Sunday, December 26, 2010

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark--A Review

Last night, I saw the preview of the musical Spider-Man: Turn Out the Dark. It's not really a musical; it's a spectacle. It succeeds as a spectacle, fails as a musical, and hangs itself as a Spider-Man origin story. It's easier to find good things to say about the spectacle aspect, so I'll start by reviewing that aspect of the play.

Spider-Man: The Spectacle

Director/writer Julie Taymor and co-writer Glen Berger wanted to create a spectacle-something that was more than a musical. They succeeded. The sets were a wonder to behold (especially in the first half of the show). Aerialists, dressed as Spider-Man, the Green Goblin, and Arachne, flew about the stage and balcony, allowing viewers to feel a part of the production. In fact, because of the numerous injuries suffered by actors during rehearsals and previews, when the aerialists flew overhead it made me wonder-what if their cables broke and they fell on the audience? (And wouldn't that be analogous to what New York's pedestrians would wonder if an actual Spidey and actual Green Goblin were duking it out in the skies above Manhattan, without the cables?)

Even as a spectacle, though, the pacing of it didn't work for me. Most of the spectacular elements were in the first half of the show, so when the effects and wow elements were fewer (and repeating) in the second half, it was a let down. During the last hour of the play, I kept looking at my watch. If you see the play and leave at intermission, you'll see the best parts. Grade for spectacle (especially the first half): A.

Spider-Man: The Musical

In a good musical, the songs move the story forward. Unfortunately, the music in this play didn't do this very effectively. The actors often spoke a "recap" of the gist of the song in order to transition to the next scene or to move the story along. (If you see this play, bring along some tissues or napkins to stuff into your ears for some numbers: some songs were so loud that I had to cover my ears with my hands; I didn't enjoy those.)

As you may know, the songs were written by Bono and the Edge, and it showed. The songs didn't have the structure or feel of a "Broadway musical," which is okay in theory, but not in this execution. Sad so say, none of the songs were memorable-they didn't have a great "hook" as do many Broadway songs or even U2 songs. Plus the "feel" of the music didn't match up with Spider-Man's character or story. Grade for music: B- (I'm being generous here, taking effort into consideration in my grade)

Spider-Man: The Origin Story

I've read (or seen) most every Spider-Man origin story there is because I'm writing a book on origin stories that includes a chapter on Spider-Man's origins. I was looking forward to this musical to see how it compared with previous origin stories of the Webbed Wonder. I was disappointed. There isn't a whole lot of "character development" in this story, and there isn't much more of a plot; what plot there is focuses too much on Mary Jane in the beginning and not enough about Peter. Even though Peter/Spider-Man is a comic book character, his story is rich in the human drama of shouldering the burden of being talented and figuring what to do with those talents--how to put them to good use.

In Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, he's not even a two-dimensional character-he's one-dimensional. He's less real and nuanced than ever. 
I've read that that director Taymor et al. wanted to convey Peter's burden and sense of responsibility--which makes a great story and what makes Spider-Man an everyman hero--but their efforts fell short of the mark. Peter comes across as a whiney guy, overwhelmed with his newfound abilities and gifts and he never gets the hang of how to be a hero. Yes, he saves people; yes, he defeats the bad guys and offers to sacrifice himself, but he never slings to the heights of becoming a hero.

In fact, in this musical, Peter Parker does not actually appear to be a nice guy; we see him being thoughtless and selfish with Aunt May and Uncle Ben, who are portrayed as nags rather than caring people clearly trying to do their best. Moreover, he's whiney and preoccupied when he's with Mary Jane; why she's attracted to this version of Peter Parker is a mystery.

Let me also say a word about why audiences might be leaving the theatre confused by the ending (at least as reported in the press). I can see why. At the start of the play, Taymor and Berger create a narrative structure of a play within a play: a group of high school comic book geeks discuss different Spider-Man storylines and characters-they argue what would happen if... These kids, in essence, frame the action of the story during the play. But Taymor and Berger break that frame by having these same teenagers in scenes with Peter Parker (which is confusing enough), and to top it off, the teens don't appear at the end of the play to close the story. As framing narrators, they should come back to "complete" their story. In the second half of the play, the lines of the character Arachne make that frame even more confusing. Grade for story: C-/D+.

Based on the version that I saw, if you've got money to burn and want to see a cool spectacle, then by all means, see Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. If you want to see a good musical, see something else. If you're a Spider-Man fan, buy some Spidey comic books or graphic novels.

Copyright 2010 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is Click here to take her brief What Is a Superhero? Survey.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Megamind: On Being Blue

MegamindI got around to seeing Megamind this past weekend; I enjoyed the film and some of the implicit psychological "lessons" it conveyed, but was also uncomfortable with one of the take home messages.

Here's an overview (with no more spoilers than what's included in the film's trailers) to better understand the psychological points I'll make. Basic plot: Two different alien babies (from two different planets) land in the U.S. One baby is superpowered, is adopted by a wealthy family, and goes on to be a Superman-like character named Metro Man; the other baby (who happens to be bald, has a large cranium and blue skin), is supersmart, lands in a penitentiary and is raised by the inmates, and grows up to be a villain named Megamind.

Both children go to the same school for gifted youngsters; the child who will become Metro Man is the teacher's pet and is a popular kid, whereas the child who will become Megamind is ostracized by his peers. Megamind is physically different and intellectually different; he is clearly more intellectually gifted than his peers, which we can tell because we see him inventing various technologically-advanced devices while in elementary school. He is essentially shunned by his peers for being different, and because of the particular ways in which he is different his classmates expect him to be "bad." Their beliefs about him, in concert with his social isolation, led him to develop an "evil" self-image and to behave accordingly.

To me, the take home message from this early part of the film boils down to: how other people treat you affects your self-concept and behavior--in essence, who you become. If you're repeatedly treated as if you've done something wrong, pretty soon you might well start acting the part that people have cast you in, and come to believe it to boot.

This premise is not far-fetched. Megamind's experience was based in part, on evocative interaction, a type of interaction between genes and environment in which an individual's genetically influenced characteristics (in this case, his blue skin and baldness from birth, which were also characteristics of his parents) evoke responses from others. (Click here for an article describes evocative interaction in the first few pages.) In Megamind's case, such responses are mistrust, social distancing, and a predisposition to view Megamind's behavior in a negative light. People had stereotype of Megamind as "other" (in a not good way, in contrast to Metro Man's being a different "other") and treated him accordingly. Megamind was also subject to his microenvironment--the environment created by his very presence; people's characteristics create their own microenvironments (discussed in Kosslyn & Rosenberg, 2001 and in Adam & Marshall, 1996).

The child who becomes Metro Man, by virtue of his alien/genetic athletic superabilities and good looks, creates a microenvironment in which he is looked up to, is popular, and people's behavior toward him elicit his heroic actions. In contrast, the microenvironment of the child who becomes Megamind, by virtue of his own alien/genetic differentness, leads people to behave in ways that create a sense of alienation in him.

Over the course of the film, when Megamind is disguised as a normal looking human, he is treated differently: he's assumed to be a decent person and treated as such, and he is liked by a beautiful woman. Lo and behold, he starts to feel and act like a decent person, and his self-concept and identity transition from villain to hero. To me, the message is clear: if you treat people as villains without cause (as happened to the Megamind child), they'll come to act that way. Treat them with respect and dignity, and there's a better chance that they'll act that way than if you treat them as villains.

Which leads me to the (implicit) message of the film that I wasn't so enthusiastic about: nerds who are marginalized, ignored, or treated poorly may become villains because of such treatment. Implicit in this movie is that villains only = nerds gone bad. In this film, the two villains were nerds (and marginalized) before becoming villains, and they found their solace by becoming evil. Is the moral that people should treat nerds nicely, or to beware of nerds for what they might become (and so marginalize them even more?)

On a lighter note, the film pokes fun of various superhero tropes: the predictability of superhero stories, "destiny," the burden of being a superhero and the "fun" of being the villain. It even parodies the Austin Powers films--with the heroine subjected to the threat of alligator infested waters--and the Godfather!


Adams, G.R. & Marshall, S. (1996). A developmental social psychology of identity: Understanding the person in context. Journal of Adolescence, 19, 1-14.

Edwards, C. P., Tretasco de Guzman, M. R., Brown, J., & Kumru, A. (2006). In X. Chen, D. French, and B. Schneider (Eds.) PEER RELATIONSHIPS IN CULTURAL CONTEXT (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 23-51.

Kosslyn, S. M., & Rosenberg, R. S. (2011). Exploring Psychology (Fourth edition). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Copyright 2010 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is Click here to take her brief What Is a Superhero? Survey.