'Spider-Man,' The Spectacle: Can We Move Beyond Rubbernecking At A Calamity? : Monkey See Critics have run out of patience with Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, and the tough reviews are coming in. But we're all responsible for the increasing focus on finding extravagant disasters to watch.
NPR logo 'Spider-Man,' The Spectacle: Can We Move Beyond Rubbernecking At A Calamity?

'Spider-Man,' The Spectacle: Can We Move Beyond Rubbernecking At A Calamity?

A sign for the Broadway play Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is seen along 42nd Street in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

You may have noticed a few thousand media outlets chronicling the troubles of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, the new Broadway musical that has united Julie Taymor, Bono, and a reported $65 million.

By now, stories of the show's implosion — cast members injured in aerial stunts! opening night delayed! act two rewritten, possibly by pigeons! — have turned up in every major media outlet, not to mention such obscure theater-news specialists as Saturday Night Live. Heck, the cover of the January 17 New Yorker depicted a hospital wing filled with hobbled Spider-Men — and if Eustace Tilly will step aside for you, you know you're a big deal.

Yesterday, however, all those swipes became mere prologue. Yesterday, Ben Brantley reviewed the musical in The New York Times.

Even in a world of diminishing influence for critics and newspapers alike, a Times review can significantly affect a production — ask anyone who's tried to get tickets to something after the paper has given it a rave — and in the New York theater community, many have been waiting to see where Brantley, the paper's chief theater critic, would land on the webslinger's Broadway debut.

He landed right on Spidey's neck.

"Spider-Man is not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway," Brantley wrote. "It may also rank among the worst."

He goes on from there, but that's the core of his review. That proclamation, added to all the other bad buzz, seems destined to enshrine the show as one of the biggest mistakes in theater history.

And in some ways, that makes sense. Of course the media and the public are fascinated; this kind of spectacle is theatrical on its own, stoking both concern for the safety of actors and schadenfreude over the failure of wealthy (and perhaps snobby?) artists like Taymor and Bono. Because this disaster is happening in a theater, moreover, we have the chance to see it unfold live, right in front of our eyes. That makes the drama tangible.

The intensifying focus on Spider-Man has also been part of an escalating game of "us vs. them." By pushing the official opening date so many times, and continuing to request that no one review the production, the Spidey team has essentially said it's not ready to be judged. That same team's box office has nonetheless continued charging upwards of $100 for premium seats, creating an understandable tension for audiences and critics alike. Critics, after all, are also journalists, and when they're repeatedly told they can't write about the biggest story of the season, they're going to fight back — especially when a fascinated public seems eager to watch.

For all that justification, though, there's something unseemly about the frenzy surrounding this show. Yes, there are a lot of super-rich people spending lots of money to make a bad musical. Yes, hubris is on display. And yes, people are getting hurt. But as we're criticizing Spider-Man, as we're licking the blood off its mangled limbs, can't we admit that we're partly complicit in all this uproar?

Can't we admit that we're part of a culture that demands excesses and danger from our entertainment? And can't we admit that Spider-Man is just our latest shared cultural narrative about "great people" falling from great heights?

Brantley was right, in his review, to mention that shows like Mary Poppins are also doing complicated aerial stunts, despite the insistence from the Spidey camp that their show would dazzle us with never-before-seen theatrics. And along those lines, we should admit that we've all seen this kind of disaster before. Some of the details are different, yes, and some are bigger, but this show's collapse is hardly rewriting history.

Just four years ago, for instance, an actor in the Broadway version of The Little Mermaid broke both wrists when he fell twenty feet off the set in the middle of a performance. Way back in 1960, Mary Martin hit a concrete wall during flying rehearsals for Peter Pan, breaking her elbow in two places, and during her last week in Wicked, Idina Menzel fell through a trapdoor and cracked her ribs. And that's just the tip of the blood-soaked iceberg: Last December, the Wall Street Journal recapped ten of the worst stage accidents in recent memory, and there are plenty of less sensational strains, bruises, and cuts that never make the news.

The real story here, in any case, is that our apparent hunger for something to be obsessed with, for something to pick apart, is turning the discussion into a shrill and vicious harangue. There are issues to discuss and grievances to air and deeper problems to consider. That's not a question.

This is, though: If we as a culture could stop being so eager for a new! amazing! disaster!, how might we be discussing this Broadway calamity?

Mark Blankenship reviews movies, music, and TV at The Critical Condition.