Review: ‘Madame Web’

Dakota Johnson Can't Spin Her Way Out Of This Hilariously Bad Superhero Disaster

The downside of Sony maintaining its grip on Marvel’s Spider-Man rights is they have a plethora of characters to flush down the toilet. Let me be clear: it wasn’t always this way. The Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy continues to be amazing, and the Andrew Garfield movies are underrated and Sony shouldn’t have panicked with it. But they continue to struggle with their own corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, Venom was bonkers fun that captured the crazy tone of the comics, but that character is already popular and has a ready-made audience. The same can’t be said for Morbius, the upcoming Kraven the Hunter, and the unfortunate Madame Web, which takes multiple fantastic female Spider-heroes and squashes them like bugs on the bottom of a boot.

The hilariously atrocious Madame Web doesn’t even have the decency to be so bad it’s good. Sure, the clunky dialogue, obviously disinterested cast, one actor’s horribly dubbed voice, insufferable teasing of a better movie, and messy plot will have you laughing with your buddies at the ineptitude. But the overwhelming feeling is disappointment over the wasted potential. I’m a fan of all of these characters, and have been reading some of them for years. And the cast is superb…elsewhere. Just not here, given elementary-level scripting by an army of writers who must not have communicated with one another about crafting a singular vision. What the Hell is this movie supposed to be, anyway?

Dakota Johnson, who has become a meme for her apparent disdain for the film, sleepwalks through her role as Cassandra Webb. A clunky intro set in the jungles of Peru establishes that her mother (played by Kerry Bishe) was pregnant with her while on the hunt for a rare spider with incredible healing properties. Tagging along was Ezekiel, played by the typically great A Prophet actor, Tahar Rahim. Turns out, Ezekiel was just a baddie waiting for his moment to strike. He attacks and ultimately kills Cassie’s mom, but not before she’s rescued by some weird jungle spider folks, who are dressed like arts & crafts Spider-Man. They deliver Cassie into the world and then…well, I guess they just ship her back to America through the mail or something. Who knows?

As an adult, Cassie is a New York EMT who can’t connect with other people. We know because of her shitty bedside manner, awkward treatment of kids, and nonexistent sense of humor. Or that could just be the terrible script, which has her and co-star Adam Scott, who plays…well, I’ll leave that reveal alone because Sony thinks they’re clever, bantering with some of the most unnatural human interaction ever. Seriously, the dialogue in Madame Web might’ve been written by AI that was homeschooled by an AI. How did four writers get credited with this?

Part of the problem could be confusion over the setting. While the film begins in 1973 when introducing Cassie’s mom, the story doesn’t get moving until 2003. There’s some talk out there that it was actually set in the ’90s, but was moved up so that fans could draw a closer connection to Sony’s current Spider output. While the musical needle drops are mixed up enough that you can see them trying to have it both ways era-wise, some of the other references are so shoehorned they’re cringe-worthy. In one scene, Cassie for no reason informs us “she’s gotta get home in time for Idol”. Product placement is everywhere, including a gigantic billboard for Beyonce’s “Dangerously in Love” which I guess strokes her ego but also shows that Sony can spend millions on some really terrible Photoshopping. I wonder what was under that billboard in the earliest versions of the film? I bet it was Smash Mouth. After Cassie survives a near-fatal accident, she suddenly gains the ability to see the future. Let’s be honest, it’s a spider-sense even though it’s never named. Madame Web is good about never being clear about anything, probably to avoid the very confusion they are creating.

Ezekiel is a pretty lame baddie all around. He’s used the spider to gain powers similar to Spider-Man. No webbing, but he can poison you with a toxin from his hands. He’s got a suit that resemble’s Spidey’s black Venom costume, which would look much cooler if the VFX weren’t so shoddy. Plagued with terrible visions that three female Spider-heroes will eventually kill him, he uses his vast wealth to have Girls star Zosia Mamet track them down. How? Using cutting-edge facial recognition tech, like this is one of those early Mission: Impossible movies. Poor Zosia Mamet, by the way. She never gets up out of her damn chair. Turns out the three future heroes are current annoying teens:Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor), and Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced). Ezekiel tries to kill them in the tamest subway attack ever, but Cassie uses her newfound abilities to come to the rescue. Keep in mind that this supposedly brilliant, wealthy villain with advanced technology can’t find three teenagers with no resources at their disposal, and even when he does he looks like a clown and sounds like someone speaking into a fan.

Everyone comes off poorly in this. Dakota Johnson wasn’t meant for this sort of role and she clearly didn’t like doing it. Her wheelhouse is something like Cha Cha Real Smooth, a challenging mix of drama and humor with a bit of an edge. Sydney Sweeney looks way too old to play a teenager, no matter how short they make her skirt. O’Connor and Merced, both fine actresses, aren’t given enough to work with. At least they were allowed to use their own voices…lookin’ at you Tahar Rahim. Fire your agent.

Madame Web brings a bunch of really popular Spider-heroes together in a tease of a fun all-female team-up flick. I should note that this is one of the many regurgitated ideas that Sony had from back in the Andrew Garfield years that they are pretending is new. But they don’t give you any of that. This is barely a superhero movie. Trailers tease glimpses at the heroes to come: Spider-Woman, Arana, Julia Carpenter in their familiar costumes. If you pay to see the movie based on that, be prepared for about 30 seconds of enjoyment. It’s a chase movie, one in which Dakota Johnson chauffeurs a trio of snot-nosed kids around in a taxi cab while fleeing the most inept psychopath in all of NYC, and that’s saying something!

There are times when Madame Web feels like someone is pulling a prank on us. Like the excruciating amount of time spent watching Cassie teach the girls CPR. Or when Mike Epps is introduced into the movie only to be written out 90 seconds later. Or when Emma Roberts, another actor gone to waste, repeatedly teases the name of her child, a fairly significant character in the Spider-Man universe, in a manner that seems to be for us and makes no sense in the context of the film. Madame Web is a total joke of a movie, and if Sony had aspirations of a franchise, the joke is ultimately on them. The final showdown takes place in a fireworks factory, with so many explosions Michael Bay would be jealous. And somehow through all of that, the film still manages to have no spark.

Madame Web opens in theaters on February 14th.


Madame Web
Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-madame-webThe downside of Sony maintaining its grip on Marvel's Spider-Man rights is they have a plethora of characters to flush down the toilet. Let me be clear: it wasn't always this way. The Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy continues to be amazing, and the Andrew...