Sunday, December 5, 2010

Spider-Man Turns Off the Dark in More Ways than One

Julie Taymor's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has now injured yet a third actor (actress Natalie Mendoza sustained a concussion during the first preview - others have broken wrists or injured feet in rehearsal) as reports of technical snafus and delays continue to plague the production. The music we've heard so far (by Bono and The Edge) has sounded pretty mediocre - it's deep in the well-worn U2 groove of empty power-pop uplift. The story is merely a tweaked version (it's crossed with Ovid, believe it or not) of a tale we already know all too well (superteen saves the world!) although the show's creators keep blathering that it's conceptually a breakthrough: it's "pop-up pop opera" or "rock-and-roll circus drama," or something like that.

Okay, nobody knows what the hell it is. And yet even as Julie Taymor edges toward John Landis territory, her show keeps selling tickets - reportedly a million dollars' worth were ordered right after that notoriously disastrous first preview. Why? Well, the clips of stunts shown on TV have been spectacular, you can certainly say that - characters fly not just across the stage but also above the audience (and moving set pieces, we imagine, are meant to give the crowd the sense of being suspended, too, high above the streets of Manhattan). True, many of said characters are in truly ridiculous costumes. But you can't have everything in your rock-and-roll circus pop-up opera, can you.

Although can't you have any artistic content?  Nobody seems to be even bothering to claim that there's anything artistic going on in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. It simply represents the (inevitable) importation of long-standing pop cultural tropes onto the Broadway stage. Of course it's technically original to the max - but it's worth noting that it seems to be pulling all the attention away from other, more truly original Broadway musicals and shows. Indeed, the last few weeks saw the announced closings of The Scottsboro Boys and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson - shows that reportedly (I haven't seen either) confronted this country's history of racism with disturbing honesty.  So you could say Spider-Man has been "turning off the dark" in more ways than one.

Shows like Scottsboro represented what a friend of mine sometimes calls "Obamaculture" - productions that expected the millennial milieu to reflect more openness to taboo topics of race and gender.  But so far Obamaculture has been flailing, and failing, at the box office - while shows like Spider-Man, helmed by graying boomers and derived from exhausted pop franchises (and which can only be described as reactionary to the max), suck up all the cultural oxygen. And can we just discuss - for a moment - the racial profile of this kind of pop? It looks like there are some "token blacks" in the cast of Turn Off the Dark, but it's hard to shake off the impression that Spider-Man, like almost all the superhero franchises, is whiter-than-white in its framing and outlook.

It's true that Spider-Man never plays outright with racist stereotypes the way the Star Wars franchise often has, but in general superhero culture still operates in a fever-dream of benevolent white dominion - in these things an anonymous white vigilante is always tracking down underworld criminals whom the democratic forces of law and order can't stop. I know, the Marvel Comix "Other" isn't styled as racially foreign, but as fantastically, conceptually foreign; these Wagnerian super-men battle maniacal geniuses in hollowed-out volcanos, or half-amphibians from other planets, or radio-active mutants, or what have you (the half-animal trope remains durably popular). (Indeed, often these operatically self-styled villains wind up being hooked into some white-criminal superstructure, like the Mafia, or Corrupt City Hall, the better to dodge any direct whiff of the lynch-mob mentality moving behind the scenes.)

Now I know all this serves as sufficient political screen, but I'm not sure how much difference it makes artistically. If you delete the racial component of a paranoid trope, have you actually elevated it in any serious way? I'd argue no, but Julie Taymor and Bono would argue yes (indeed, Bono has made one of the biggest careers in music history by studiously erasing any and all realistic detail from his songs of empowerment). There's something deeply cynical about their shared vision, but it maps well to what I think people are realizing about the boomers - they like to think of the utopian dream of the 60s as their legacy, but actually it's the co-option of that dream that is their legacy.  And needless to say, the millennials lap up that co-option like catnip, whether they voted for Obama or not.  When Julie Taymor ratchets up the stakes, when Bono exhorts yet another generation of customers to "rebel," they do so knowing that everybody knows it's all just bullshit.  But do you think Taymor and Co. are going to let that awareness stop them, when they're already ignoring broken bones and possibly dead extras (and rest assured those are expendable extras taking the biggest risks in those masks, not the stars)?  Of course not.  One way or another, they're going to make everyone forget about The Scottsboro Boys.

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