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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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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