TheatreStorm Guest Editorial: A Look Back At ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark’

by Rob Bowden

We’re well into another year of Marvel dominance at the cinemas. “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2” was a smash success, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” could well be the biggest movie of the year when it debuts in July, and “Thor: Ragnarok” will be no slouch either. In other words, another year, another set of assurances that Marvel Studios owns the entertainment business.

But as much success as Marvel has had in this arena, there are still no whispers of a Broadway spin-off of the company’s superhero success. That might not seem like a shock, but given the scope of Marvel’s hold on entertainment it’s at least a little surprising. That is, until you think back to the one recent attempt there was at putting a superhero on a Broadway stage. It was called “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark,” and it’s in the debate for Broadway’s biggest debacle. But how did it get to that point?

In a way, the show seemed well suited to being the first major superhero adaptation on stage. In part, that’s because Spider-Man is more closely tied to New York City than any superhero is to any other place, unless you count Batman’s allegiance to the fictional city of Gotham. Billed as a humble kid from Queens who winds up swinging between buildings and taking out petty criminals en route to bigger, city-saving heroics, Peter Parker could and perhaps should have been the biggest thing on Broadway.

The show also shouldn’t have struck anyone as a particularly big surprise given that Spider-Man unquestionably has more reach in modern entertainment than any other hero—and nearly all other heroes combined. On the big screen, as of this July he’ll have been the subject of five big budget adaptations. In a way, that shows how hard it is to get his story just right. It also shows that the public is seemingly always ready for more Spider-Man.

The same truth has been borne out in video games, which makes up another significant portion of Marvel’s empire. Spider-Man has been the subject of a number of console titles, and browsing through some of the themed gaming content available online, it’s apparent that he has also appeared in a few different games there. These games are usually little more than traditional slots spun up with a Spider-Man theme, but they speak to the enduring popularity of the character. Beyond console titles and slots, there have recently been plenty of mobile games starring the hero. It’s clear that there’s no shortage of Spider-Man out there, and they’re always finding new ways to promote him.

So one can conclude that maybe the superhero was always destined to appear on Broadway in one form or another. What emerged was a sensationally ambitious project. Featuring arrangements by David Campbell, music by Bono and The Edge of U2, and direction by Tony winer Julie Taymor, the show debuted in 2010 looking and sounding like a combination between a rock show, Cirque du Soleil, and, unfortunately, a hastily thrown together pageant.

Reading about it after the fact, you might get the impression that “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” failed only because of production issues and on-set injuries. And it’s true that this was a huge problem. Actors consistently hurt themselves swinging around the stage and over the audience on complex pieces of equipment. One actor has even spoken about how he thought he might die after sustaining injuries during a performance. Despite the serious nature of the problem, the production was widely mocked for being unable to solve this problem—and performances were often halted or delayed due to equipment issues and actors getting seriously hurt.

All of this certainly made the show a mess, but the larger truth is that the script was also a problem. Viewed merely as a superhero-themed circus act, “Turn Off The Dark” was actually awfully impressive when it was running smoothly. One could also leave a show under the impression that so much attention had been paid to stunts and staging that the music and script largely fell by the wayside. The music from Bono and The Edge was interesting and catchy but dreadfully repetitive, and the script frankly felt like a first draft from a high school student.

This isn’t something that should never be tried again—and it probably isn’t. Marvel is too big not to wander back onto a Broadway stage at some point, and people will likely line up to buy tickets. This disaster earned its reputation as one of the biggest flops in Broadway history, and is an important cautionary tale for future theatre productions.


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