How Julie Taymor Misunderstood Spider-Man

Julie Taymor Ice Sculpture by Randy Finch Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

Daniel Mendelsohn, the classicist who tried to take down Mad Men, turns his gaze to Julie Taymor and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark in an essay for New York Review of Books that will probably be the highest-brow dissection of the subject you are ever likely to read. Mendelsohn argues that Spider-Man failed not because it was bad, ill-conceived, expensive, and dangerous, but that it was bad, ill-conceived, expensive, and dangerous because the story of Spider-Man is so at odds with Taymor’s understanding of metamorphosis. Over the course of her career, she’s taken a classical (as in Greek) view of physical transformation — that they’re burdensome and punitive — whereas Spider-Man's transformation is modern, i.e., mostly just empowering. “If Taymor’s show is a failure, it fails for interesting reasons — as it were, for genetic reasons," he writes. "For the show itself is a grotesque hybrid. At the heart of the Spider-Man disaster is the essential incompatibility of those two visions of physical transformation — the ancient and the modern, the redemptive and the punitive, visions that Taymor tried, heroically but futilely, to reconcile. As happens so often in both myth and comic books, the attempt to fuse two species resulted in the creation of a monster." [NYRB]