Review: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is set to go dark — for good — in January, 2014 after a turbulent three year run on Broadway that was hampered by negative press at the start. The highlights included an actor tumbling 20 feet into the orchestra after not securing his harness (one of five injuries sustained by the cast); deep budget overruns for the multi-million dollar project and a major rewrite of the plot after the original was universally panned. The show ended up becoming a punching bag at the 2012 Tony Awards, as the show set a Broadway record with 182 previews before it finally opened. 

So now that the background is out of the way, I figured I’d start with the good: There are about 15 total minutes of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark that delivers a spectacle unlike anything seen around Broadway. The death-defying, high-wire stunts left the audience squealing in delight as Spider-Man and the Green Goblin had it out 50 feet above the floor. The fights were well choreographed and was done in such a way as to enhance the plot as opposed to overtaking the show. Gimmicky? Sure. But you can’t deny that the gimmick is wildly entertaining. The sets are also grandiose and does well to add to the visual  candy the musical already has. I wouldn’t splurge for full price based on these 15 minutes, but I didn’t, so my discounted ticket went a long way.

But I wasn’t particularly impressed with the plot. Spider-Man at its core is a dark story about a troubled teenager who must come to grips with tragedy and a shaky moral compass. Spider-Man at its best isn’t a tale of cheerfulness; it is supposed to be a tale of an internal struggle as much as the struggle with the Green Goblin. But the plot pays only cursory homage to the spirit of the character, and fast forwards past much of the ethical dilemmas that Spider-Man faces before ultimately becoming a force of good. Uncle Ben’s tragic death isn’t treated as a driving factor behind Spider-Man’s birth as much as a check box on a list of plot lines that the play must execute.

As a result, we don’t have any attachment to the characters,  and many of them are just caricatures. Aunt May is a worrier. Mary Jane the clueless girlfriend.  J. Jonah Jameson the hack. Arachne barely understandable and unnecessary.  One character that did have some depth was Norman Osborn, as the play did put a new twist on that relationship, with Osborn claiming Spider-Man as a quasi-son. This added a little bit of flavor to an otherwise bland and tired plot. The same could be set of the score, which didn’t deliver a single memorable tune to hum once I left the theater. I expected much more from U2 rock legends Bono and The Edge.

On the whole, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is undoubtedly entertaining and worth checking out while it’s still on Broadway if you’ve got a couple bucks to throw around. But go in with the right expectations: You’re not leaving the theater with a new understanding of life so much as a faint smile on your face.

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