The good news is Madame Web is not the worst Spider-Man spinoff. (That would be Morbius.) It’s not even the worst action movie I’ve seen this month. (That’d be Argylle.) And it’s far from the worst superhero movie of last year. (The Flash sucked.) However, Madame Web is still far from good.
Part of the problem is it plunges into the inexplicable pitfalls the superhero genre has forced on female-led entries. That makes it overloaded with ideas, choking the life out of the part that works best: Dakota Johnson in “That’s not the truth, Ellen” mode.
What’s Madame Web about?
Credit: Sony Pictures
Johnson stars as socially awkward paramedic Cassandra Webb, who — after a brush with death — develops the power of premonition. When she sees a vision of a dapper yet inexplicably barefoot man (Tahar Rahim) abruptly and mercilessly murdering three girls on a train, she steps in to save them.
Sweet Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), sharp Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced), and sarcastic skater girl Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor) are now under Cassie’s care, whether any of them like it or not. But to uncover not only why this shoeless guy wants them all dead, but also how to best use her new abilities, Cassie must trace her long-dead mother’s footsteps back to the Amazon, where her mom was researching spiders, right before she died.
Madame Web is doing too much.
Credit: Jessica Kourkounis / Sony Pictures
Like Birds of Prey, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and The Marvels, Madame Web is not just about one superpowered female hero, but several — all at once. For Birds of Prey, this worked thanks to director Cathy Yan’s kinetic energy and her cast, who created distinctive characters that made the ensemble explosive fun — like fireworks. The other two, notably both sequels, had previous movies and TV shows that established their characters, and while this can admittedly feel like homework for the audience, at least it gives context.
Though named for Cassandra Webb, Madame Web also folds in three incarnations of Spider-Women in Julia, Anya, and Mattie. Yet most of the film isn’t about this quartet coming into their powers or uniting as a team. Instead, it’s about three thinly sketched teenager archetypes and their reluctant babysitter running from a relentless and rich villain called Ezekiel. If that sounds confusing or tedious, just you wait until the flashbacks, future visions, and exposition dumps about peptides come into play.
Admittedly, the superhero genre is aching for evolution. So it could have been a bold move for Madame Web to offer an ensemble action film that shuns such common iconography as the first suit-up hero shot, the training montage, and each hero confidently stepping into their power. Hell, none of these women even get a superhero moniker over the course of the movie — including Madame Web herself. But without these guideposts, Madame Web feels aimless, meandering from Queens to New Jersey to “Peruvian Amazon.” (Yes, that much-memed scene is at least as ridiculous as the internet might hope.)
Following in the footsteps of DC (Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman 1984) and Marvel (Captain Marvel), Sony pitches its female-led Spidey spinoff into the past. Often, this is done by studios who have already established a universe in which superheroines don’t exist, so to make any sense of that you gotta throw them back into the past where they might’ve been forgotten about by the time the big brawny dude heroes showed up. Thus, Madame Web is set in 2003 — long before Peter Parker (or Miles Morales) were swinging around the outer boroughs of New York. Unfortunately, director/co-writer S.J. Clarkson offers a rather ambiguous early 2000s, where Blockbuster Video is still thriving, ’90s jams like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” play on the radio, and teens gather to watch 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer on TV. Essentially, this feels like a ’90s setting that was switched part-way through production, and so references to American Idol and Britney Spears are haphazardly wedged in.
The lensing of New York is similarly superficial in Madame Web. Sure, the film captures (or recreates) real NYC locations, like Grand Central Station, the subway system, or the Long Island City building where a giant Pepsi Cola sign blazes bright on a rooftop. But they may as well have shot everything against a greenscreen, as the cinematography fails to ground the characters in their surroundings, making everything feel like backdrop instead of environment.
But what about the action in Madame Web?
Credit: Sony Pictures
It’s bad. There’s multiple scenes of Cassie racing around New York City in various stolen vehicles, but none of them get the adrenaline pumping like a Fast and Furious film or even Ambulance. Much of the showiest fight scenes are in brief flashes of the future, which are undercut as soon as it’s revealed they didn’t really happen. Much of the urgent action is Cassie fleeing with the girls — while yelling at them. Not only does this make for some boring repetition, but also it means three of the four heroines get limited actual hero action to act.
Lost amid flashbacks and flashforwards and exposition dumps, ‘Madame Web’ frequently forgets to be an action movie.
Lost amid flashbacks and flashforwards and exposition dumps, Madame Web frequently forgets to be an action movie. As such, Sweeney, O’Connor, and Merced get little to do beyond playing sulking teens. What a waste of talent and charisma!
Dakota Johnson is better than Madame Web deserves.
Credit: Beth Dubber / Sony Pictures
Whether in her performances or on a press tour, Johnson has a giver of no fucks energy that is intoxicating. It gives her an air of spontaneity that suggests anything might happen next, be it dressing down an endlessly energetic talk show host or mixing it up with a lost tribe of Spider-people. But Madame Web asks too much.
Boasting five contributors including Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Claire Parker, S.J. Clarkson, and Kerem Sanga, the script pulls its characters not only across decades and far flung locations, but also through wildly different tones. Sometimes, it’s an espionage thriller with high-tech doo-dads and a steely Zosia Mamet glaring at a keyboard. Sometimes, it’s sci-fi mystery with characters arguing about science or misunderstood backstory. Sometimes it’s a cringe comedy about an anti-social thirty-something who isn’t interested in the hassle of being a hero. And here is where Johnson shines.
While Cassie is a paramedic, her goal is saving lives…not people. She sneers when a little boy thanks her for her work. She whines when pushed to attend a baby shower. If it weren’t for her dear friend Ben Parker (Adam Scott in a thankless Easter egg role), she’d only talk to the stray cat she lets into her apartment. (He is called “Cat,” and their interactions are great storytelling, full stop.) But then fate tangles Cassie in the lives of Julia, Anya, and Mattie. And while she’s too good a person to chuck them to fend for themselves, that doesn’t mean she’s not annoyed about being pushed into a maternal role she never wanted. (Solid representation for the happily child-free!)
Johnson is sharply funny when she can lean into the uncomfortable comedy of forced socializing. A scene of baby shower games feels both wildly out of place in an action movie, and absolutely the movie’s strongest, most entertaining scene. When Cassie makes a deeply impolite observation while pointing at the mom-to-be, Madame Web is alive. Here’s where you can see why Johnson may have signed onto the script, this space where the heroine isn’t likable or noble. She’s kind of a dick! And it’s hilarious, but beyond that actually daring for this genre.
Unfortunately, Johnson is weighed down by too much bad dialogue — and she seems to openly resent it. Delivering lines like, “Hope the spiders were worth it, mom,” while staring into a trunk of mementos, Johnson’s voice is outright hostile. It’s easy to imagine it’s not so much Cassie at her long lost mother, but Johnson at the management team she has since ditched. Perhaps there’s not a meta meaning behind these scenes of churlishness. But at least imagining there might be makes the movie a bit more interesting.
If only Sony believed in a version of Madame Web that gave Johnson the space to lean into her unique brand of smirking mischievousness! There might have been a movie that thrilled with wit and sparkled with energy. But as it is, Madame Web is burdened by too many threads and not enough fun. Still, it could be worse. It could be Morbius.