for Taymor’s talents.

What made Spider-Man unusual among superheroes when he debuted wasn’t so much the arachnid powers he derived from the radioactive spider (an ability to jump great distances, cling to surfaces, and shoot a web-like material from his wrists—not even comparable to, say, Superman’s powers), but his very ordinariness. Bullied at school, worried about girls and money, fussing at and fussed at by his foster parents, the kindly Aunt May and Uncle Ben, Peter Parker is a regular lower-middle-class Joe with pretty average teenager problems. (Batman, by contrast, is really a millionaire playboy named Bruce Wayne who lives alone in a mansion with a British butler and a young ward—a lifestyle that, to the original Depression-era audience, must have seemed as unimaginable as that of a bat.) Given the narrowness of Peter’s horizon of expectations, it’s small wonder that he makes petty use of his newfound powers at first: retaliating at school and making some money as a novelty act.

It’s precisely as a typical teenager that Peter makes a fatal error that effects the greatest transformation in him—not physical, but ethical. For in a moment of affected coolness, he allows a petty thief to escape—the very criminal who will go on to rob and murder his Uncle Ben. It’s Ben’s last words to his nephew, at the end of the original comic book issue—“With great power there must also come—great responsibility”—that finally gives Spidey a moral mission. Much of the ongoing drama of the Spider-Man comic books turns on the tension between the teenager’s frustrations and the superhero’s lofty goals.

It’s not hard to see how all this made Spider-Man popular among teenaged comic book readers in the 1960s, that decade of the teenager. Indeed, the series marked the beginning of what one historian of the genre called a “revolution”—a newfound interest on the part of comic book creators in emphasizing the protagonist’s “everyday problems” rather than the glamour of being a superhero. (Indeed, unlike Superman and Batman, who are both adored by the press, to say nothing of the civil authorities, Spider-Man instantly becomes the object of the scornful wrath of the powerful newspaper editor for whom Peter works as a photographer, and who tries to expose Spider-Man as a villain.) The emphasis on Spidey’s ordinary humanness explains why this series, as opposed to a number of other superhero comics, is laden with “heavy doses of soap-opera and elements of melodrama.”1

One melodramatic element is the striking leitmotif of Peter’s guilty conscience. He feels responsible for the death of Uncle Ben; later, anguishingly, it turns out that one of his archenemies, the Green Goblin, is in fact the father of his best friend, Harry Osborn—an industrialist tycoon who turns mad and bad when a lab experiment goes awry, and who in the first of the recent films, as well as in the new musical, is Spidey’s archenemy. In a plotline from the early 1970s, Spider-Man is again responsible for the death of a loved one: a girlfriend dies from the “whiplash effect” that results when his webbing suddenly stops her fall from a building. (He eventually goes back to an on-again, off-again love interest, Mary Jane Watson, whom he marries in the late 1980s.)

This superhero’s humdrum background and tormented (but not too tormented) psyche are at the heart of a curiously Everyman appeal that has managed to persist through nearly five decades. Not two weeks after the September 11 attacks, Marvel comics announced that the disaster would be treated in an upcoming Spider-Man series, since the angst-ridden hero from the outer boroughs was, in the words of a writer then working on the strip, “best suited” to grappling with the real-life New York crisis (many of whose victims were, as it happens, from the same socioeconomic background).2 It’s noteworthy, in light of this, that the producers of the recent series of Hollywood adaptations chose the actor Toby Maguire—elf-faced, funky, a bit unprepossessing—to play Peter, rather than some square-jawed hunk.

  1. 1

    Paul Kupperberg, The Creation of Spider-Man (Rosen, 2007), p. 7. 

  2. 2

    See Beau Yarbrough, “Marvel to Take on World Trade Center Attack in ‘Amazing Spider-Man,’” ComicBookResources .com, September 24, 2001. 

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