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 these days. But part of it is also because the show’s talent, spectacle, and travails are intriguing — yet “comics people” already know, in a way others might not stop to realize, that Dark has little to do with comics at all.

Spider-Man leaping or swinging towards viewer, shooting web, plus title and credits
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, now one of the most definitive and well-respected versions of the Dark Knight mythos, was influenced by — even 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) for DC, 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 from the Caped Crusader’s to 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 a larger number of comics readers in Broadway than it will Broadway regulars in comics, and that number will be small.

It’s possible that one of the new characters developed for Turn Off the Dark could,
as Harley Quinn did, 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 his rogues’ gallery includes not just 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 cartoons notwithstanding, 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 that, in the immortal words of Stan Lee — writing to co-creator Steve Ditko’s art in 1962 — “with great power there must also come great responsibility.”

men in street clothes leaping through air from platform to platform over Peter Parker
Reeve Carney as Peter Parker from the show. Photo: Jacob Cohl.

When I first heard about Turn Off the Dark it had me skeptical but intrigued given
the announcement of music and lyrics written by Bono and The Edge of U2. Having previously 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 pushing its already outrageous subject matter and source material further into the bizarre.

Yet I refuse to wish the project ill — even should it end up making an outright mockery of Spider-Man — 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, 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.

Spider-Man twisting in air far above stage on wires
Aerial stuntwork of Spider-Man from the show. 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 when 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 put themselves out there to such an extent — through both publicity and repeated postponements — where covering 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 in particular 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 [bad link] 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, acrobatics, video images, 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 hardly strikes me as a can’t-miss prospect, or even a beast that I thought I would ever see.

Among other notable links are a New York Times report from Taymor’s discussion of the show at the recent Technology Entertainment and Design conference; November’s 60 Minutes piece [bad link], 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, sharing the looks 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.

Related: Auto Tunes Muppet Monday Goblin Turkey


  1. 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...

  2. 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.