‘Madame Web’ is a superhero stumble that fails to spin a good story

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Speaking about her leading role in “Madame Web” on Saturday Night Live, star Dakota Johnson said “It’s kind of like if AI generated your boyfriend’s perfect movie.”

If you’ve followed superhero films over the past few years, you’re likely familiar with Sony’s much-memed “morbillion”-dollar trainwreck “Morbius”, an incoherent vampire slugfest starring Jared Leto and Matt Smith that bombed at the box office in 2022. 

“Madame Web”, the latest film in Sony’s shared Spider-Man universe, doesn’t fare much better than its predecessor — it tries to satisfy longtime Spider-fans and newcomers from the “Spider-Verse” animated films, and succeeds at neither. 

If you take away one thing from this article, let it be this – “Madame Web” isn’t worth your time, even if you’re a diehard Spider-Fan.

The movie manages to be the antithesis of what made Sony’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” so effortlessly appealing. Gone are carefully crafted character arcs and brilliantly choreographed ensemble action sequences, as they are replaced by flat, static characterization and jittery, nauseating chase scenes. 

Dakota Johnson, most known for her role in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series, stars as Cassandra Webb, a paramedic who, try as she might, can’t resuscitate this film. After a near-death experience during a disaster response, Webb unlocks the power to briefly glimpse the future and stop accidents before they happen. Fraught with lens flares and choppy editing, these visions are often disorienting and difficult to look at.

Adam Scott of “Succession” portrays a young version of Peter Parker’s uncle Ben whose sister is expecting a child implied to be the nascent Peter Parker/Spider-Man himself. Johnson and Scott’s uneven chemistry in their fleeting scenes together are “Madame Web”’s most enjoyable moments.

The other performances are stilted at best and painfully awkward at worst. Johnson is joined by Sydney Sweeney best known for her role as Cassie in“Euphoria”, Isabel Merced and Celeste O’Connor, who all play teenagers that Webb must protect from an evil version of Spider-Man – Ezekiel Sims, a millionaire tyrant played by Tahar Rahim. . Gifted with a similar ability to see the future, Sims tries to kill the three girls because he sees them doing the same to him in the future.

Each girl is fated to become a “Spider-person”, part of a super-team led by Webb that will bring Ezekiel’s downfall. Using powers of premonition, Webb protects the three girls from Sims by counteracting his attacks with her future knowledge.

Webb’s divination effectively eradicates nearly all the film’s action scenes –– abridged versions of fights play out in her head, rarely actually occurring because she prevents them, creating glorified chase scenes. This is a spectacle superhero movie where the protagonist’s power is to stop spectacles from occurring.

Fans seeking the allure of an “evil Spider-Man” will leave disappointed, as the idea is never utilized to its full potential; Sims is rarely seen clearly in costume on screen using his Spider-powers. And the future three “Spider-people” are only seen in vision sequences; aside from Webb, this is a superhero movie without superheroes.

Rahim’s menacing performance as Ezekiel is woefully undercut by repetitive lines delivered with a gravelly, oddly pitched tone that is clearly dubbed over his original delivery. Sweeney, Merced and Celeste are let down by a script injecting awkward tension into all their scenes together.

There are redeeming qualities under the mess. “Madame Web”’s core messaging is emotionally intelligent — “When you take on responsibility, great power will come”, a twist on Spider-Man’s “with great power comes great responsibility”, emphasizes the empowerment and empathy that can be gained through parenthood or guardianship. 

Webb’s powers are appealing and interesting when they’re not visually disorienting, and the maternal “found family” relationship between Webb and the teenagers could have been deeply heartfelt  if executed correctly. The problem is that all these redeeming elements are buried under a messy plot and cringeworthy script.

I wanted “Madame Web” to be “so bad it’s good,” but it isn’t. Because the movie takes its mediocrity seriously, it’s difficult to watch and won’t go over well at sleepovers.

In the wake of the “Spider-Verse” films’ explosive popularity and bubbly creativity, “Madame Web” could have been a course correction rekindling goodwill with fans by producing a truly phenomenal live action Spider-Man spinoff. Instead, it’s a derivative hodge-podge of half-hearted modern superhero motifs that aren’t executed well. 

I wish I had Webb’s powers of clairvoyance; I wouldn’t have spent money on a ticket.

Sony’s next Spider-Man adjacent movie, “Kraven the Hunter”, releases this August, and if “Madame Web” is any indication, Kraven will be a film to avoid.

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