Marvel, Bono, and Broadway: The Odyssey of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

With June 14th set as the “official” debut for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark the show’s pop culture odyssey reaches a new plateau. The media hype has been extreme, yet the story of Turn Off the Dark is less about Bono, Julie Taymor, and a confusing production and more about comicbooks and their place in U.S. society. As any number of Broadway professionals can tell you, Turn Off the Dark is not the first show marked by soaring budgets, nervous backers, and mercurial creative minds. Indeed, other rock musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair prime examples, faced similar problems. Yet, few have received the rancorous focus associated with this comicbook-inspired show. Even before the critical onslaught, the cultural fixation on Turn Off the Dark was severe. Why?

Art: Greg Horn

The reason has much to do with how we view the superhero in U.S. culture. Turn Off the Dark is a natural target for unfavorable scrutiny in part because it is about Spider-Man, a classic superhero comicbook character. Unlike other productions, Turn Off the Dark embodies the contemporary tension between a populist versus elite worldview.

Consider this strange point of pop culture truth: while critical appraisal has been dubious from the beginning, Glenn Beck and Oprah Winfrey urged their respective audiences to embrace the production. As icons from radically different segments of the media landscape, their endorsements promised an eager audience. Indeed, Turn Off the Dark outsold critical darlings such as Wicked during its endless preview run, even as reporters and critics savaged the troubled production.

The show’s trouble should be understood in the context of the superhero comics that gave it birth. Comicbooks have always been dogged by a marginal status based on elite disgust. Defined as cheap distraction for the poor masses in the 1940s, they were blamed for violent crime and juvenile delinquency in 1950s. Spider-Man’s debut in the 1960s did not redeem the genre. Marvel Comics’ popularity coincided with a youth counterculture that splintered the mainstream.

In the 1970s, underground comics offered a subversive alternative to kid friendly mainstream superheroes titles destined for an emerging collectables market. The fact that Spider-Man, the quintessential angst-ridden teenage superhero, is the subject of the most expensive Broadway production in history is the latest triumph of a medium known more for the power of adolescent fantasy than social relevance.

Misguided, but not surprising, the reaction to the show naturally grows from the tinge of pulp crassness linked to comics. While the “graphic novel” offers the opportunity for artistic endeavors, superhero comics are still immature. The schism is a cultural quirk, but an important truth. Even as the comic medium has grown to encompass every literary genre, the superhero remains its iconic face. Idyllic and fantastic, the superhero has endured to emerge as the fuel for a multibillion-dollar media convergence. Yet, while the superhero on film seems an acceptable mass medium product, the Broadway show is different.

The theatre remains a bastion of elite culture. The accepted Broadway turn to add substance to an actor’s resume highlights the “Great White Way’s” continued solemnity. It is not surprising that a Broadway Spider-Man show has drawn critical scrutiny and popular anticipation. Spider-Man’s quest to live up to the responsibility obligated by his power is evocative of the myriad populist reaction aimed at “saving” the country.

Turn Off the Dark is not a comical farce poking fun at the excesses of the superhero archetype, but a celebration of its power. Like the comics that spawned the original Spider-Man dramas, cultural arbiters question the merit and disdain the display of the character in this new and unusual setting. For all its excesses however, the show, like the hero, embodies the dreams, desires, and fear that have shaped the postwar US experience.