‘Madame Web’ Review: What A Tangled Mess They’ve Weaved

The first 30 minutes aren't bad. But then it somehow gets worse and worse until you feel embarrassed for the cast.

Dakota Johnson in Madame Web. Sony Pictures

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Madame Web is not as bad as Morbius, a movie that seems manufactured to be one of the worst things ever put onscreen. But it is bad. The screenplay is credited to four people—Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Claire Parker and director S. J. Clarkson—but the fault lies with Sony, who greenlit the film every step of the way, from conception to the mess you will see (or, probably not see) in theaters. 

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MADAME WEB ★ (1/4 stars)
Directed by: S. J. Clarkson
Written by: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Claire Parker, S. J. Clarkson
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O'Connor, Isabela Merced, Tahar Rahim, Mike Epps, Emma Roberts, Adam Scott
Running time: 116 mins.

Madame Web is ostensibly an origin story for the comic book character, played woodenly by Dakota Johnson, who takes the exact opposite approach of Jared Leto’s intense, method performance in Morbius. Johnson plays Cassie Webb, an awkward New York City paramedic who is uncomfortable around children and has a chemistry-free friendship with her partner Ben Parker (Adam Scott, who somehow got roped into this). Cassie grew up in foster care after her mother (Kerry Bishé) died in childbirth while researching spiders in the Amazon. After an accident on the job, Cassie’s dormant powers awaken, allowing her to catch glimpses of future events. This becomes useful when she encounters Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim, who deserves better), the generic villain has also harnessed some of the Amazon spider’s powers. 

Cassie’s future vision is not helpful for the audience, who are forced to watch scene after scene on repeat. Even the opening sequence, about her mother’s history with Sims, gets replayed midway through the film. This means that in essence Clarkson and her editor Leigh Folsom Boyd use an hour of footage to create a two-hour movie. It’s exhausting and it depletes the story of any dramatic tension. What’s at stake if we’ve already seen the action play out once, coated with hazy CGI? The action itself is far worse. Cassie’s powers are limited to her seeing things a few minutes in the future, but she hasn’t been imbued with super strength or venom like Sims, so basically every action sequence is Cassie anticipating the villain’s next move and then doing something else. It’s tedious and frictionless. 

The plot, which is a generous word for what unfurls in Madame Web, follows Cassie as she attempts to protect three annoying teenage girls— played by Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor, and Isabela Merced—from Sims, who has had visions of them as Spider-Women killing him. He’s kept himself young with spider venom (or something like that) and he doesn’t want to yield his strength. His assistant (Zosia Mamet, admirably doing her best with almost nothing) uses facial recognition technology to track them, but she’s limited since the film is set in 2003 and Cassie is always one step ahead. 

The film is fine for the first 30 minutes and you almost wonder if it might not be as bad as everyone is imagining. But then it somehow gets worse and worse until you just feel embarrassed for the cast, who probably couldn’t tell you what Madame Web is about if asked. Emma Roberts pops up as Ben’s sister-in-law Mary Parker, who is very pregnant. She’s seemingly there as a reference to Spider-Man’s own origin, but without any explanation in the film she feels randomly placed. Same goes for the character of Ben, who is presumably Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben. Is this an Easter egg? Are we getting another Spider-Man reboot? Why does Sony keep making these villain origin stories that never add up to something larger? How bad will Kraven the Hunter be when it comes out in August? Who is the person at Sony who keeps saying, “Yep, this is a good idea, let’s make another one”? 

Madame Web, like Morbius and Venom, sets its titular character up as a future superhero. There is no post-credits sequence (you’re welcome), but there are final flashes of Madame Web in full control of her clairvoyance and the Spider-Women, who apparently also get powers at some point the film doesn’t reveal. The failure of the film is disappointing on a surface level, where you just want to enjoy watching it, but also that we have a comic book movie starring women and directed by a woman and it’s bad. But maybe that’s the pinnacle of gender equality: Women can make terrible movies almost as well as men.  

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.


‘Madame Web’ Review: What A Tangled Mess They’ve Weaved