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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Enlisted by a team of honor students for a seminar on superheroes, a mild-mannered professor discovers his inner obsession. Assuming the powers of a novelist, teacher, playwright, and scholar, Professor Chris Gavaler embarks on a mission to unlock the secrets of the multiverse.

Tag Archives: Turn Off the Dark

Scene One. JULIE TAYMOR (played by Julianne Moore) is arguing backstage with PRODUCER, a sixty-year-old roadie, with fuzzy hair and beard, dressed in jeans and a U2 concert T-shirt. He’s smoking a joint.  JULIE wears the remains of a Lion King costume, most of which has been shredded from her body, exposing her left breast in an act of tasteful and artistically appropriate nudity. The first notes of the opening song, “The Show May or May Not Go On,” squeak from the orchestra pit. Enter GREEN GOBLIN (played by Willem Dafoe). He is painted green with pointy ears, but with an oversized white neck brace and matching foot cast. He walks with a pair of crutches. Ropes connect his harness to the unseen flyrail. PRODUCER bursts into song . . .

PRODUCER

Julie, when will we open?

JULIE

I keep on hoping,

but I just don’t know if or when.

GREEN GOBLIN

This costume is cheesy, I hate that trapeze,

oh god I hope they don’t drop me again.

PRODUCER

This isn’t funny. I’m out of money.

JULIE

I just need another million or ten.

A strange moving presence churns in the shadowy upper recesses of the stage. Its enormous, spider-like body hovers above the cast, almost but never quite bobbing into view. One of its tentacles gestures at a doorway, which is immediately bathed in light. Enter IAGO (played simultaneously by a midget set designer and Taymor’s trusted writing partner, a giant talking pencil). Tempo slows as IAGO starts to belt out “We Need You, Bono”

IAGO

If only there were someone,

someone who could save us.

PRODUCER

A hero to get things done?

IAGO

Instead of making all this fuss.

GREEN GOBLIN

Can he stave off these reviews?

PRODUCER

And shave the budget? That’s a must.

JULIE

We’re only in previews. You’re such a wuss.

Power chord. Dramatic light change. Enter BONO (played by Ben Stiller) with supermodel CHRISTY TURLINGTON (played by supermodel Christy Turlington) and a CHORUS of identical, red-lipped models from that old Robert Palmer video. BONO is carrying an almost empty six-pack of Stella Artois.  All, including BONO, wear tops that expose their left breasts. The CHORUS pretends to play instruments as BONO sings “(I’m a) Pissin’ Philanthropist.”

BONO

I save the world and I do it pissed.

Bend over AIDS, here comes my fist.

African debt, give my junk a kiss.

Cause I’m a pissin’ philanthropist.

CHORUS

Because he’s a pissin’ philanthropist!

ALL (except JULIE)

Oh yeah, he’s a pissin’ philanthropist!

PRODUCER

Bono, can you get us out of debt?

JULIE

Without touching my post-modern sets?

BONO

This is Broadway not the bleedin’ Met.

JULIE

It’s about vision, not the gross and net.

CHORUS

Yeah, but you’re not a pissin’ philanthropist!

ALL (except JULIE):

Oh no, she’s not a pissin’ philanthropist!

JULIE

I make art!

BONO

You make farts.

GREEN GOBLIN

This show’s a farce.

BONO

Eat my arse.

CHORUS

Because he’s a pissin’ philanthropist!

BONO attempts to drop his pants, trips, and passes out face down center stage. All stare in silence. The spider monster in the shadows stirs. Orchestra begins “Changes Suck” which plays under the conversation, while IAGO makes a pass at TURLINGTON.

PRODUCER: Okay, so we need to fix the songs as best we can, come up with a new ending.*

JULIE: It is not easy to change anything, but now I think it is a matter of lyrical and musical changes — *

IAGO and TURLINGTON

It’s always so hard. Changes aren’t easy.

JULIE: And perhaps cutting a scene or two from the second act.*

IAGO and TURLINGTON

They make me feel strange. They make me feel sleazy.

GREEN GOBLIN: Maybe we could cut—AAAAAAAAAAAAH!

A black tentacle yanks GREEN GOBLIN out of view and then drops his body in a mangled pile, before yanking him up again, repeating the process through the duration of the show and then long, long afterwards. The song stops as the cast and orchestra turn and watch until bored.

JULIE: Okay. Good meeting. Let’s reconvene tomorrow.

All begin to leave, except IAGO, who smiles at JULIE and lovingly paws her exposed breast. He watches her exit until satisfied that he is alone, and then he steps toward the shadows.

IAGO: Master?

The monster descends. It is THE EDGE (played by an enormous, eight-tubed sock puppet animated by thirty-seven stagehands).

THE EDGE: You have completed the scenes as I instructed?

IAGO: Best not to mention anything to J.*

THE EDGE: Then the time is ripe to implement . . . Plan X!*

IAGO: Please know that anything you need from me — I’m at your service.*

THE EDGE: Plan X will crush Julie’s naive artistic ambitions and plunge this show into blockbuster mediocrity! MWAHAHAHAHA!

IAGO: Is that ‘X’ as in the letter ‘x’ or the Greek number ‘ten’? Because by my count—

THE EDGE: Silence, human. Bring me my focus groups!

Lights out. Scene Two. Opening Night. Enter PRODUCER and BILL CLINTON (played by Robert Palmer) in matching tuxedos that expose their left breasts. BONO and JULIE are in the corner of the stage having sex. Orchestra plays “A Freak Like Me Needs Company,” a song added to the show after JULIE was fired.

PRODUCER

All the weirdos from out of town
And all the freaks always around
All the weirdos in the world
Are here in New York City tonight

BILL CLINTON: What an amazing and historic night on Broadway. New York has never seen anything like Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. And I am very proud of them for not giving up, it was fabulous.*

THE EDGE descends and devours CLINTON.

CLINTON: AAAAAAAAAAAH!

THE EDGE

If you’re looking for a night out on the town
You just found me
A freak like me needs company
I’m a 75 million dollar circus tragedy

JULIE: (shouting over BONO’s naked back) I am very excited. It’s opening night! I am delighted to be here. Also, I’m suing. These are very dark times.*

BONO: She’s clearly exhausted, overwrought.*

JULIE: Shakespeare would have been appalled!*

ALL
All the weirdos in the world
Are here right now in New York City

Lights out. Applause. No curtain call.

[*Things they actually said.]

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The box of 70’s comics in my attic includes a mangled copy of DC and Marvel’s first publishing team-up, Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man.  The battle should have lasted one panel. Little Peter Parker might have held his own against the less godlike 1938 Superman, but the 70’s Man of Tomorrow could have squashed Spider-Man like, well, a spider. The fight ends in a draw, but only because Superman pulls his one punch. His fist never makes contact, but the shockwave sends Spider-Man sailing across town.

Julie Taymor suffered the same fate earlier this year.

It requires a lot of ubermensch hubris to transform a comic book into a musical, and Bono, who co-wrote the lyrics for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and ex-director Julie Taymor, who co-wrote the book, share it. I noted last week the eugenic shadow Nietzsche casts over the songbook. Patrick Page’s Green Goblin is a 21st century Frankenstein breeding supermen into evolutionary supremacy. Bono never puts the phrase “God is dead” to melody, but it’s been the favorite refrain of supervillains for a hundred years.

In 1911, an American eugenics organization issued their first “Preliminary Report” for improving the human race. They recommended the prevention of “unfit breeding” through immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, sterilization, and “euthanasia.”They envisioned a gas chamber in every Smallville, an idea Hitler liked so much he improved on it.

If God is dead, then the Green Goblins of the world are free to take control. Nietzsche thought that would be a good thing, a race of supermen rising to replace obsolete, god-hobbled humanity. Fortunately, Bono and Taymor swing to our rock ‘n roll rescue. Their Spider-Man is no superman. Instead of assuming the throne God left empty, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark restores the old world order.

Real old. The Broadway Spider-Man is an offspring, not of homo superior, but Greek mythology. This Peter Parker sings about Icarus and gives class presentations on the spider goddess Arachne. It wasn’t a random universe that transformed Peter into a web-slinging mutant. It was a divine plan. In the final song, Arachne, “the queen of dreams banished to a shadow prison,” reveals to him that she has been watching and waiting all along. “The fates have delivered you,” she intones. “The gift you’ve been given binds you to me.”

God isn’t dead. She was just sleeping.

Of course when Bono ended their Broadway team-up and punched the amazing Taymor across town, most of Arachne went with her (one reviewer estimates that actress T. V. Carpio’s role was snipped by more than half). Bono and the Edge composed a new song for their Nietzscheian Goblin to fill the god-shaped gap in the show’s running time, but Spider-Man still triumphs and the eugenic future is thwarted once more. Instead of striving for ubermensch excellence, the producers settled for everyman mediocrity.

Alex Pappademas in The New York Times Magazine recently bemoaned the sorry state of the mass market superhero, wishing the genre would be handed over to auteurs, to directors with bold artistic visions. That didn’t go so well for Ang Lee and the Hulk. Tim Burton invented the modern superhero film, but Warner Brothers still punched him across town after one idiosyncratic sequel. Bryan Singer managed to crash the Superman franchise in a single bound. And apparently none of Taymor’s preview audiences could comprehend her superhuman vision either.

The common man doesn’t want the superman. They want Spider-Man.

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My daughter’s Latin teacher told me this joke over a pitcher of beer:

While an angel is giving a tour of heaven, a new arrival sees someone in a leather jacket and shades slouching in a corner and acting cool.

“Oh my God,” he asks, “is that Bono?”

“No,” says the angel, “that’s God. He just THINKS he’s Bono.”

Everybody at the table cracked up. Bono is bigger than God. Even God thinks so. It’s a good joke, even without the beer. But I swear I’d heard it before. Was it Lennon who said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus? Or was that the other Lenin? The one who called religion an opium for the masses?  (Or was that Groucho Marx?) Either way, Nietzsche made the joke first. Except his punchline isn’t half as good. “God is dead” never gets a laugh.

The comic book Superman was Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s adolescent response to Hitler, but his namesake, “the Superman,” was Frederic Nietzsche’s adolescent response to Darwin. Nietzsche, slouching in a corner of the 19th century with his shades on, saw that the world no longer needed supernatural forces to make sense of itself. And if God’s dead, it’s up to humankind to replace Him. Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton made the same leap. The year Nietzsche introduced his ubermensch, Galton coined the term “eugenics,” the pseudo science of human-controlled evolution. They both envisioned the rise of the planet of the supermen.

And, apparently, so does Bono.

I finally gave in and downloaded the U2 soundtrack to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark to listen to on my daily jogs. A lot of rock ballads belted out in well-enunciated Broadway style, no surprises there. Patrick Page’s Green Goblin thankfully muscles in around the halfway mark, usually leading an ensemble of toe-tapping supervillainy. Nietzsche and Galton sing harmony.

It turns out the Goblin’s “life’s work” is “enhanced genetics” and “super-human kinetics” directed toward the creation of “new men,” a “new species.” The military wants a “new breed of Marines” (same as Captain America’s old handlers), but the Goblin’s “designer genes” lead him into a much bolder “do it yourself world” in which human beings become the “masters of creation,” claiming “powers once reserved for the ancient gods.”

Man wants to evolve himself into God.It’s as if U2 were adapting Also sprach Zarathustra for the stage.

As the fates would have it, another Green Goblin (James Franco played him in the first, soon-to-be-extinct Spider-Man films) assumes the same Frankenstein role in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It’s the lure of the superman (this time in the form of super-intelligence) that puts his research on the fast track and results in (spoiler alert!) the creation of a new species and the extinction of humankind. What Nietzsche and Galton were singing about over a century ago.  Except without the cool CGI.

Neither of them read Frankenstein very closely. The first superman was bred in Mary Shelley’s writing laboratory, looking not like a stitched-up corpse but a towering Greek god (the original illustrations depicted him in tunic and sandals). Unlike James Franco, Shelly’s mad scientist realizes his mistake in time and prevents his creation from breeding, because “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.” Nietzsche and Galton and the Nazi eugenicists who followed them made that terror their goal.

Reviews of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark do not prophesy the rise of a new breed of musical anytime soon.  And while “Rise Above” makes a nice superstar spectacle on American Idol, a superhero is still an odd creature to put to song. But then most musicals are. Shelley’s novel was so big, the Victorians made a musical out of it too. An act of hubris even Bono wouldn’t attempt.

(Next Monday: Spider-Man vs. the Superman, Round 2)

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