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Madame Web Review

February 14, 2024 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Madame Web - 1 Image Credit: Sony Pictures
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Madame Web Review  

Directed By: S.J. Clarkson
Written By: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Claire Parker, S.J. Clarkson, and Kerem Sanga; Based on the Marvel Comics
Runtime: 114 minutes
MPA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence/action and language.

Dakota Johnson -Cassandra Webb/Madame Web
Sydney Sweeney – Julia Cornwall
Isabela Merced – Anya Corazon
Celeste O’Connor – Mattie Franklin
Tahar Rahim – Ezekiel Sims
Mike Epps – O’Neil
Adam Scott – Ben Parker
Emma Roberts – Mary Parker
Kerry Bishé – Constance Webb
Zosia Mamet – Amaria

Sony Pictures continues its ill-advised effort to build a separate live-action Spider-Man Universe on the big screen, sans Spider-Man and the MCU, in Madame Web. Apparently, Morbius was not a big enough stumbling block. Despite an incredibly talented cast, Madame Web is one of the worst, clunkiest, and most imbecilic attempts of a big-screen comic book superhero adventure in recent memory. Unfortunately, there are no extreme levels of kitsch or camp to make the experience mildly amusing.

The story haphazardly begins in the Amazon in the 1970s with the pregnant woman, Constance Webb (Bishé), leading an expedition to find a rare native spider that is worshipped by a local mythical tribe called Los Arañas. It is believed that the venom of these spiders has the potential to grant superhuman abilities, but of course, that’s only legend. Unfortunately, Constance’s head of security, Ezekiel Sims (Rahim) believes the myth and purloins the rare super-spider specimen that Constance discovers for her research that costs Constance’s life. However, before Constance expires, the seemingly benevolent members of Los Arañas, assist in her childbirth. One of the special super-spiders bites Constance before she dies, passing a piece of its abilities to the infant child.

Thirty years later, the child is the now-adult Cassandra Webb (Johnson), an EMT worker in the New York City Fire Department. Cassandra shares a close, yet strictly platonic, friendship with her ambulance partner, Ben Parker (Scott). And yes, before you ask, he’s *that* Ben Parker. The film reveals Ben’s identity at the outset. There is no getting around his identity, and young Uncle Ben is a character throughout the film. A near-death experience while saving a bystander teetering over a bridge unlocks Cassandra’s hidden powers that she gained at birth. The power grants Cassandra the capacity to experience potential alternative futures that she has the ability to alter. Cassandra’s extrasensory powers unwittingly put her in contact with three teenage girls: Julia Cornwall (Sweeney), Mattie Franklin (O’Connor), and Anya Corazon (Merced).

Although the women do not share any observable connection, the web of fate draws them together. Cassandra’s powers allow her to see that the girls’ lives are in grave danger from Ezekiel, who utilized the stolen spider from the Amazon to gain the strength, speed, agility, and ability to climb walls just like a spider, making him a veritable, human, spider…man. Ezekiel has a premonition of his own. He believes the teen girls are fated to become costumed spider heroes who will come after him later in life, so Ezekiel takes action to prevent that from happening before they develop their own superpowers. It’s now up to Cassandra to protect the girls from Ezekiel and unravel the web of fate.

The fundamental problem with Madame Web is that it makes no logical sense to make a movie around the Madame Web character. In the comics and other animated appearances, Madame Web acts as an oracle or fortune teller. She’s not a superhero or vigilante. Her superpower is literally clairvoyance, and she’s not typically a fighter. She’s generally a character who provides exposition or moves the story along. Making a movie about Madame Web is akin to creating a story around a character such as Basil Exposition in the lead role. Fundamentally, it does not work. S.J. Clarkson’s direction and the script, in which she’s credited alongside four other screenwriters, fail to convince the audience otherwise.

The other fundamental problem lies in crafting another Spider-Man Universe spinoff about dull, uninteresting characters. Madame Web seeks to delve into the more supernatural and metaphysical realm of the Spider-Man mythos by using the ideas of Spider-Totems and Spider-Deities, which constitute its own complex can of worms. J. Michael Straczynski introduced these ideas regarding characters like Ezekiel, Spider-Totems, Spider-Avatars, and Spider-Deities in the early 2000s. The elements of the Spider-Man mythos are not necessarily bad ideas, but they are deep cuts. Madame Web fails to bring these aspects of the comic mythos to life, translating them in the most nonsensical and idiotic way possible.

Madame Web utilizes Ezekiel Sims as a poorly executed, badly written villain. His motivation for targeting the girls is flimsy at best. The character that Clarkson and Rahim create onscreen shares little in common with his comic counterpart other than the presence of his spider powers and brief visual similarities. Not to mention, Ezekiel wears a dark, evil version of a Spider-Man costume that looks ridiculous, and the plot never adequately explains why he has it.

If Sony Pictures and the Spider-Man Universe team wanted to create a story introducing the ideas of Spider-Totems and Spider-Deities to audiences, the most natural choice for a villain would be Morlun. As a character in the comics, his specific purpose is to represent a monster who hunts and feeds on the Spider-Avatars. The motivation of a vampiric type of monster who is destined to hunt spider heroes is inherent to the DNA and motivation of Morlun’s character. It is nonsensical to make Ezekiel the villain of the story. Not to mention, Ezekiel is not a villain in the comics. While the character fails as a true good guy, Ezekiel works better as a mentor with ulterior motives who cannot be completely trusted. Rahim fails to capture the slick, silver-foxed charm of Ezekiel, portraying him as a dull, two-dimensional, generic villain who dresses in an ugly Spider-Man knockoff costume.

Sadly, the plot also wastes the spider trio and fails to grant the actresses who portray Julia, Anya, and Mattie sufficient material to succeed in their roles or even miss a big swing. While Madame Web should serve as their collective superhero origin story, they do not even get that opportunity. The spider trio exists only to serve as bystanders and reactionary characters when this should be their story. The awkward script fails to grant the actors much of anything significant to chew the fat on. Sweeney’s Julia is shy and introverted. Merced’s Anya appears highly intelligent and independent, and O’Connor’s Mattis acts like a rebellious skater punk chick. That’s about the gist of the characterization the script grants them. The only scene of actual bonding is a short-lived scene where Cassandra teaches the group CPR, which happens far too little and much too late into the film. The movie wants to sell the audience on the quartet building a found-familial bond, but it is way too underdeveloped. The film only teases the idea of the three teens becoming superheroes, and it never truly takes flight.

Large swaths of the film’s horrendous dialogue sound hammy and unintelligible. While the final cut excises some of the more significant dialogue clunkers from the trailer, the theatrical presentation still has some of the most horrendous dialogue yet to be heard. Madame Web even tries to pass off an inverted version of a famous, iconic catchphrase as if it’s a brilliant, epic, and profound piece of writing. In addition to the clunky, awkward dialogue, the few sprinkled action scenes unfold in a choppy, haphazard manner. The action scenes lack significant cohesion.

Respectfully, Dakota Johnson, who was more than likely sold a false bill of goods to sign onto this picture, provides some of the only bright spots in the film. Johnson’s moments of awkward humor are the only genuine laughs during Madame Web. As a performer, Johnson brings a unique introverted charisma and could have performed exceptionally well with a better script and a more polished concept. Johnson and her co-stars are not the main parties at fault for Madame Web. They try their best with what they have, which is not very much.

The significant blame for Madame Web should go toward the brain trust at Sony Pictures. Judging by Madame Web’s execution, the captains at Sony seem to be asleep at the wheel, or no one in their offices is seriously reading their scripts. It also appears no one there has ever picked up a Spider-Man comic before, besides maybe Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. The Spider-Verse animated features are the saving graces for the Spidey franchise under the Sony Pictures banner.

The choice of a Madame Web movie is still mystifying. If confined to the Spider-Man circle of characters, there is an infinite number of better heroes to choose from, such as Spider-Man 2099, any of the multiple versions of Spider-Woman, or even Miles Morales. If this is the best effort Sony can put forth when Peter Parker is unavailable, it raises serious questions about Sony’s live-action Spider-Man Universe plans.

Sadly, Madame Web does not even have that fun train-wreck factor going for it. It’s a poorly executed attempt at a comic book superhero movie with awful, clunky dialogue and hammy performances, similar to the more execrable attempts of the 1990s and 2000s than the more modern post-MCU success stories.

The final score: review Very Bad
The 411
Madame Web is a fundamentally broken attempt to expand a live-action Spider-Man Universe that does not function without the strong connective tissue to Spider-Man. The premise of creating a story around Cassandra Webb in her journey to become a spider-hero oracle is not compelling. Writer-director S.J. Clarkson and her co-writers fail to uplift the superhero origin story of three girls, who are merely bystanders and reactionary characters with little to do here. How the writers present references to classic lines from the comics and previous adaptations is cringe-inducing and embarrassing. Despite the flaws of the film, Dakota Johnson offers a few moments of genuine humor in a clunky comic book superhero catastrophe.