- Madame Web
- Directed by S.J. Clarkson
- Written by Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Claire Parker and S.J. Clarkson
- Starring Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney and Adam Scott
- Classification PG; 116 minutes
- Opens in theatres Feb. 16
A little under two years ago, the atrocious Spider-Man spinoff Morbius arrived to torture moviegoers, the nonsensical vampire flick so traumatizing a viewing experience that I was confident in labelling it the absolute nadir of superhero cinema. Today, I owe Morbius an apology, because it turned out that Sony Pictures just needed a little more time and a whole lot of misplaced confidence to make an even worse Spidey spinoff, the astoundingly abysmal Madame Web.
Concocted by avaricious producers desperate to cash in on any Spider-Man-adjacent intellectual property – for those who absolutely must know, “Peter Parker” in any of his familiar cinematic forms never appears here, though he definitely kinda sorta exists – Madame Web is a dirge for the Marvel cinematic era. Stupendously stupid and never remotely in control of its faculties, the film represents a kind of weaponized incompetence, hostile and assaultive. The fact that it is being released into the world and not digitally incinerated feels like the cruellest kind of joke, with everyone – its makers and its audience – cast as the punchline.
Such a violent response threatens to make Madame Web sound more interesting than it actually is, at least in a sado-masochistic way. Do not make the mistake, though, of trying to reclaim this film as a piece of ironically appreciated anti-art. Any random two-minute snippet of the movie will immediately prove its uselessness.
Like, for instance, the opening sequence, in which heavily pregnant scientist Constance Webb (Kerry Bishé) is shown traipsing through the Peruvian jungle circa 1974, on the hunt for a rare spider whose venom might cure all manner of diseases. She is accompanied by a shifty-looking guide, Ezekiel (Tahar Rahim), whose motives are as evil as his lines are muddy – seriously, it seems as if 75 per cent of Rahim’s dialogue has been dubbed over, re-recorded in post-production sessions for reasons unknown. The action that follows – involving a double-cross, gunfights and tree-leaping spider-men (but not, it should be noted, Spider-Man) – is visually incoherent, while the performances are so distressingly lifeless that it feels as if the cast got caught up in a Weekend at Bernie’s type of situation.
Alas, veteran television director S.J. Clarkson doesn’t call the whole thing a wash then and there. Instead, she flashes the story forward a few decades to 2003 – for Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline reasons that are too confusing and frankly depressing, to detail here – where Constance’s daughter, Cassandra (Dakota Johnson), is saving lives as New York’s least charismatic paramedic.
After a near-death accident on the job activates her latent spider-venom-gifted powers, Constance starts to experience visions of the future. This clairvoyance then leads her to save three motley teenage girls – including a badly miscast Sydney Sweeney and two other actresses who I’m sure have names but are best off being stricken from the record – from a seemingly immortal Ezekiel, who is back from the jungle and out for vaguely defined revenge.
Did any of the above sound interesting or even mildly comprehensible? No, of course not. But that isn’t going to stop Clarkson and her screenwriters (two of whom were also responsible for Morbius) from plopping out another 100 minutes of assaultive nonsense. Particularly cruel is their decision to essentially give Cassandra the superpower of déjà vu. Perhaps that’s a useful gift for her when it comes to fighting crime, but it is punishing for the audience, as we now have to sit through the same scenes at least twice.
There is so much more awfulness to Madame Web – including Sweeney’s fetishized schoolgirl shtick, the resigned complacency of Adam Scott in his role as Ben “future Uncle of Peter” Parker, and one of the worst product-placement deals in Hollywood history for the good folks at Pepsi – but unlike the film’s producers, I know when to pull the plug. Morbius, all is forgiven.