I recently went to see the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The show was still in previews. The opening had been delayed because there were so many technical problems. In fact, the matinee I attended had to stop while the main character, Peter Parker, Spider-Man's alter ego, hung from a rope, wanly waving at the audience. Despite that, the show was a spectacle, with exquisitely costumed creatures rising up from beneath the stage and flying around the enormous theater. A couple of times, I thought Spider-Man might wind up in my lap.
If this show can get itself together, it will be a technical tour de force and provide some imaginative entertainment for kids and their families as well as old Spidey fans nostalgic for their hero. I will leave comments on the story and acting to more qualified critics, but I do have a bone to pick with this show--the choice of villain.
Spider-Man has a long tradition of "mad scientist" super-villains, starting with the comic books, going through the movies and now, the musical. I say it's time to get over it and to update this anachronistic obsession with evil scientists. But why be so bothered with a harmless fantasy? Well, anyone who has seen the latest results of international testing should be, considering that U.S. students ranked 23rd in science and even lower in math in the latest results of the international educational assessment PISA. If our future lies in the innovation economy, based on products that emerge from science and technology, our students need to step up their game. And to help make that happen, not only does our society need to invest in science education, we need to create an environment more receptive to scientific ideas and one that inspires boys and girls of all ethnics groups to consider science and engineering careers.
The Spider-Man super-villain scientist may be fantasy, but it is rooted in a distrust of science that pervades our society. To be sure, some wariness is justified; there's certainly ample evidence throughout history that science can be used for evil as well as good. But science and engineering have brought us longer and healthier lives, enabled us to learn about worlds beyond our own, and given us all the electronic gadgets we love so much, including the one I'm typing on right now. And if we want this progress to continue to improve our lives and to bolster our economy, let's stop picking on scientists and find another villain. There are certainly plenty of real ones out there.