'Spider-Man': It's Not So Easy To Turn Off The Lights

When I was growing up, adolescent boys came in two varieties: DC Comics fans and Marvel Comics fans. I was the former even though I knew, in my heart of hearts, that the latter were somehow cooler, just like the Rolling Stones were just a touch hipper than the Beatles.

While DC's Batman was subduing the likes of the Penguin and the Joker, and Superman's arch villains included Lex Luthor and Brainiac, Marvel's Hulk and Iron man defended society against evildoers such as, such as ... hmmm, maybe that was it. DC Comics had more vivid archenemies.

I've got to admit, though, that Marvel's Spider-Man/Peter Parker, bred in a middle-class row house in Queens, N.Y., spoke to me in ways that Batman/Bruce Wayne (Gotham City mansion) and Superman/Clark Kent (Midwest farm by way of the planet Krypton) could not. And there were even some memorable villains in his life.

To read Michael Riedel's story in the New York Post last week, there has been no shortage of bad guys -- and gals -- when it comes to the Broadway production of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." Riedel pretty much eviscerates everyone who had anything to do with the production from Bono, who co-wrote the score but "washed his hands of this fiasco" by the time he "got around to seeing it" to director Julie Taymor ("a self-absorbed spendthrift") to original producer David Garfinkle ("a nincompoop ... who couldn't raise the money") to the "cynical rock-concert promoter" who was brought in to replace him, Michael Cohl.



In the spirit of Broadway's greatest impresario, George M. Cohan, Cohl reportedly told Riedel at the first preview: "I don't care what you write. Just make sure it's on the front page."

For all of the bad press the show has received -- and bad blog before that -- you've got to wonder how it keeps going. Riedel, in fact, declares it all but dead -- but not until September. How can that be? It took Cola-Cola less than three months to pull the plug on New Coke in 1985 and I dare say reviews for the beverage might have been a bit more mixed than they are for the show.

Is the power of the brand name Spider-Man so strong that it can overcome the torrent of bad reviews? Are there so many Spidey loyalists out there that it doesn't matter that the vast majority of critics, who broke tradition and reviewed it before its official opening, have panned the production? One is tempted to spin the case that that Cap-C Critics don't matter the way that they used to, but the little-b bloggers -- many of them Spidey loyalists -- have been just as brutal from the beginning.

Or is it that people are attracted to the production for the same reason they like to watch cars spin around a track: the titillating possibility of a wreck occurring (though nobody wants to see anybody get hurt, "of course.")

Perversely fueling the Spider-Man publicity machine, "Saturday Night Live" featured a mock commercial Saturday night for a law firm that specializes in filing suits on the behalf of audience members who have been injured at the show even as the New York State Department of Labor hit the production with two safety violations.

I put the question to a gentleman who has been producing shows in New York for more than 25 years, albeit -- like everyone else -- at nowhere near the $65 million budget that Spider-Man has.

"I was a huge Spiderman fan when I was 9-15 or so. I understand the loyalty and interest," he told me. "The world needs heroes who fight for right and do good stuff. Spiderman is one such character."

But that's not why it's sticking around through at least the summer. "They can't close it," he said. "They pre-sold so many tickets and once you sell them, you're obligated. There's just nowhere for them to go."

He also points out that it really doesn't matter what critics say anymore, though it has less to do with the blogosphere than it does with another marketing juggernaut. "Disney changed the landscape of Broadway," he says, in that a Broadway show is the one thing that everyone who visits New York is guaranteed to attend.

The branding of Spider-Man took place a long time ago, and the producers of the show will feed off of it for as long as it's feasible to recoup as much of the investment as they can. "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public," H.L. Mencken famously said. "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" may prove him wrong, yet, but not before it has sucked every last penny it can from the tourist trade, American or not.

While we're on the subject of over-the-top spectacles with high production values, Anderson Cooper's interview with Lady Gaga on "60 Minutes" last night basically confirmed everything we already knew about her marketing genius, but Gaga/Stefani Germanotta did seem to let her hair down (so to speak) a bit more than in other interviews I've seen.

Her rabid fans are reacting as much to her message -- "an uplifting mantra of self-empowerment and self-acceptance," Cooper says -- as her music. The camera captures her in concert as she crows with the gusto of Tony Robbins: "Tonight I want you to let go of all of your insecurities. I want you to reject anyone or anything that ever made you feel that you don't belong. Free yourself of these things tonight! Yeah!!!"

Gaga may make $100 million this year, according to Forbes. "People take me both way too seriously," she tells Cooper, "and not seriously enough." Sounds like the same dilemma Spidey has on Broadway. Only for him, it's unlikely to work out.

2 comments about "'Spider-Man': It's Not So Easy To Turn Off The Lights".
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  1. Eric Lopkin from The Modern Observer Group, February 14, 2011 at 8:04 p.m.

    "I've got to admit, though, that DC's Spider-Man/Peter Parker, bred in a middle-class row house in Queens, N.Y.,"

    Please do a better job checking your facts. Spider-Man is, and alwats has been, published by Marvel Comics.

    Eric Lopkin

  2. Thom Forbes from T.H. Forbes Co., February 14, 2011 at 8:30 p.m.

    I knew that, Eric. Just mistyped. Thanks for catching it.

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