Madame Web (2024) Review

Madame Web (2024)
Director: S.J. Clarkson
Screenwriters: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Claire Parker, S.J. Clarkson
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, Celeste O’Connor, Tahar Rahim, Adam Scott, Emma Roberts, Kerry Bishé, Mike Epps, Zosia Mamet, José María Yazpik

Making her debut on the page in 1980, the elderly, paralysed and clairvoyant Madame Web of Marvel Comics bears little resemblance to the character that leads Sony’s latest Spider-Man-less Spider-Man spin-off. Whatever this film started off as – whether a supernatural suspense thriller, an ambitious multiverse adventure, or a prequel to The Amazing Spider-Man movies – what it has ended up being is a a project made up of a messy tangle of loose threads in desperate need of a coherent identity.

New York paramedic Cassandra “Cassie” Web (Dakota Johnson) begins having visions of the near future and is compelled to protect three teenagers (Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced and Celeste O’Connor) from a costumed, wall-crawling supervillain (Tahar Rahim) who has dreamed of his death at their hands.

To start with, Madame Web is not as bad as Morbius, and it might not even be as bad as Venom. From its early moments, this movie at the very least proves itself to be a far weirder concept than you might expect from your standard Sony/Marvel property. The opening sequence, set in 1973 in the Peruvian rainforest, sees Cassie’s heavily pregnant mother Constance (Kerry Bishé) searching for a rare spider with potential healing properties, stumbling across an indigenous tribe with spider-like agility, reflexes, and a distinctive red and black colour palette in the process.

We are then catapulted forward to 2003 where the orphaned and now-adult Cassie and her fellow paramedic/work-husband Ben Parker (notably soon to be an uncle and played by Adam Scott) rush from emergency to emergency around NYC and receive very little thanks from their home city for the tough job they do. At this point we’re firmly in buddy comedy territory, and Johnson and Scott in particular seem far more comfortable when they are one step removed from the comic book shenanigans.

The way Cassie’s visions are implemented is potentially really interesting too. Moments are not so much telegraphed but instead slowly seep into the storytelling to wrong-foot our P.O.V. character and keep us on our toes, the hero learning to use her powers of foresight through trial and error. If only director S.J. Clarkson (‘The Defenders’) had really gone for it on a stylistic level beyond replaying the same sequences with minor but crucial variations.

For all the sheer meme-ability on this movie’s promo tour, Dakota Johnson undoubtedly knew the assignment here. Much like Tom Hardy’s take on Eddie Brock/Venom, the oddness of some of her choices and how she shows Cassie’s difficulties with basic human interaction – from being dragged along to a baby shower to trying to convince everybody including herself that she isn’t actually abducting the three teenagers in the back of her stolen taxi – provides a lot of entertainment value. The cast in general are pretty solid, with Scott providing some much-needed every-man wryness and the three young actors playing Julia, Anya and Mattie all bringing heart and depth to characters who might have simply been first-base teenage stereotypes (the good girl, the bad girl and the skateboarder). When the more overt superhero origin setup stuff takes away from the cast’s fairly likeable chemistry is when the film really begins to falter. 

Then you have the villain. What exactly is the deal with Ezekiel Sims? Quite aside from the bizarre decision to noticeably dub over most, if not all of, Tahar Rahim’s (A Prophet) dialogue, we never actually learn what his character is trying to achieve. He wants to prevent his own death, that’s a given, but what does he do with his days when he’s not stalking schoolgirls with a CCTV camera network or running along rooftops without shoes on? Norman Osborn and Doctor Otto Octavius had lives outside of their villainy in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, and even when they were just being full-on evil bastards it was in service of a diabolical master plan which Ezekiel seems to be lacking. 

Regarding its story structure, this most closely resembles a Terminator movie, with its nigh-unstoppable antagonist chasing his seemingly helpless quarry from location to location across a city, their only reliable defence being to hide or to keep moving, but they are definitely missing some momentum, tension and time-travel trickiness to make the comparison apt. 

Because our lead doesn’t have any powers that are much use in a fight, the level of superhero action on show here is somewhat limited. We have some brief flash-forwards to the Spider-heroes the teenage trio are destined to become using their flashy arachnid abilities, but if this could be considered an action movie it is one more driven by car chases than fisticuffs. As is traditional in SSU (Sony’s Spider-Man Universe) movies, the final set piece takes place in a night-time industrial setting with a fast-moving villain wearing black setting himself up for an obvious demise.

Like every instalment of this faltering franchise so far, the main issue with Madame Web (apart from a story and character arcs that were clearly changed in re-shoots or in the final edit) is one of tone. The street-bound working-class city story doesn’t fit with the more campy, self-aware humour (screenwriters Sazama and Sharp do like making obvious references to much better movies), and the genuinely different South American mythology perspective on what a superpowered being actually is jars with the standard comic book origin story they seem to be following elsewhere. Who knows what purpose setting this film twenty years ago actually served beyond making it a bit more difficult for our hero to keep track of the kids she is trying to protect without ever-present mobile devices, unless it was just to head off at the pass the criticisms of the film looking like something from the early 21st century.

Madame Web is just about fine. Some enjoyable performances and some ballsy swings for the fences ensure this is the most consistently entertaining Spider-Man spin-off so far, but its dramatic moments don’t land and most of the comedy seems unintentional. This, in addition to a lack of clear sense of purpose and a pretty messy final act, keeps Madame Web firmly in the guilty pleasure bracket of pop culture.

Score: 8/24

Rating: 1 out of 5.

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