I wish there were a lot to say about Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark after all the sturm ünd drang, but there really isn’t. A friend of mine put it best, and pretty much sums it up: “It’s for twelve-year-olds.”
And it is. Exactly.
I’m not among those who stormed the press barricade to see the undiluted Julie Taymor version. I didn’t feel compelled: it was an insanely misbegotten enterprise from the beginning because, among other things, a director famous for graphic design and puppet ingenuity—but within the industry as famous for having no sense of comedy—was engaged to helm, and co-write the libretto for, a show about the most smartass superhero in the cannon; and Bono and The Edge, a team of rock-n-roll songwriters without anything in the way of a theatrical tool kit was commissioned to write the score. What happened was absolutely going to happen: she’d make it pretentious, the songwriters would flounder and the show would come crashing down around their heads (along with several of the performers). The only thing you couldn’t really predict was whether it would close for good or close to be retooled. Given that the project was so idiosyncratic that the negative publicity had the unexpected effect of encouraging ticket sales, retooling it was. This time, to favor a specific kind of experience and pragmatism over starboinking, Taymor was replaced by Philip Wm. McKinley a journeyman director of recreated stagings and circus shows; and she and her co-librettist Glen Berger were supplanted by Roberto Agirre-Sacasa who had written not only plays, but scripts for Marvel Comics. Nobody replaced the songwriters from U2, but veteran musical director Paul Bogaev came in for supervision—code for reprogramming and reshaping.
The only real mystery was what the new guys would come up with.
Though in retrospect, this was foreseeable too.
Specialized technicians who were as qualified to diagnose and treat the wounds (the creative ones, that is) as the previous team of randomly assembled artists had been to cause them in the first place, they did exactly what technicians do. They lowered the bar, they cleaned things up, they favored coherence over risk and inspiration, and lo and behold they delivered a clean, no frills narrative, retelling the origin story in a manner that would not be out of place if adapted for a “The Book of the Musical” storybook for kids. What was artyfarty has been toned down or diluted and absorbed into a foursquare narrative, what was ineffective has been recontextualized and retextured to make it unobtrusive and what has emerged is unchallenging, inoffensive, dramatically unnuanced and plot-predictable. It’s terrific to look at, franchise-friendly and just a little goofy because the music still doesn’t quite match the property, but it’s been almost marginalized to the point of being sung Muzak, sonic wallpaper, so who gives a quip. The cast is game and attractive (with Patrick Page being, as you’ve heard, a delightfully hissable villain with the barest comprehensible motive). It’s a Spider-Man primer with live action panels.
And as I say, it all works like a sonofabitch if you’re twelve. Or in the twelve spirit. Of course if you’re twelve, let’s make that “son of a spider"…