Madame Web

Casting Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney and Adam Scott can't save this tangled mess in Sony's 'Spider-Man' Universe.
Sarah Ward
February 14, 2024

Overview

When a spider spins a web, the strands are designed to trap prey for the eight-legged arachnid to consume. Madame Web tries to do something similar. The fourth live-action film in Sony's Spider-Man Universe, it attempts to create a movie meal by capturing bits and pieces from anywhere and everywhere. There's Spidey nods, of course, variations on the "with great power comes great responsibility" line and more than one Spidey-like figure included. Introducing a new superhero to the screen, it's an origin story, complete with a tragic past to unfurl. Set in 2003 but with ample 90s tunes in the soundtrack, it endeavours to get retro as well. In its best touch, Madame Web winks at star Dakota Johnson's (Cha Cha Real Smooth) Hollywood family history, with a pigeon bringing The Birds, as led by her grandmother Tippi Hedren (The Ghost and the Whale), to mind. And, catching inspiration just like flies, the film also strives to be a serial-killer thriller.

Look out, though. Here's hoping that spiders have more luck snaring a feast than Sony has in swinging Madame Web into its not-MCU franchise. They're not officially counted as part of the saga, and they're both exceptional unlike this, but the studio's animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse also help explain Madame Web's existence and approach. In trying to carve out a Spidey space around the Peter Parker version of the webslinger, who is now part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sony has been throwing everything it can at the screen. In the Spider-Verse flicks, that means a kaleidoscope of spider-folk, plus dazzling visuals and creative storytelling to match, demonstrating that people in suits isn't the best way to tell caped-crusader tales in cinema. In the SSU, focusing on a heap of peripheral Spidey figures is instead the tactic — and it's as piecemeal as it sounds.

Hence Venom, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Morbius, the upcoming Kraven the Hunter and the on-the-way third Venom title. Hence also the feeling that giving whichever bit players Sony can their own features, in the name of making a sprawling superhero saga with well-known stars because everyone else is (see also: DC), is the money-chasing move. In Madame Web's case, its namesake from the comics has scored a makeover to fit the franchise's mould — so, instead of being an elderly mutant with clairvoyant powers, who is both blind and attached to a web-like life-support system, she's 30 and sports Johnson's famous off-screen devil-may-care attitude. It's easy to wonder while watching if the film's lead took the gig just to wreak havoc on the press tour. Johnson's presence also gives viewers plenty to be thankful for. She hasn't gone for serious and solemn. She isn't playing for laughs, either. Instead, she lends the flick her charisma and knack for playing charmingly awkward, all without ever seeming bogged down by how lacklustre the movie around her is; now that's a superpower.

Madame Web arrives on the big screen with one of its pieces of dialogue already sporting meme-level notoriety, except that it doesn't actually include that line. The clunky "he was in the Amazon with my mom when she was researching spiders right before she died" became the best-known aspect of the feature's trailer when the sneak peek hit in 2023, but it isn't in the finished film. Words to the same effect are, describing the fact that Johnson's Cassie Webb is the daughter of scientist Constance (Kerry Bishé, Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber), who has spun off this mortal coil — and that explorer Ezekiel Sims  (Tahar Rahim, Napoleon), the flick's big bad, was there with her. That was back in 1973. In the movie's present, Cassie has grown up in foster care, now spends her days saving lives with her work partner Ben (Adam Scott, Party Down), then starts seeing the future after a near-death experience.

The full backstory, which also provides the feature's prologue, involves Constance getting bitten in Peruvian jungle under the guidance of Amazonian spider-people Las Arañas as a way of saving the unborn Cassie's life. That's the reason for the adult Cassie's visions — and, thanks to his own interaction with the magic arachnids from the area, for Ezekiel's spider-like physical abilities and dreams of his impending death. In the latter, he sees three spider-esque women ending his existence. His plan: locate them now (with the help of The Flight Attendant's Zosia Mamet and some technology that doesn't really fit 2003), murder them, live evilly for longer. Only Cassie can stop that from happening, with Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney, Anyone But You), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced, Migration — and also Dora in Dora and the Lost City of Gold) and Mattie Franklin (Celeste O'Connor, Ghostbusters: After Life) soon in her care despite not knowing her, or each other, beforehand. 

It doesn't bode well for veteran TV director SJ Clarkson (Succession, Vinyl, Jessica Jones) that her first cinematically released feature, which she co-wrote with producer Claire Parker (Life on Mars), also includes Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless as scribes. The pair with Dracula Untold, The Last Witch Hunter, Gods of Egypt and Power Rangers on their resume scripted Morbius, too, which is still the worst SSU movie — but generic, bland, caring zero about characters and basically sketching out scaffolding for monotonous action scenes remains their niche. Madame Web's serial-killer angle does stand out, more for feeling like it could've been the plot of a 90s effort about a psychic protecting three teen girls that had zero Spider-Man ties. That flick wouldn't have needed such routine fights and chases, either, or proven what too much caped-crusader fare constantly does: like join-the-dots filler.

Enlisting ace talent such as Johnson, Sweeney and Scott, each of whom do what they can with stock-standard roles — as do Merced and O'Connor (alas, the usually stellar Rahim's part is woefully thankless) — can't paper over Madame Web's desperation to send strands Spider-Man's way. The 2003 setting could've been a Tobey Maguire (Babylon)-era nod, but with Ben's surname Parker and his pregnant sister Mary (Emma Roberts, American Horror Story) having a boy, the timing is geared to connect with the Tom Holland (The Crowded Room) iteration. A mid-movie scene blatantly yearning to make that leap also helps sum up Madame Web. At a baby shower for Mary, Cassie doesn't want to get roped into the antics, turns the room silent by talking about her mum's death and interrupts the big name reveal. Johnson kills it, but the need to link into a franchise that isn't even the SSU crashes. Unsurprisingly, pitching the whole picture to setup a future Spider-Woman trio flick feels like just as much as a stretch. Unless Madame Web becomes a box-office smash, no one, not even Cassie, would foresee a follow-up coming to fruition after this tangled mess.

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