“KRAAAAK!” on a Stick
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, directed by Julie Taymor, Foxwoods Theatre, New York City
The transformation of humans into monsters or animals is a standard feature of two great genres: classical Greek and Roman myth and American comic books. As those of us know who spent our childhoods and teenaged years greedily hoarding the latter, such transformations are only occasionally effected by a mere change of costume. Batman, for instance (introduced in 1939), is an ordinary Homo sapiens who simply dons his bat-like hood and cape when he wants to battle evildoers; his extraordinary powers are the fruit of disciplined intellectual and physical training. More often—and more excitingly—the metamorphoses occur at the genetic level. The Incredible Hulk, who debuted in 1962, is a hypertrophied Hercules-like giant, the Mr. Hyde aspect of an otherwise mild-mannered scientist named Bruce Banner, created during a laboratory accident involving gamma rays. Wolverine, one of the X-men, who sports lupine traits following his transformations, belongs to a despised race of “mutants” with remarkable powers. (The comic book series, now reincarnated as a hugely popular film franchise, debuted in 1963.)
Perhaps most famously of all, the crime-fighting Spider-Man—the character was introduced in 1962 and got his own comic series the following year—is really just an ordinary teenager from Queens named Peter Parker who undergoes a kind of human-arachnid hybridization after being bitten by a radioactive spider during a class trip to a science fair. It can be no accident that popular narratives involving gamma rays, mutants, and radioactivity should have gripped the imagination of young people in the early 1960s, when the cold war—and with it the seemingly constant threat of nuclear catastrophe—was at its height.
If Taymor’s show is a failure, it fails for interesting reasons—as it were, for genetic reasons. For the show itself is a grotesque hybrid. At the heart of the Spider-Man disaster is the essential incompatibility of those two visions of physical transformation—the ancient and the modern, the redemptive and the punitive, visions that Taymor tried, heroically but futilely, to reconcile. As happens so often in both myth and comic books, the attempt to fuse two species resulted in the creation of a monster.