Sony’s Madame Web is a lower-key, and ultimately bland addition to the ever-expanding Spider-Verse.
PLOT: Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson) is a New York EMT who acquires clairvoyance after a brush with death. She uses her powers to stop a spider-powered villain (Tahar Rahim) hunting three girls who, he believes, will eventually end his life.
REVIEW: Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Not every Marvel movie by Sony has been bad. For my money, they’re behind the two greatest Spider-Man movies ever made, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Across the Spider-Verse. And there’s the Venom movies. Those are elevated B-movies, but they’re a decent amount of fun thanks to Tom Hardy’s merciless scenery chewing, and the grosses for those flicks have been astronomical. Clearly, someone likes them. But Morbius…
Of course, one of the reasons people aren’t hyped about Madame Web is that the character isn’t exactly a household name. For those who aren’t in the loop, in the comic, Madame Web is a paralyzed, blind clairvoyant, which is distinctly not what Dakota Johnson is playing here. She’s already appeared, in a manner of speaking, in Across the Spider-Verse as a guidance counsellor, voiced by Rachel Dratch.
So it seems Sony’s taken a loose approach in adapting the character to the big screen, which is fine. I think people have been down on it because of the meme-worthy trailer. Those posters, which looked whipped together, didn’t help, with everyone assuming this would be just another B-superhero movie.
So what’s the verdict?
Madame Web is, unfortunately, a big mess. I don’t know exactly what happened, but the four credited writers, who include director SJ Clarkson, aren’t able to make a compelling addition to the Spider-verse. Like so many films of its ilk, it teases the movie fans actually want to see, which is a full-on Spider-Women team-up film, which is something we seemed to be promised by the trailer. Instead, this prequel establishes how Cassie Webb meets the three girls who later become costumed superheroes. There’s not much in the way of super-heroics here at all. Here, they are “teens” hunted by Tahar Rahim’s Ezekiel Sims, who has powers similar to Spider-Man.
We learn in the opening, which boasts a cameo by Kerry Bishé of my beloved Halt and Catch Fire as Cassie’s mother, that he murderously stole a sacred spider in the Amazon. He acquired certain powers, but they came with a curse. He’s clairvoyant, but he can see his death at the hands of three costumed heroines, who here are played by Celeste O’Connor, Isabela Merced and, hilariously, Sydney Sweeney, who wears thick sweaters and glasses to fool us into thinking she’s 16. Given how much of a star she’s become, audiences may find her playing such a young character unintentionally hilarious, but that’s not the only goofy part of this movie.
It has to be said that some of the dialogue here is ROUGH. It’s jam-packed with so much exposition and references to other Spider-Man characters that it becomes cheesy. Adam Scott plays a guy – whose identity I won’t spoil here – who is a major character in the Spider-Man universe, so his full name is awkwardly said out loud a few times, just in case we don’t get the many hints being dropped, I suppose that’s for the benefit of those whose attention might waver. Fair enough, because that happened to me here more than a few times.
In the lead, Dakota Johnson does all she can but seems an awkward fit for a superhero movie. She’s always seemed more at home with edgier fare, such as the Suspiria remake, but she gives it a go. She gives Cassie some attitude and is entertaining until the abysmal epilogue, where her performance becomes quite campy, which does not bode well for this hoped-for franchise. She’s being set up as the Professor X of the Spider-verse, but I’m not sure the role will fit her well. Merced, O’Connor and Sweeney bring the requisite spunk to their roles and may be excellent choices for a future team-up movie, hopefully allowing them to play the characters closer to their own age.
Of everyone, the only one who comes off poorly is Tahar Rahim. He’s an excellent actor, having delivered a stunning performance in the film A Prophet, but something is very off, with it seeming like a lot of his dialogue was changed in post-production looping. It’s very noticeable and makes him come off as very stiff.
Indeed, it’s the writing that dooms this smaller-scaled film. Early on, Cassie is established as being on the run from the cops, but she can jet off to Peru without worrying about being caught. The movie is set in 2003, so it can justify the lack of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, allowing them to pepper the film with needle drops that mostly date back years before the film takes place. The only exception is an action scene set to Britney Spears’ “Toxic” because it’s set in the early aughts. You’ve got to have Britney.
Director SJ Clarkson is noted for her excellent TV work, which includes the great Netflix Marvel show Jessica Jones. Still, the style she brought to that is absent here, with some strange choices, including a distracting use of shaky cam that comes in during some dialogue scenes. Perhaps it’s fitting it takes place in 2003, as that style was pretty dominant back then, but it seems bizarre now. Given the modest budget, there’s also very little in the way of action until the finale, which sets up future adventures for the cast. But I don’t know – I doubt anyone will walk out of this with a franchise.
Ultimately, Madame Web could have been a decent little B-side of a superhero film, but the terrible, cornball dialogue and lacklustre pace doom it early on. To note, the version of the movie I saw had no post-credits scene, so when the credits roll – you’re free!