I have a shameful confession to make: I have seen – and *gulp* paid money to see – Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, the biggest Broadway bomb of recent years and perhaps one of the biggest theater flops of all time.
This was during the summer of 2011: I had just graduated university and was doing a tour of the States with a friend. There was nothing much else showing at the time, so I entered the Foxwood Theater and shelled out seventy dollars for a ticket. I went to see it for the same reason that anybody else went to see it: because I wanted to see quite how bad it was. It’s the same reason people slow down at car wrecks, and, in retrospect, I feel a bit guilty about not only rubbernecking but paying for the privilege. I mean, it’s been said that we, the public, get the art that we deserve and just because you watch something ironically doesn’t mean you don’t count amongst the viewing figures. So, how bad was it?
The answer is: pretty terrible, but not the unmitigated disaster I was expecting. It’s all spectacle and very little context. The sight of a man in a red and blue suit swinging from the rafters gets a little repetitive when its not in furtherance of any distinguishable plot. The figure of Ariadne from Greek myth makes an appearance as a sort of framing device; I hoped they were going to turn her into the equivalent of Madam Web from the animated series, but no, sadly she’s only in there because of the spider connection.
The whole thing is pretty piecemeal: a rough and ready version of the Sinister Six makes an appearance, going on a rampage through comic book NYC, but the show doesn’t do anything with them. Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark relies entirely on the audience’s affection towards the franchise (oh, look, there’s a Disneyfied version of Kraven the Hunter – kids take a picture). It’s vacuous, poorly written campery. As an origin story, it’s hard to care about; as theater, it’s worse. The songs are instantly forgettable – no one’s expecting Les Mis, but I would have settled for Wicked. The show features lyrics like “You can change your mind, / But you cannot change your heart. / Your heart knows what you’re hiding, / You’re heart knows where you are.” And in that moment, any goodwill Bono might have earned from The Joshua Tree is immediately swept away. It’s a rollercoaster ride that quickly becomes boring. The fire escape romance between Peter and MJ is one of the few scenes I can still remember and that’s more because of a simple, nicely stylized piece of set than anything to do with S-M:TOTD as a piece of theater. And, in case you were wondering, the show’s title bears absolutely no relation to anything and makes no real sense whatsoever.
My rant over, what it all boils down to, I feel, is that superheroes do not work on stage.
That’s not to say cinematic adaptations can’t work – recent musical adaptations of The Bodyguard and of Ghost have met with some success – but that the costumed vigilante is not a natural fit for the conventions of the medium. Scope and scale, thrilling in comics – the battle between Spiderman and Green Goblin on the Brooklyn Bridge, Superman v. Doomsday – become a liability within the confines of the stage. Theater is all about characters, themes, about people talking, whereas superheroes are all about the action. I, personally, would love to see a musical version of The Dark Knight – including Lieutenant Gordon’s solo ‘Nothing in His Pockets (But Knives and Lint)’, The Joker performing show tunes – but that’s because it is so incongruous, so tonally jarring. Shows like Batman Live at the O2 work in the same way that the Indiana Jones show works as Universal Studios: people want staged fights and men in rubber suits. Ninety minutes of melodrama just doesn’t cut it. Lois Lane was never intended to sing an aria nor Bruce Banner the blues.
Apparently (or so Wikipedia tells me), Bono began composing S-M:TOTD after Andrew Lloyd-Webber made a joke on the telly about being the only rock musician working in the theater; a fit of pique doesn’t seem a particularly good reason to start on anything, let alone a project as big as that turned out to be – exactly how deep in debt it ended up no one but the accounts will ever know, but estimates put the budget at somewhere around $75 million (apparently it will have to run for at least five years to make it back). Theater is about Shakespeare and Mamet, about dramatic ideas, not franchises: there are few superheroes who, as characters, would stand up to being seriously examined under a spotlight in the way that theater demands, compelling as they may be in motion. Superheroes struggle with physical demons; theater is about the metaphorical ones.
In short: with superhero adaptations for the theater, the best you can aim for is panto. The works of Harold Pinter don’t exactly cry out for a $200 million movie, so why try and cram comic book characters onto a stage?
Curtain down on Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark and exit stage left.