Opening in theaters on February 14th is ‘Madame Web,’ starring Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, Celeste O’Connor, Tahar Rahim, Emma Roberts, and Adam Scott.
Just when you thought the “Sony Spider-Man Universe” (as the Sony Pictures cinematic pool of movies starring Spider-Man villains and minor characters has come to be known) couldn’t get any sillier and more generic than ‘Morbius,’ now ‘Madame Web’ comes along to say “hold my beer.” Despite a promising cast and director, ‘Madame Web’ – based on a little-known yet powerful psychic in the Marvel canon – ends up deadly dull.
Related Article: Dakota Johnson is in Talks to Star in Sony’s Spider-Verse Movie ‘Madame Web’
Story and Direction
There’s the kernel of an interesting – if hardly original – idea at the center of ‘Madame Web’: if you could see your future and knew who was going to kill you, would you kill them first? That is what fuels Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim of ‘A Prophet’ fame), who we first meet in the Peruvian Amazon, circa 1973, alongside a woman named Constance Webb (Kerry Bishé). Sims is ostensibly providing security for the very pregnant Webb, who’s on a mission – via some exceedingly clumsy expository dialogue — to find a rare spider whose DNA can provide incredible strength, healing and regenerative powers.
In the first of many thuddingly obvious and overly telegraphed plot points, Constance is betrayed by Sims once she finds the spider. After he takes off with the arachnid and leaves her for dead, Constance is rescued by an Amazonian tribe, once thought mythical, who apparently derive their powers from the spider – the “Spider-People.” Their English-speaking leader cannot save Constance, but does manage to save her baby.
Thirty years later, that baby has grown up to be Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson), a paramedic who prefers being alone despite the affection of her partner, Ben Parker (Adam Scott), and his efforts to get her to be part of the world. Cassie’s life, however, takes a turn for the bizarre when she nearly drowns while rescuing an accident victim on a bridge – an incident that somehow triggers in her an ability to see glimpses of the future.
At the same time, Ezekiel Sims – who is apparently now incredibly wealthy, although it’s never exactly explained how – has the same power, as well as super-strength and sticky hands and feet, no doubt thanks to giving himself some spider-cells. He keeps seeing visions of being sent to his death by three young costumed women – in a sort of teaser for films yet to come – and sets out to stop them by any means necessary. This puts him on a collision course with Cassie, who is inexplicably drawn to the three teenage girls as well: Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced), and Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor).
What follows is a tediously exposition-heavy story (much of the dialogue, particularly Sims’, seems re-recorded in post-production) that strains to explain unsuccessfully how and why Cassie’s powers work, why this connects her to a larger history of so-called “Spider-people,” and how her life will interconnect with those of the other three women. The explanations fail to provide any real spark for the story, while other questions — like why Sims wears a Spider-Man outfit 15 years before Spider-Man did, or why Cassie drives around the entire second half of the movie in a stolen cab and manages to fly to Peru despite being wanted for kidnapping three teen girls – remain unanswered.
‘Madame Web’ is all plot: one story beat just gets hooked to the next, and there’s no interest on the part of the four credited screenwriters (plus one who gets “story by” credit) in trying to make any truly credible or emotional connections between any of the characters. Any way in which they connect is happenstance: after Cassie, a total stranger, saves their lives on a subway train, the three girls just completely put their fates in her hands because the story requires them to.
Even when she abandons them in the woods at one point, or abruptly leaves them with Ben and his very pregnant sister-in-law Mary (Emma Roberts) while she zooms off to Peru — apparently a journey one can make in a matter of hours — no one seems to question any of this except in the most casual way. That’s because none of these characters even remotely seem like people – they’re just pawns being pushed around so Sony can make another Spider-Man-adjacent movie (and yes, Easter eggs abound here, including the egregious inversion of perhaps the most famous line in Marvel lore).
‘Madame Web’ comes across as a desperate attempt to make something, anything, out of whatever scraps of Marvel canon the filmmakers can pull together. The movie assumes that fans will nod knowingly at the names of the girls, but it doesn’t give us any reason to care or wonder why they’re drawn together in the first place. Making her feature debut, director S.J. Clarkson (who has helmed episodes of ‘Jessica Jones’ and ‘The Defenders’) is competent enough, but she can’t enliven these connect-the-dots proceedings with any genuine life (the final action scene – a mix of Cassie’s precognition and what actually happens – is sadly nearly incomprehensible).
Of course, ‘Madame Web’ is all mostly set-up by the end, and one can almost hear the producers high-fiving each other over the multiple Spider-sequels that they set up. But the creative exhaustion that seeps from the screen tells another story.
Meet The Spider-Team
As with a lot of recent movies, the cast for this looks good on paper, but are limited in what they can do with the material. Dakota Johnson works hard to elevate the character and script – she is an intelligent and witty actor, as well as a graceful beauty – but she seems lost at times and unsure just what kind of tone she’s supposed to be playing.
Her co-stars aren’t given nearly enough character development, and while the idea of an all-female super-team is long overdue on the screen (we’re still waiting for the MCU’s ‘A-Force’ movie), this is not the launchpad it needs. Sydney Sweeney proves again that while talented and occasionally inspired, she needs solid direction. Isabela Merced doesn’t much improve on her work in ‘Transformers: The Last Knight.’ Celeste O’Connor manages to show some spunk as Mattie, making her shine the brightest.
As for Tahar Rahim, he’s working with a strange accent and a lot of looped dialogue, his usual air of quiet menace only occasionally peeking through. And while we always have time for Adam Scott, we wish he wasn’t saddled with a character whose eventual fate is pre-ordained and well-known.
The Sony Spider-Verse Problem
‘Madame Web’ is the ultimate distillation of everything that’s wrong with the “Sony Spider-Man Universe,” which as we mentioned above, essentially features lesser-known Spider-Man characters (usually villains, but sometimes not) in stories that do not feature Spider-Man except in the most tangential, offscreen way.
Madame Web is such a relatively minor character, so little-known outside diehard Marvel fans – in the comics, she’s a blind, elderly mutant with tremendous precognitive powers — that her story is just not that dynamic. She doesn’t have the weight of other top-shelf Spider-Man characters. She is often there mainly as support, and has never been featured all that prominently.
As a result – and thanks to the producers’ insatiable need to somehow connect these movies to a Spider-Man who never appears in them – we get a story that’s contrived even by the standards of comic books. In this case, the limits of the Spider-Man mythology are pushed to create an entire ancient history where none existed. The beauty of Spider-Man is that he’s just a kid who randomly stumbles into having great powers; make him part of a longer, bigger history and what makes him unique is diluted.
And frankly, as Marvel fans, we worry that movies like ‘Morbius,’ ‘Madame Web,’ and the upcoming ‘Kraven the Hunter’ simply dilute both the Spider-Man and Marvel brands more and more. At a time when superhero movies are facing genuine headwinds for the first time in a decade, low-quality, low-rent spinoffs are not what’s needed. Our advice to Sony? Keep making Spider-Man movies with Marvel Studios, continue with the animated ‘Spider-Verse’ films, and lose all the rest.
We’ve ranted on a bit about this Sony/Marvel cinematic universe being a dead-end, so we won’t say much more. But ‘Madame Web’ plays unfortunately like a movie that could have been spit out by AI, with performances and direction not much above that. There are a few bright spots, and Marvel completists will feel obligated to check it out, but ‘Madame Web’ is ill-conceived and trapped in a web of pointlessness.
‘Madame Web’ receives 4 out of 10 stars.
“Her web connects them all.”
Showtimes & Tickets
Forced to confront revelations about her past, paramedic Cassandra Webb forges a relationship with three young women destined for powerful futures…if they can… Read the Plot
What is the plot of ‘Madame Web’?
Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson) is a paramedic working in New York City who discovers she has the power to see the future – and also to change it. Finding her destiny intertwined with that of three young women also possessing extraordinary powers, she must find a way to protect all of them from a mysterious enemy.
Who is in the cast of ‘Madame Web’?
- Dakota Johnson as Cassandra Webb
- Sydney Sweeney as Julia Cornwall
- Isabela Merced as Anya Corazon
- Celeste O’Connor as Mattie Franklin
- Tahar Rahim as Ezekiel Sims
- Adam Scott as Ben Parker
- Emma Roberts as Mary Parker