THE STORY – Cassandra Webb is a New York City paramedic who starts to show signs of clairvoyance. Forced to confront revelations about her past, she must protect three young women from a mysterious adversary who wants them dead.
THE CAST – Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor, Isabela Merced, Tahar Rahim, Mike Epps, Emma Roberts & Adam Scott
THE TEAM – S.J. Clarkson (Director/Writer), Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless & Claire Parker (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 116 Minutes
It’s wild to see how the mighty have fallen. Before the pandemic, the era of superhero films had reached unimaginable heights and completely dominated the industry. Any studio could release a superhero film with the promise it would connect to a larger universe, and it seemed most people would come out to see it. Yet, since the pandemic, audiences have slowly begun to jump ship. It’s hard to tell whether everyone decided “Avengers: Endgame” was some sort of unofficial ending to these films or just that the progressive lack of quality is driving audiences to alienate themselves from this genre. Maybe it’s a bit of both? Superhero films, especially those made by major studios not connected to Marvel Studios, feel like they’re regressing to the work of the early 2000s that, while nostalgic, do not hold up in any way to the level of quality expected today after so many iterations and entries. S.J. Clarkson’s “Madame Web” is not only a reminder of what these films used to be like pre-MCU, but it’s also a lesson on why these types of cape flicks will never fully work.
“Madame Web” follows paramedic and eventual clairvoyant Cassandra “Cassie” Webb, played by Dakota Johnson. At the beginning of the film, Cassie is showing off her skills as a paramedic. She’s speeding through the busy streets of New York, cracking terrible zingers, and racing to save a patient’s life. She is excellent at her job compared to interacting with people, as she remains an emotionally closed-off individual. Besides engaging with her co-worker Ben (played by Adam Scott) or a cat she occasionally feeds milk to, Cassie leads her life with little to be desired. Any attempt at social interaction is exhausting to her. After a near-death experience at work, Cassie begins to start seeing scattered visions of the future, ultimately guiding her to the aid of a trio of young women played (Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor, and Isabela Merced). Together, the four must find out why the villainous Ezekiel Sims (played by Tahar Rahim) is hunting them down and why Cassie is experiencing these premonitions.
If anything about “Madame Web” sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. Johnson attempts to give Cassie some personality, but it is all for naught as she just comes off as wooden, harkening back to a more scrutinized time in her career when she was saddled with trying to make awful material work. Johnson’s dry delivery of the film’s atrocious dialogue leads to several excruciating, painful exchanges. Her sense of humor translates well in some moments, especially when she shares scenes with Scott’s character. Sadly, Scott (who might be the best performance in the movie) is absent for most of the film’s runtime. The trio of Sweeney, O’Connor, and Merced are all serviceable. Still, they’re equally given nothing to do besides have cheap interactions with one another and attempt to sell audiences that not only would they eventually become crime-fighting heroes, but their characters can even stand each other. It’s also sad to see an actor as talented as Rahim not only be relegated to the most one-dimensional villain you’ve likely seen in years but also give a truly terrible performance. It should also be noted that most of his scenes involving dialogue appear to be inserted in the film via. ADR, which is more than noticeable. Unfortunately, no actor escapes “Madame Web” without giving some variation of a terrible performance, and how can they do so with a screenplay as absurd as this?
S.J. Clarkson’s direction is substandard, which will likely leave audiences baffled by what feels like a regression for superhero moviemaking. She tries to implement a style of editing that appears frenetic, and you think it would help give the film much-needed energy to maintain engagement. Instead, “Madame Web” is incredibly distracting and, at times, unbearable to look at. The best example is how Clarkson visually displays Cassie’s premonitions for the future. These rapidly flashing cuts and images induce a nauseating sense of disorientation that, while somewhat intentional, does not work whatsoever. The film’s action sequences are no better as they are blocked and shot terribly, especially compared to today’s high bar set by other action films. While it can be appreciated that Clarkson shot in what appears to be real locations for most of the film instead of some studio backlot, “Madame Web” can’t escape looking uninspired.
“Madame Web’s” screenplay is a Frankenstein’s monster of ideas. On one hand, it’s Cassie’s origin story into becoming the “iconic” Marvel character forever tied to Spider-Man. On the other hand, it’s also setting up three spider-women characters you never see in action throughout the film. By the time you get to the film’s ending, it all has been this sloppily put-together setup for a future installment of another “Madame Web” film.
“Madame Web” also wants to have its cake and eat it, too, as it desperately tries to capitalize on the famous web-slinger’s universe without having him involved in any way. Scott’s character, Ben, is clearly Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, but it’s never explicitly said in the film. Whether mentioning key jangling-esque buzz words like “Uncle Ben” or Peter is not used in the movie because of a contractual issue or intentional decision doesn’t make it any less nonsensical. It’s bad enough that you don’t deliver on what audiences came to see but instead barrage them with eye-rolling-inducing dialogue that makes them wonder why they even showed up. Despite being predictable in every way, “Madame Web” never ceases to surprise viewers with how lousy it can be.
At this point, someone has to ask who is in charge of approving these films. After the disappointment of “Morbius,” you’d think that a movie related to Spider-Man without the actual presence of the titular character would be axed. Despite being another horrible set of films, the “Venom” movies are profitable due to the titular character being a fan-favorite. Who cares about the vampire villain that Spider-Man once fought? Who actually cares about “Madame Web?” Did most general audiences even know who this character was before this film was released? “Madame Web” feels like a film that was kept in a vault for twenty years, and Sony finally decided to release it. Unfortunately, it represents another step backward in the groundwork Marvel Studios has spent the last decade or so building up and further proves Sony’s one and only true asset is Spider-Man himself.