Sony’s Spider-Man Universe — the one that, confusingly, doesn’t actually have Spider-Man in it — crawls forward with Madame Web, another ode to a tertiary comic book character that didn’t need the silver screen treatment. So poorly put together that it made me yearn for the comparative structural soundness and formal rigor of Morbius, the latest SSU entry doesn’t even seem interested in being a superhero movie in the first place. The lead character barely has superpowers and the character’s clairvoyance only seems to annoy everyone around her, including us in the audience since it’s confusingly rendered on screen. Throw in a ridiculously hokey villain and dialogue that sounds like it was translated to English from a dead language and you have one of the biggest afterthoughts in the modern superhero era.
After an Peruvian prologue set in 1973, we flash forward 30 years later to meet Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson), a New York-based paramedic who works alongside her longtime friend Ben Parker (Adam Scott). While rescuing an injured driver from their car, Cassie falls into a river below and, when under the water, has strange visions of the future before Ben revives her. After several instances of memory overlap and visceral déjà vu, she discovers she can now see into the future, which is consistently being haunted by a violent man in a web-patterned costume. Cassie uses her power to save three teenagers — Julia (Sydney Sweeney), Anya (Isabela Merced) and Mattie (Celeste O’Connor) — before the figure can attack them on the subway and vows to keep the trio safe under her watch.
We’ve seen the reluctant superhero arc before, where an average person who doesn’t want the responsibility of heroism eventually accepts their position, but Madame Web is such an awkward contortion of that familiar storyline. Whether it’s in Johnson’s performance or how Cassie is written in the script, she barely seems interested in helping these girls and when the moment of transformation is supposed to come, it feels completely inauthentic and unearned. Because the three girls who are targeted by the shadowy figure don’t know Cassie or understand her ability, they spend most of the movie trying to get away from her and even try to get her arrested for kidnapping. Director S.J. Clarkson desperately tries to spin the narrative into one where Cassie takes on a maternal role for these three pupils but the effort feels hopelessly contrived.
It’s been said many times that superhero movies are only as interesting as their villains and the baddie this time around — Ezekiel Sims, as played by Tahar Rahim — is simply a terrible antagonist. He feels the need to dispose of these three kids because he says he has visions that they will one day team up in spider suits and kill him. Using technology that barely existed in 2023, much less 2003, he’s able to effortlessly track the teenagers down but gets thwarted in the most comically perfunctory ways. This character is supposed to have super speed and strength, in addition to the same kind of foresight that Cassie has, and yet he demonstrates a perpetual inability to evade moving cars. Of course it doesn’t help that he’s saddled with laborious lines like “each day that goes by, my appointment with death gets closer!”
Madame Web is also another Sony superhero slog that feels like it was ripped to ribbons in the editing room. The way that Clarkson depicts Cassie’s power is similar to the way it’s portrayed in Edge Of Tomorrow, although using the awful Nic Cage sci-fi actioner Next as an analog is more apt. But both of those movies were able to visually delineate what was really happening and what was in the protagonist’s head, where this film sadly doesn’t give us the luxury. That means it doesn’t really matter when something bad happens to the characters, because then we can assume the filmmaker will just roll it back like Funny Games and get a re-do. Perplexing psychic ability aside, there are basic composition issues throughout the movie, where the camerawork and cutting conspire to collapse whatever visual coherence the film barely has in the first place. Though it may look tempting from a “so bad it’s good” perspective, it’s not worth getting wrapped up in the tangle of Madame Web.
Score – 1/5
New movies coming this week:
Coming to theaters is Ordinary Angels, a drama starring Hilary Swank and Alan Ritchson telling the true story of a hairdresser who single-handedly rallies an entire community to help a widowed father save the life of his critically ill young daughter.
Also playing only in theaters is Drive-Away Dolls, a comedy road movie starring Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan about two young women in search of a fresh start who embark on an unexpected road trip to Tallahassee but things quickly go awry when they cross paths with a group of inept criminals.
Streaming on Netflix is Mea Culpa, a legal thriller starring Kelly Rowland and Trevante Rhodes which follows an ambitious criminal defense attorney that, in his aspiration to be named partner, takes on a murder case of an artist.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup