Sunday, March 13, 2011

Review: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark


Note: Under normal situations, as a respected media outlet, The Middle Room would not review a play prior to its opening. However, with said opening now delayed until at least June of 2016, along with the breaking of the embargo by similar online sites, our editorial staff has given us the go-ahead to report on our experiences. Please keep in mind that the show remains a work in progress, that the script remains unfinished (perhaps, in fact, unstarted), the music incomplete (the version described below used U2 music as a filler, perhaps as a joke), and Julie Taymor's replacement by new legendary director, Gallagher, will likely transform the end product.

Marvel's entry into film is often incorrectly remembered as beginning with Raimi's Spider-Man or Singer's X-Men. In reality, the first modern Marvel blockbuster was the criminally underrated Blade. According to IMDB, Blade was produced for a estimated 45 million dollars, twenty million less than has already been spent on Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. It is our expectation that, prior to opening, Spider-Man's budget will overtake X-Men's. Our love of irony has us hoping it exceeds Spider-Man's, as well, though this is far from guaranteed.

However, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark cannot be understood in terms of simple economics. In fact, had its producers understood simple economics, it is almost certain the musical would never have occurred.

Before we delve into the myriad ways in which Turn Off the Dark can be considered, we'd like to address the press the musical has already received. It has been widely written about, studied, and reviewed.

And everything you've heard about it is completely true. The things you've heard about the book? All true. The reviews that rip it apart as the worst musical in the history of Broadway? Also true. Glenn Beck heartfelt praise and insistence that it makes history? Sure, why not.

Everything said about Turn Off the Dark is true. Most of it is hyper-true. We're not entirely sure what that means, but it feels right. Hyper-right, even. It's that kind of a musical.

And, it is important to recognize, that for all the money poured into the production, for all its impossibly complex rigging and more lights than the rest of New York City combined, it still feels like a Broadway musical. We hadn't really expected it to feel like one, to be honest. We'd expected it to transcend description, to be, for better or worse, something completely new and different.

But it was definitely a musical. A musical featuring Carnage and Kraven: the Hunter, but a musical nonetheless.

Typically, the Middle Room refrains from spoilers, but seeing as how Turn Off the Dark is entirely rewritten from scratch before every performance, there seems little reason to bother. So then, let us dissect the musical. Nevertheless, if you are planning to travel back in time and view the play on Thursday, March 10, 2011, consider yourself warned.

Parts of the play are contained within a frame story of four nerds imagining their own Spider-Man comic, the ultimate Spider-Man story (or at least their ultimate story). When using a meta-narrative, it is often customary to contain the whole of the piece within the frame story, but Turn Off the Dark is nothing if not unconventional. At any rate, this broken frame accomplishes several points:

1. It ties the story to similar devices used in classical Greek theater, though, sadly, no one seems to have bothered with a classical Geek theater pun (we'd have been amused).

2. It bores the audience considerably.

3. By demonstrating an utter lack of understanding of the culture of comic fans, it manages expectations for the rest of the play.

4. It wastes everyone's time.

It is worth noting that the story told in Turn Off the Dark is absolutely nothing like anything anyone trying to write "the greatest Spider-Man story ever told" would tell. Retreading the origin story isn't something a fan would put in their comic: fans despise this practice in film, as anyone who's ever utilized the internet is aware (there are actually contextual clues in the play that the writers have never seen the internet, but have rather heard about it in song).

The number of songs the audience is forced to endure waiting for Peter to be bitten by a radioactive spider is somewhat staggering. The most notable of these is "Bullied by Numbers," a song so horrible that it makes State Fair seem like Sondheim in comparison.

Flash Thompson is auto-tuned. While oddly appropriate, that - along with bleached, spiked hair - give the number the feeling of Glee. Or at least what we imagine Glee would feel like (we've never actually seen an episode).

This shifts into Peter and Mary Jane walking home through Queens through an astonishingly awesome set. Despite that, the entire sequence feels lifted from the first movie. Only now, instead of just being a jerk, MJ's father is an abusive asshole. Meanwhile, Peter's aunt and uncle aren't much better: they're oblivious, invasive, and judgmental.

All of which begs the question, "What is Turn Off the Dark?" At times, it feels like it's lifted directly from the movie, until it invariably tries to do something completely new.

Consider the death of Uncle Ben. Peter, hoping to earn enough to buy a car to impress MJ, enters a wrestling competition with a one thousand dollar prize. All he has to do is survive three minutes against Bonesaw McGraw, played convincingly by a blow-up doll (no, really). He quickly makes short work of Bonesaw, only to discover....

...that the crowd's cheering, money rains down on him, and he's $1000 richer. He takes his money and starts towards home. On the way, he sees Flash Thompson's car being stolen and does nothing to stop him. His Uncle Ben, the kindest and dumbest man alive, tries to stop the robbery by jumping in front of the car and is run down.

Huh?

Okay, this is but one of the many times throughout the play that the audience is offered the chance to try and imagine the astonishing amount of thought and effort that must have gone into creating a finished product that fails completely.

Thematically, this version of Ben's death actually hits all the right notes. Peter's self-obsessed (and somewhat righteous) refusal to intervene directly contributed to the loss of his uncle. The only thing wrong with this version was that it was different. There's nothing wrong with different.

Unless, of course, you're treating the superhero as myth, which was the whole point of the play. If that's the case, then you're obligated to treat the origin as hallowed. Unless, of course, you have reason to deviate.

Say, to save time. Tying Ben's death to Peter and Flash's rivalry for Mary Jane streamlines the story: you don't need the wrestling match at all. So why do it? Why waste time that could be spent on something else?

Hell, why do the origin story at all? Your audience has already seen the movie: you can recap it all in a single musical number.

But the play wasn't merely retelling the origin. They were rebuilding it. And there were larger changes than Ben getting run down instead of gunned down. The whole first third of the play seemed to be constructed around introducing a new character.

Arachne. Okay, so she's an old character. But she's new to Spiderman. Unless, of course, you count Julia Carpenter, the Marvel Comics character who's used that code name. Or perhaps you'd prefer Madame Web, a more mystical character who interacts with Spiderman. If the writers knew about these characters, they decided instead to weave in something of their own: a more literal interpretation of the Greek myth.

Surprisingly, Arachne showed some real promise. Re-writing the origin of Spiderman's suit was an intriguing idea, and (as J.M. Straczynski demonstrated prior to the infamously bad conclusion) myth and magic can be integrated into the character to good effect.

Visually, the character of Arachne was beautiful. Breathtaking, in fact; the set, costume, lights, and wire work came together into effects works that rivals anything you've seen in film. In fact, given decent music, these scenes could have been truly powerful.

We're not saying the music had to be stellar, just good. Okay, even. Hell, Andrew Loyd Webber could have composed something and it would have delivered. Anyone, anywhere, with the slightest background in musical theater. Or most professional musicians. The average music teacher could probably have done a good job here. Or, you know, their students.

But not Bono and Edge. Good God, not them.

You know what's really amazing? We actually thought they'd be able to handle it. After all, this was going to be a rock opera. Why not hire rock stars? Sure, they tend to write melodramatic songs, but how bad could it be? However bad you think, we warn you: you are not prepared.

But Arachne disappears for a while, and we're instead treated to a sequence of Spiderman stopping robberies perpetuated by actors in extremely stylized comic-like costumes. This would have been far cooler had said costumes by stylized like something out of SPIDERMAN comics. But no. They're more like something out of Mad Magazine. Cool, but wrong.

Returning to the plot, we've omitted the last significant character, Norman Osborn. Only, like so much else, this isn't the Norman Osborn you know. Actually, the character's origin seems to be based on Doctor Octopus from the second movie (who we suspect was actually inspired by Mr. Freeze on Batman: The Animated Series). Yes, this Norman Osborn is happily married (though without any children of his own). He's obsessed with splicing genes in ways that are beneficial to mankind, and he despises the military.

Again... why bother? What does any of it accomplish other than making the audience sit through a series of additional songs waiting for Spiderman to appear? Those of us who sat through Across the Universe have already seen Julie Taymor play with actors dressed as soldiers marching to music: why go through it again with a far inferior song?

Once again, the sets, at least, are gorgeous. The use of perspective is incredible, and the sense of scale is awing. Truly, this is the Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen of musicals.

All of this coalesces in a series of scenes chronicling Spiderman's battles with the Green Goblin, including a scene in the Daily Bugle where the writers are arguing with J. Jonah Jameson over confused reports coming in about the Goblin's attack. This was one of our favorite scenes, capturing the horror and uncertainty surrounding supervillain terrorism. Jameson, incidentally, was pitch perfect.

The big fight scene was also something to behold. Sure, there were issues. The Goblin's butterfly wings looked ridiculous (we assume the glider would have been too difficult to create). Also, his suit was mediocre at best. And he was portrayed more like The Joker than the Goblin.

But the transforming set, complete with transforming perspective that's almost impossible to explain, was incredible. And the fight, as you've no doubt heard, extends over the audience, with Spiderman dropping directly into the aisles and swinging to the balconies. Yeah, it's amazing.

It culminates with the Goblin's death and the end of Act 1. They let the audience mull about for intermission, trying to make sense of what we've just seen, then return hoping - praying - for fight scenes like what we just saw. Sure, the Goblin might be dead, but the booklet lists six more supervillains who've yet to appear.

But none of us were ready for what came next: perhaps the biggest disappointment in both theater and superhero history.

You see, when Julie Taymor is directing, you expect certain things. Among these, are fantastic costumes. And, while all the costuming hasn't been great so far (actually, Peter Parker's has been awful), the Spiderman suit has been great and Green Goblin... well, at least it looked like they'd tried.

But as the Sinister Six appeared one or two at a time, it was evident they weren't trying any longer. Carnage's suit looked like something you'd see someone wearing outside in Time Square while posing for pictures with tourists. Kraven's, meanwhile, looked like something you'd be embarrassed to wear to a Halloween party. And they were all better than the Lizard.

No grand fight sequences, either: Spiderman defeated the Sinister Six in a single montage mainly consisting of a cardboard cutout swinging over the stage while supervillains dropped into the set. Apparently, this was sufficient to kill them, because it soon became a plot point that they were, in fact, all dead.

Peter, sick of what being Spiderman has done to his life, quits in a scene reminiscent of the second movie. Sure, that plot line was borrowed from the comics, but... it really didn't feel like the writers would have known that. Actually, despite the appearance of some obscure villains (Dr. Swarm?) it didn't really feel like the writers had ever read a comic book in their lives.

There was at least one significant change from the movies, however: in this version, Aunt May is a total bitch. Really, this woman's manipulative, cold, and just mean.

But Peter didn't quit for Aunt May. No, he did it for Mary Jane. He threw away his costume and, for some reason, his powers vanished at the same time.

Furious that Spiderman had spurned her gift, Arachne resurrects Spiderman's villains, or so it seems. Actually, she explains that she's resurrected them as "Cyber-villains," in a internet/web pun that goes nowhere and makes no sense. The villains run amok, while Peter and Mary live in their apartment. We should probably add that they're living by candle light, since Electro has cut off power to the entire world, except for TV, which is broadcasting the resurrected Green Goblin's taunts.

Spiderman, naturally, ignores this for a few weeks. Really, they make a point of establishing how much time is passing. Arachne tries on some shoes (one on each of her eight feet, of course), then kidnaps Mary Jane. So Spiderman, despite possibly still lacking his powers, defeats all six supervillains by punching in front of giant projections of them during another montage.

There's a final showdown that attempts to deliver some sort of emotional resolution but fails miserably. As for the millions dead, weeks of supervillains controlling the world, and Manhattan getting burned down... well, all that gets dismissed by Arachne as an illusion. Makes perfect sense.

So. What does it all add up to? Should you travel to New York to see this? Should you avoid it at all costs? Is it so bad it's good? Was it enjoyable? Was it sickeningly bad?

Sorry. We can't answer these questions. Turn Off the Dark defies such simplification. It's a seething collage of beauty and madness set to music that will make you cringe. It's like having a decade's worth of old VH1 music videos beamed directly into your cerebral cortex by an alien satellite over three hours. It's the strangest thing we've ever seen or heard, and it refuses to be as good or as bad as we'd like.

It's as if Julie Taymor directed a $65 million dollar Broadway production with music by Bono and The Edge.

Or it was. Taymor just got fired, and it looks like that 65 million was a down payment.

3 comments:

Zak said...

Hmmmmmmmmmmm

Zak said...

I'm gonna need a video of you singing one of the songs, Snyder. Otherwise I'm just not getting it.

Unemployed Peacemaker said...

What "Spider-man Turn Off The Dark" needed was a little "divine intervention" Being a Spider-man fan since 1963, I believe that "Spider-man" will "Rise Above" the critics negative reviews."Wealth and fame he ignores, Action is his reward!" Go get'em Tiger!! Professionally, Super Laundry Bag (Official Guardian Angel) www.youtube.com/bigswallow2