Madame Web (PG-13) ★★

Review Date: February 16th, 2024

If there's a rule to be aware of when it comes to Sony's so-called "Spider-Verse" movies, it's this: If Spider-Man isn't in it, it's likely to disappoint. That applies to Venom, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Morbius, and now Madame Web. Although all these properties have comic book sources, none has translated well to the big screen. This is in part due to poor writing but is equally the result of a general lack of direction on the part of Sony which, outside of its partnership with Marvel Studios for the Tom Holland Spider-Man series, doesn't seem to understand the characters over which it has stewardship. Madame Web is another example of a comic book movie no one was clamoring for.

Two things come to mind immediately when considering this production. The first is how disjointed and haphazard the storyline is, frequently employing sleight-of-hand to resolve conflicts. It is evidently the first chapter of a longer story since three of the four principals never develop their super-powers (which are hinted at in flash-forward dream sequences) and exist predominantly to fill "damsels in distress" roles. The second is how juvenile the dialogue is. This is especially evident at the end with a voiceover pronouncement that would have been at home in a Saturday morning cartoon.

Like Argylle, Madame Web makes for a better trailer than a full movie. That's because the central premise - a superhero whose power is the ability to see short distances into the future and thereby alter the timeline (if she wishes) - is ripe with possibilities. None, however, are effectively explored. Maybe that's the trap of the origin story nature of the narrative. It's so busy introducing characters and establishing situations that there's no time to do anything more than dispatch a feeble villain in a perfunctory fashion. One of the reasons why Madame Web doesn't work is because there's rarely any tension. For an action film, even one falling into the superhero subgenre, the dearth of excitement is a death sentence.

Although it's refreshing to see studios continue to uncover female action heroes worthy of screen exposure (this one follows The Marvels in that regard), it's disappointing to find how shabbily treated they are. Perhaps Madame Web might have worked better had it narrowed its focus to a single character - in this case, Cassandra Web (Dakota Johnson). The addition of three teenagers in need of protection - Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced), and Mattie Franklin (Celeste O'Connor) - muddies the waters. This would-be series might have been better served by delaying their inclusion until a potential sequel.

Speaking of elements that were not in the final cut of this movie, it's evident that some connective tissue with the Spider-Man movies was sloppily edited out of Madame Web. The footprints have been left behind - the character of Cassie's best friend, Ben (Adam Scott), is unquestionably a younger version of Spidey's Uncle Ben and the baby born during the course of the proceedings is Peter Parker. It seems likely that these things were acknowledged in the script at some point but were elided from the final cut. Those who watch the names scroll by at the end will learn the truth; Adam Scott is credited as playing "Ben Parker." (Mary Parker, Ben's sister-in-law and Peter's mother, is also in the movie, played by Emma Roberts.)

Madame Web opens with a short prequel set during 1973 in the Amazon jungle. It introduces the mother of the film's main character (played by Kerry Bishe), a scientist studying rare spiders. After discovering an amazing new species, she is attacked by her alleged bodyguard, Ezekiel Sims (a dreadful Tahar Rahim), who steals the spider and leaves her for dead. She is rescued by local tribesmen who are able to keep her alive long enough to give birth to Cassandra.

Thirty years later, Cassie is a New York ambulance driver. After being involved in a near-death experience, she begins having episodes in which she can seemingly see into the future. After determining that she's not hallucinating, she begins to tinker with her abilities. Meanwhile, Ezekiel, now possessing powers gained from the spider's venom, is having recurring dreams of his death at the hands of three women. He uses stolen AI to locate them and plots their murders. When it comes time to execute his plan, however, his murderous intentions are foiled by Cassie, who has a vision of him killing Julia, Anya, and Mattie, and acts to save them.

Sadly, Madame Web fails to rise above its pedigree as a lesser superhero movie. It does nothing to convince viewers that there's value to be found in a story not featuring a marquee comic book character. There's a growing sense that Sony is overreaching by plumbing the bargain bin of the IP for which it owns the rights and trying to force-feed the public with characters like Venom, Carnage, Morbius, and Madame Web. We'll never know whether a well-crafted, riveting Madame Web might have made this an early-year box office gem because that's not what director S.J. Clarkson has delivered. Her vision - or at least the one Sony allowed to reach the screen - is a tired, infantile exercise in exploring the worst tropes of origin stories.

© 2024 James Berardinelli