June 24, 2017

THE 12 CENT VS THE $65 MILLION SPIDERMAN

I bought the very first SPIDERMAN comic book. In fact, I bought BOTH of them.

SPIDERMAN first appeared in AMAZING FANTASY comics and then got his own gig in March of 1963 with the premiere edition of THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN. I remember buying it, just as I remember buying the first FANTASTIC FOUR a year earlier. I was 1l years old and thought: “Wow! I’m buying the first edition just like some kid bought the first Superman in 1938! I’ll keep this until I’m an old man and then it’ll be worth lots of money!” Alas and alack, it disappeared over the years, although I did treasure Spiderman #7 until I sold it after my fund was wiped out.

The great thing about Spiderman was that he was SO REAL! He was just like me. He did well in school but was not one of the cool kids. He was bullied by the jocks. He suffered from self doubts and pined hopelessly for the prettiest girl in his class. It seemed like he lived somewhere in the outer boroughs of NY. He was raised by two lower middle-class parents who were loving and devoted (although his were an aunt and uncle, not a mom and dad).

Over the years it became my favorite comic, more identifiable than any DC character or anyone else in the MARVEL stable (THOR, IRON MAN, THE FANTASTIC FOUR, DAREDEVIL). One day my brother and I discovered that Stan Lee, SPIDERMAN’s creator, had a listed phone number. And HE LIVED IN QUEENS LIKE WE DID! We called the number and when he answered the conversation went something like this:

“Is this Stan Lee?”

“Yes…”

“Is this the Stan Lee who makes SPIDERMAN comics?”

“Yes, it is…

“Oh, my G-d! OH MY G-D! I can’t believe it!”

Then stricken with fear that we would get in trouble for making a phoney phone call we hung up.

I read and collected SPIDERMAN comics until my junior year in high school when girls, Heinlein and theater edged comic obsessions to the sidelines.

I’m writing all this as a prologue to my experience at SPIDERMAN: TURN OFF THE DARK, the new Spiderman musical on Broadway. With a $65 million it’s the most expensive Broadway show ever mounted (SHREK, #2 was ONLY $25 million!). It’s not a universal axiom that vast budgets are fatal to artistic success. For example, AVATAR, the most expensive movie ever made created a magical, believable world and revolutionized the possibilities of cinema. But when the producer of the show proclaimed on 60 MINUTES: “We could have done the $25 million Spiderman but nobody wants to see the $25 million dollar Spiderman. They want to see the $65 million dollar one,” it was distasteful and disturbing. Money alone is not the arbiter of transformative experience.

Still, I was hoping it all would all work for a variety of reasons. I was a Spiderman fan. I was taking Kyle who was a BIG Spiderman fan. He said: ‘I’ve seen 15 Broadway shows but this is the one I’m looking forward to the most!” I spent almost $300 on the tickets. And Julie Taymor and Bono are two creative, socially responsible artists as well as critic’s darlings.

The performance we saw was glitch free. There were none of the notorious stops and starts that plagued the first preview. With the exception of a black clad stagehand twice crawling into a scene to steady a prop or a set piece the show ran smoothly.

Despite this, it was awful. Beyond redemption. An insult to the audience. An insult to live theater. And an insult to Spiderman.

It brought back those words that I stammered to Stan Lee over the phone so many years ago: “Oh, my G-d! OH MY G-D! I can’t believe it!” though now my shock now came from a very different place.

Apart from a three chord Spiderman theme there was not one memorable piece of music in the entire production. In fact, every song sounded the same– overbearing, overwrought and over not soon enough.

The acting (with the exception of a deliciously hammy Green Goblin, the same actor who played Seuss’ Grinch on Broadway a few seasons back) was slickly forgettable or mundanely unmemorable). Peter Parker is a tough role to play. He is a mopey victim who feels sorry for himself when he is not swinging across town on a web. Tobey Maguire was well cast in the movie. His apprehensive whisper and shell-shocked eyes, veered him away from self-pity to a guy waiting for the other shoe to drop. The hardest part for Maguire was making us believe this elfin Emo could perform Herculean deeds and amazing CGI took up the slack on that. Reeve Carney, the ‘actor’ who plays the part here, simply makes no choices at all. He is athletic, powerfully voiced and exceptionally handsome, characteristics antithetical to the role. Mary Jane, the girl he loves is as confident, slick and impenetrable as an American Idol runner up.

The much touted special effects? There was more ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ on the 3D Spiderman ride at Universal. In fact that is where this piece finds its closest kinship: to one of those shows at Disneyworld or Universal that combine actors, special effects and projections. Except at the theme parks they are well done. And they are short. And admission is cheaper. So Spiderman and the Goblin (acrobats, not the actors playing them) ride clunkily over the audience on thick wires? Kyle asked me during the show, “Why is it so CHEESEY?!?” When Peter Parker discovers his power he bounces up and down off retractable walls. Kyle asked, “Why is he jumping up and down on a bungee chord?!?”

Yes, it is still in previews but no intensity of rehearsal or performance will save Spiderman this time because the show also has a fatal flaw. It is not the story of Spiderman.

Spiderman is a boy’s story. A boy full of insecurities about fitting in, romancing the opposite sex, entering the real world and finding a meaningful place in it. The movie made literal what the comic implied: a boy from the boroughs is about to graduate high school and try to find an identity for himself in formidable Manhattan, its menacing skyscrapers, its dog eat dog ethos, its ability to swallow you in its waves of humanity. Girls may go through similar insecurities but I don’t think their fantasies about it have to do with beating up bad guys and flying across skyscrapers. (Stan Lee gave them Mary Jane story about theatrical dreams, failure and redemption but that is given no shrift here). Superhero comics are a boy’s thing…

Instead of the boy’s story Julie Taymor has transformed it into girl’s story. Except for a brief opening tableau you don’t even see Peter Parker or Spiderman for the first 10 minutes. Instead you are presented with a GEEK CHORUS (the Greek Chorus, get it?), three ineffectual, sloppily dressed, dimwitted boys and a quick witted, fashion smart girl who teaches them that the ORIGINAL Spiderman was actually a woman. A woman from Greek Mythology, Arachne, who was transformed by the gods into a spider with eight legs and set into a net for eternity. And then we have to hear HER story. And hear her sing about it. And Miss Patty Perfect reappears throughout the show to set the boys (and the audience) straight about how Spiderman’s male villains are all a dream created by this most powerful woman, powerful enough to destroy Spiderman himself, if she cares to. And then we have to hear Spiderwoman sing about it.

I’m all for empowering little girls and creating role models that are positive and assertive but let’s not mess with Dora The Explorer OR Spiderman.

“Ms Taymor, I KNEW SPIDERMAN AND THIS IS NO SPIDERMAN!”

When the producer extolled the popularity of the $65 million Spiderman he was wrong. The 12 cent Spiderman magically enthralled millions of fans for decades.

Kyle is 12 years old, just about the age when I first met Spidey. He reads the comics. He’s seen all the movies. He plays the video game.

His review?

His head rested against my shoulder as he slept through the second act. On the stage the earth exploded into flames awaiting Spiderman’s rescue, above us the Spiderwoman trawled along suspended from a cable, her pygidium inches from our heads, Mary Jane belted another banal ballad.

None of it disturbed his dreams…