Universal Studios Hollywood


But is he still on a roll?

Capitalizing on the mega-hit film in theaters, Universal offers their newest stunt-and-song spectacular, SPIDER-MAN ROCKS, now open at the Entertainment Center of the Studio park. While timely enough, rabid fans of the movie Spidey may not be so impressed by the stage show, but no doubt it gives kids another radioactive dose of their favorite web-spinner this summer.

While the show is a good draw for Universal Studios, audiences will inevitably sense the vast differences between the film's stunning digital acrobatics and the rather earthbound adventures of SPIDER-MAN ROCKS – and though this dichotomy may seem obvious to adult guests, children might well expect to have their socks knocked off by Peter Parker's altered-ego hero once again, and walk out disappointed with the results.

I won't review the entire show in detail – no point in spoiling it for everyone – but I'll provide some glimpses of the show and illustrate its strengths and weaknesses:

This stage show's opening mirrors that of Spider-Man's genesis as shown in the feature film, consistent with Spidey lore, if hastily so. Nerdy Peter Parker discovers his superspider bite gives him arachnid powers, like the ability to summon stunt cables at will and bound about the set. Okay, okay, we all know going in this is a staged stunt show, and that performers can't actually shoot high-tensile webs from their wrists in order to swing across town – there's no faulting the Universal entertainment team for this. But after the eye-popping visual effects which allowed Tobey Maguire (and audiences) to soar high over New York with grace and agility, Universal's stunt show simply has a very tough time following that act. In short the movie delivers thrills no staged act can equal, let alone top. Knowing Universal did the best they could in the very real, non-digital world, I cannot say this is a weakness of their live show, but it is an inescapable limitation on the results.

Now for a genuine drawback in the show: see if you can spot Spider-Man in the photo below:

Show stopper

Trick question, you can't because he's not in the picture. In fact, after his first rescue of Mary Jane from the dubious clutches of a couple dancing "street baddies", Spidey swings up and away to disappear . . . from the show entirely for the length of two dance numbers! Apparently, Spider-Man himself doesn't Rock, he leaves that to the hip/retro fashioned youth of town who scamper around for a couple minutes, accompanied by current hit songs which have nothing to do with the story or the show.

While such musical interludes fit well with a previous denizen of this theater, Beetlejuice's own rockin' revue, such lengthy pop bopping on stage stands out awkwardly, especially so early in the show, as a 'time filler' while our hero prepares for the remainder of the action. I viewed the show within a couple weeks of its debut, and while the audience appreciated the dancers' skilled efforts, restless shifting on benches signaled some impatience for our title character to return to the stage and get on with the show. By this point, even the now-defunct Wild, Wild, Wild West Stunt Show offered more action to audiences . . . such a comparison should never be possible if Universal hopes to live up to the Spider-Hype surrounding the film.

If it was Universal's belief that "kids love music, they'll be entertained," then their show's spin doctors pulled a real David Hedison – kids may indeed love pop hit songs, but no doubt they begged their parents to see Spider-Man in action, not the abridged version of Web Side Story!  On the other hand, the show creators did incorporate music into the action during a hand-to-hand battle between Spidey and Green Goblin – a somewhat clever 'percussion' fight between adversaries – but this successful blending of the two is all too brief to truly exploit how well music and action can play off each other.

There's evil in the air

Eventually the adventure resumes as the villain hovers into town – though if all your Spider-knowledge results from the movie, you may have great difficulty recognizing him as Green Goblin in this getup. Apologies for the slightly blurry, flash-less photos (I do obey the no-flash pictures requests), but even so it's clear this GG bears little resemblance to his movie counterpart. This is only a guess on my part until verification is obtained, but it appears that Universal actually only acquired the rights to the comic book (or 'classic') versions of the characters, not Spider-Man and Green Goblin as they appear in the Columbia Studios movie. Though this difference is only slightly noticeable in our hero's costume, Goblin's look varies drastically.

Visible means of support

Who cares, you ask? I sure don't, this didn't bother me since I'm not a devout Spider-Fan in any way, but it's another film-to-stage hiccup which Spidey-Hyped kids might find jarring if they're expecting the movie on-stage. Gone is the Goblin's high tech 'armor', and in its stead remains a tunic-clad gnome who looks more like he escaped from the Adam West-era "Batman" TV show.

Again, it seems partly a licensing difference with the film, more so another concession to producing a daily live stunt show versus a high-budget, multi-month produced movie.

Credit duly noted for inclusion of GG's flying gizmo, a must for the character to compete with Spider-Man's far flung swing sessions, and while Green Goblin may not soar as fast or as far in the stage show (a practical impossibility), it's easy enough to ignore the supporting cables and join in the spirit of the action. The Green Goblin's appearance does get the action, and the show, off the ground and in gear.

Swinging into action

As Spidey swings into action, you get a better view of the metropolitan stage set, which indeed stands out more impressively viewed live than it does in my photos, which tend to compress the scenery and overemphasize the stage scaffolds in front of the skyline. The fog effects seen in the photos also tends to wash out the background cyclorama, whereas the fog merely provides visual atmosphere to the scene on-stage.

A word on the set, while I'm at it: while expansive and nicely designed, the set felt underutilized in such a stunt show – either the action took place swinging from stunt cables or was grounded on stage. With the inherent verticality of the character's story, I expected better exploitation of the midrange scaffolding, beyond a couple pyrotechnic squibs exploding off the railing as our stars ran along the platform. And as viewed in these photos, the stage scaffolding resembles . . . well, just that – given the impressive high rise cityscape behind it, I'd have thought the set designers at least would have endeavored to better disguise these stunt platforms and walkways as New York-style fire escapes or construction beams. To be fair, there is some hint of this construction theme among the stage props below, but those few visual cues hardly theme the scaffolding beyond its utterly functional appearance. And since audiences get a good long look at the set during the many minutes awaiting showtime, the set quickly loses its visual appeal even before the show begins. The multilevel set designs of both Conan and Beetlejuice shows, which preceded SPIDER-MAN ROCKS in this same theater, created much more successful blends of form and function than does this collection of catwalks.

It's tough to fault the Universal team on such things (though some reading along may say I'm demonstrating no trouble finding such faults), and I fully realize the earthbound limitations to such a stunt show – but again, this is another case of the movie establishing impossible expectations which a staged event, intentionally timed to ride the movie's success, cannot duplicate nearly as well.

Does that make SPIDER-MAN ROCKS a bad show? Not at all. But one can't help wondering if the show simply has no chance being as good as audiences want and hope it to be.

For all the film's epic battles spanning the New York skyline, staged cableswings and fisticuffs can't help but come off as diminished in the comparison.

One could argue that a Spider-Man stunt show would have benefited in a larger arena, like the WaterWorld spectacular, and while that would have better duplicated the film's scale and scope, the increased size would have further distanced the audience from their hero. This lack of proximity would have robbed Spider-Man of his personal appeal, thus the smaller indoor venue was the only real choice for the show – better to sacrifice epic scale for close-up action, a wise choice by Universal.

Spidey takes Goblin for a spin
Surfing the web, saving the day

As expected, Spidey surfs the web and saves Mary Jane from the evil, lime-y clutches of Green Goblin. An energetic battle in the air ensues as Spider-Man makes maximum use of his aerial attack to defeat the villain.

Credit given to the stunt players in the show, especially the man behind the Spidey-Mask who demonstrates solid skills in acrobatic moves and fight routines. I'd credit him by name, but I didn't see a cast member 'credits board' outside the show – a nice touch Universal usually provides to give faces and names to their talented, hard working performers. If I make it back to the Studio soon, I'll look for it more closely and update the page.

SPIDER-MAN ROCKS is a satisfying stage presentation, and a timely draw for summer crowds, but the show faces a tough challenge rising to the level of the feature film which has inspired its creation. While the musical selections tap into popular sounds of today, they don't particularly help the show progress or develop, nor are they as skillfully integrated into the proceedings as Universal's previous staged musical shows like Beetlejuice. True, the hit film boasts a nice collection of pop tunes by name musicmakers, the songs themselves avoid interrupting the film's action much better than in this show.

SPIDER-MAN ROCKS a little too much for my taste, but it's definitely worth seeing if you visit Universal Studios Hollywood.

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© 2002 scott weitz