Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
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.)
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.
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.
In Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (the title, like pretty much everything else about the show, leaves you scratching your head—turn off the dark?), Julie Taymor retained most of these familiar, ordinary elements. There’s the Queens row house existence (very cleverly evoked in Act I by means of a succession of panels, painted comic book–style, that open to show the exteriors in ever-closer perspective as the actors walk near them, as if they’re getting closer, and which finally open to reveal the interiors); the humble aunt and uncle; the accident at the science fair and Mr. Osborn’s lab experiment gone awry, both scenes rendered with a vulgar indulgence in gadgety details. There are the battles with the amusingly Day-Glo Green Goblin (staged, as we all know by now, in mid-air, thanks to immensely costly flying technology) and the tentative romance with the redheaded Mary Jane—here, the victim of abuse at the hands of a hard-drinking father (an added element of gritty “ordinariness”); there’s the bullying and the self-doubt and the guilt. Even the comic book aesthetic has been retained, often ingeniously: in a couple of crucial fight scenes, little cut-outs representing dialogue balloons—“KRAAAAK!” “BLAM!”—are waved around on sticks.
So to some extent, the new musical draws on both the comic book and the popular movies. The question is what appeal this material could have had for Julie Taymor, an artist who has admitted to having no feel for what an interviewer called “American popular arts.” Her own adolescence was both privileged—she grew up in a Boston suburb, the daughter of a gynecologist—and anything but all-American: she was working in the theater already as a teenager, went to Paris at sixteen to study mime with Jacques Lecoq, stopped in the Netherlands to observe Henk Boerwinkel’s puppet theater, and spent four years in East Asia studying local theatrical and ritual traditions and creating her first works.
In 1998, soon after her terrifically inventive Broadway staging of The Lion King had brought her widespread recognition of a kind not generally enjoyed by directors who devote themselves, as she had done till that point, to staging Carlo Gozzi fantasies, Titus Andronicus, and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, the director was interviewed by Richard Schechner, the NYU professor of theater and editor of The Drama Review. During the interview, Schechner asked whether Taymor felt an affinity for what he called “American traditions of performing objects—stuff like the Macy’s parade, the Disney and other theme parks.” “I never liked those things,” Taymor replied. “Not even as a kid. I think I always felt that that kind of thing was just goofy, literally. The roundness of everything—the aesthetic of it—never appealed to me…. I’ve never seen the Macy’s parade.”3
To the roundness of the pop-culture aesthetic—and, perhaps, the accompanying flatness, the literalness of the pat “messages” favored by so many pop narratives—Taymor has, by contrast, always preferred the suggestive symbolic forms of what, in a videotaped interview about her 1992 production of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex in Japan, she’s called “mythic, archetypal stories”: folkloric and traditional narratives whose large and abstract formal patterns offer the interpreter plenty of room to maneuver, not least since the plots are already well known. (“It’s all about interpretation,” she has said. “If you do Hamlet, we all know Hamlet…it’s all about how you tell a story, not ‘is the story new.’”)
Looking over the landscape of her work, it’s hard not to think that the intersection of action and abstractions—what, in describing her use of Herbert Blau’s “ideographs” in staging, she has called “essences…the most essential two, three brush strokes”—is where Taymor thrives: communal rituals (the basis of some of her early work in Indonesia), religious rites (one early piece she did, on her return to New York from East Asia, was a staging of the Passover Haggadah at the Public Theater for Elizabeth Swados), even the “ritual” of psychoanalysis. She once worked with a psychoanalyst to create masks of psychological archetypes: the overbearing mother, the benevolent patriarch, the bully, the victim.
That it is the formal, the stylized, the extreme that give Taymor’s imagination room to expand has been evident from the start. It was obvious in her acclaimed 1994 staging (adapted for film in 1999) of Titus Andronicus, a work whose extremity, which scares away many directors, inspired some of Taymor’s most beautiful and imaginative designs and stagings. (Her 2010 film version of The Tempest, by contrast, was curiously slack—not least, you suspect, because so much of it is filmed outdoors on a pretty island. Taymor doesn’t know what to do with natural space; she likes the artificial confines imposed by the stage.) And it was clear in one of her first large New York successes, in 1989: an admirable stage adaptation of Juan Darién, a story by the Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga. The story has the elements of the myths and folktales that Taymor enjoys, while providing the ethical element that, for her, is a crucial part of what theater and ritual do (“It reasserts your place in your own culture”).4 In it, a jaguar cub is turned, by the force of a grieving mother’s compassion, into a boy—and then retransformed, by the power of the neighbors’ cruelty and fear, into a beast.
Among other things, Juan Darién was an early instance, along with the Gozzi plays, of Taymor’s fascination with human–animal metamorphosis. And indeed, with metamorphosis in general, not least as an item in the actor’s toolbox. “You should be able to transform your body,” Taymor has said, recalling the lessons she learned from mime. “That part of Lecoq’s work was amazing to me.”
You can see how, when the discussions about a Spider-Man musical began nearly ten years ago, the narrative about a boy transformed into a beast might have tempted Taymor—might have led her to overcome her natural distaste for American pop culture. But the fit wasn’t really right. For as we know, the Spider-Man narrative belongs to a genre in which the metamorphoses are as often as not fortuitous, plot devices invented to give the superheroes the powers that make them worth reading about in the first place; as such, they tend to lack the abstract intellectual and ethical pointedness you get in the mythic transformations of classical narratives (and Juan Darién)—which is of course precisely the kind of material suited to Taymor, with her penchant for teasing out the spiritual and social implications of ritual and myth.
And so Taymor, in a clear sign of her frustration with her source material—what is, in the end, just a tale of adolescent angst—made a series of radical additions to the conventional plot, which not accidentally take the form of elaborate Greek mythic (and tragic) elements. First, there is an awkward framing device, consisting of—the badness of the pun is, alas, typical—a “Geek Chorus”: a group of high school kids well-schooled, as it turns out, in Ovid, who seem to be “writing” the Spider-Man comic as the play unfolds (“He has to go through a hero’s trial”).
And then, disastrously—in part because it overloads the action with two major villains who seem to have nothing to do with one another—Taymor has added a new story line involving Ovid’s Arachne herself. The poor girl appears in this version as a kind of artiste-vamp (“My illusions—I’m the only real artist working today!”) assisted by a whole troupe of spider-maidens who, in one of the most vulgar numbers staged in recent years, shoe all eight of their mistress’s feet with a whole array of what seem to be Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blahniks. Arachne here gets tangled up in a knotty and ultimately incomprehensible plot having to do with her thwarted love for Peter Parker and, eventually, the frustrated revenge she takes on New York City.
Unsurprisingly, these Greek elements were the first to be jettisoned by Taymor’s replacement. But for Taymor, all this—what she called “tying this story back to mythology”—was the whole point: “the main thing the [Spider-Man] movies haven’t done, which is something I really wanted to do. It’s something you can do in the theater—go into this absolutely dreamlike mythic place, out of time, between reality and dream world.”5 What she says about theater is certainly true, and is borne out in the single scene, in Spider-Man, that is imbued with great beauty and real theatrical magic. When the spider-maidens make their entrance, wearing saffron-colored gowns of a vague Greek cut, they’re lowered onto the stage from long saffron-colored ribbons, swinging back and forth as they descend; each time they swing forward, a giant spool of the same ribbon unfurls horizontally behind them—and you realize that the entire tableau is a giant act of weaving, completed as their feet touch the ground in front of what is a glowing saffron fabric.
It’s an extraordinary and very Taymor gesture—abstract, symbolic, true to the material (this is, after all, the story of a spinner, a weaver), suggestive rather than clankingly literal, even as it is itself a “tying back” of the story to mythology. It was difficult to believe that the imagination responsible for this delicate and ethereal sequence could have dreamed up the rest of the show—not least the unbearably literal-minded, special-effects-laden parade of super-villains who appear at one point, and who look like they’d been fabricated in the costume shop of a low-budget sci-fi movie. And for all the fuss about how much was spent on the elaborate harnesses that allow Spider-Man and the Green Goblin and Arachne to fly not only above the stage but all over the auditorium, you couldn’t help feeling that it was all just an elaborate distraction—something to keep your mind off the emptiness of the drama, such as it was. (“Even though I couldn’t follow the plot, it was entertaining to watch,” the fifteen-year-old I saw the show with remarked.) Anyway, it looked cheap: the harnesses were large, all too visible, and ungainly.
Looking back at the Spider-Man fiasco, it’s possible to see the contours of a familiar story: a woman of great talent, overweening artistic ambition, and then humiliation. In the end, Julie Taymor got her Greek drama. Like a character in some Attic play, she was led by a single-minded passion to betray her truest self and abandon her greatest virtues. These, as her admirers have long recognized and she herself once seemed to know, lie not in elaborate Hollywood special effects that huge amounts of money can buy in order to make the fantastical seem real and persuasive, but in a very old-fashioned kind of magic that doesn’t pretend to be “real” at all. She told an interviewer an interesting story once about a wonderful idea you get to see played out in The Lion King: her insistence that the puppeteers operating the animal figures not be concealed. She recalls telling Michael Eisner, the Disney chief to whom she was trying to sell this notion:
Let’s just get rid of the masking. Because when you get rid of the masking, then even though the mechanics are apparent, the whole effect is more magical. And this is where theatre has a power over film and television. This is absolutely where its magic works. It’s not because it’s an illusion and we don’t know how it’s done. It’s because we know exactly how it’s done…. I’ve been calling that the “double event” of The Lion King. It’s not just the story that’s being told. It’s how it’s being told.
“How it’s being told” is what great directors excel at, and what Taymor herself has done wonderfully well in the past, on a shoestring. (“The most successful stuff is the stuff I’ve done my whole life, which didn’t cost anything.”) In Spider-Man, by contrast, she spent the huge amounts of money available to her on the “masking”—on making it look like the heroes were flying, on making it all look real. In the end, the metamorphosis that Taymor tried so disastrously to effect in the show was to transform the proscenium into a silver screen—to make a play that was, essentially, a blockbuster movie.
Talk about tragic irony. At the end of the interview she gave to Richard Schechner, Julie Taymor boasted of what she had been able to accomplish “with no budgets,” theatrical miracles that “have more power because they are so transparent, so simple.” Back then, when she gave the interview, in the first flush of her success with The Lion King, she seemed to know who she was and what she wanted to do. And, of course, what she’d never dream of doing. “I never had theater producers run after me,” she told Schechner. “Some people want to make more Broadway shows out of movies. But Elliot”—Goldenthal, her partner, who composes the music for many of her shows and films—“Elliot and I aren’t going to do Batman: The Musical.”
1 Paul Kupperberg, The Creation of Spider-Man (Rosen, 2007), p. 7. ↩
2 See Beau Yarbrough, "Marvel to Take on World Trade Center Attack in ‘Amazing Spider-Man,'" ComicBookResources .com, September 24, 2001. ↩
3 The interview appears in Puppets, Masks, and Performing Objects, edited by John Bell (TDR/MIT Press, 2001). ↩
4 Julie Taymor: Playing with Fire (Abrams, 2007), p. 212. ↩
5 See Patrick Healy and Kevin Flynn, "A Broadway Superlative for All the Wrong Reasons," The New York Times, March 13, 2011. ↩
Paul Kupperberg, The Creation of Spider-Man (Rosen, 2007), p. 7. ↩
See Beau Yarbrough, “Marvel to Take on World Trade Center Attack in ‘Amazing Spider-Man,’” ComicBookResources .com, September 24, 2001. ↩
The interview appears in Puppets, Masks, and Performing Objects, edited by John Bell (TDR/MIT Press, 2001). ↩
Julie Taymor: Playing with Fire (Abrams, 2007), p. 212. ↩
See Patrick Healy and Kevin Flynn, “A Broadway Superlative for All the Wrong Reasons,” The New York Times, March 13, 2011. ↩