Madame Web

Madame Web would be fun if it was a lot better or a lot worse. It’s nowhere good enough to be a first-rate superhero movie, nor is it bad enough to be an amusing Batman & Robin-style trainwreck. The story takes place in 2003, and indeed the film feels like the comic book fare of the early- to mid-2000s – stuff like Elektra, Catwoman, and The Punisher, when filmmakers were still trying to figure out how to bring second-tier characters into the live-action realm. And since it’s an origin story, the plot ends at the spot where most people will wish it began.

New York City EMT Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson) inexplicably begins getting glimpses of the immediate future after a near-death experience. Her visions involve three teenage girls: Juila (Sydney Sweeney), Mattie (Celeste O’Connor), and Anya (Isabella Merced). They’re in peril from Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), a guy with spider-like powers who has had his own premonition that they will one day kill him. Cassie attempts to rescue the girls, while simultaneously figuring out how her abilities tie into his. If you guessed he was in the Amazon with her mom researching spiders before she died, you’ve obviously seen the trailer.

The screenplay for Madame Web is atrocious. Writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless also wrote Dracula Untold, The Last Witch Hunter, Power Rangers and Morbius. Their track record is obviously not great. Sims is a flat, uninteresting villain with paper-thin motivation, the dialogue is frequently awkward, and when the girls become costumed crimefighters at the end, no explanation is given for how that occurs. Superhero origin stories need strong characterization and tight plotting to make viewers care about the build-up. We know we’re not going to see the familiar Madame Web and the Spider-Women until the final minutes, so if we aren’t invested in their genesis, the result is empty.

Universal

Surprisingly little action takes place in the movie. When it does, the editing is confusingly choppy, thereby robbing it of excitement. Director S.J. Clarkson’s idea of style is to have the camera flip over during the middle of fight scenes, a technique that reeks of desperation and becomes tiresome. The concluding battle is particularly messy, with shoddy CGI and a corny bit of product placement that finds everybody brawling in front of a Pepsi sign. Actually, product placement is ubiquitous. A Calvin Klein billboard factors prominently into another scene.

For all that’s bad about Madame Web, a level of entertainment does exist, thanks to the actresses. Dakota Johnson is terrific, giving a funny, self-knowing performance. She seems to recognize how dumb the story is, and her turn as Cassie almost plays like sarcastic commentary on it. On their side, Sweeney, O’Connor, and Merced work up fun chemistry as the teens. Each provides her character with personality, despite the bland script. Collectively, they keep the movie from sinking into bottom-barrel Marvel fare (i.e. Morbius and Fantastic Four).

The four leads are easily the best thing here. They could headline a grade-A superhero movie or shine in an intentionally goofy entry like The Marvels. Instead, they’re trapped in a poorly written, stiffly directed dud. What a waste.


out of four

Madame Web is rated PG-13 for violence/action and language. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.


© 2024 Mike McGranaghan