1 out of 5 stars

Superhero movies are in trouble when studios downplay their own genre. Sony’s marketing for Madame Web instead positions it as a “suspense thriller,” resembling an attempt to sell I Spit on Your Grave (1978) as a screwball comedy. Even if someone avoids the surrounding buzz, they can already sense its low quality based on its lineage. Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing, Madame Web carries the studio’s unfortunate mark as soon as the logo appears, heralding the predictable experience of a trip to McDonald’s. The best to hope for is generic mediocrity, like the worst-case scenario of Morbius (2022), from two of the same screenwriters. With admirable, though misguided, consistency, Sony delivers another uninspired and dull product, ripe for online mockery.

Morbius faced criticism for its nonsensical dialogue, jarring scenes, poor VFX, and overall cringe-inducing attempt to be cool. It essentially resembled what it truly was: a jumble of uninspired ideas and product placements forced upon the filmmaking team.

On the other hand, Madame Web seems to have sparked wider ridicule for its sheer dullness and listlessness. A prime example is the infamous trailer line, “He was in the Amazon with my mom, when she was researching spiders, right before she died.” This seemingly harmless line became a meme solely due to its utter banality, reflecting the general tone of the trailers. Audiences, accustomed to characters in these films uttering portentous pronouncements in hushed tones, found such lines not only redundant but also awkwardly expository.

Comic-book movies have become decadent. Though never known for exceptional quality, a few excellent entries by talented filmmakers generated impressive financial returns. Coupled with mainstream acceptance of nerd culture, these films evolved into a decades-old box office behemoth. However, the law of entropy has taken hold, and these features have grown increasingly lazy, progressively detaching themselves from anything but a corporate egg-and-spoon race. Madame Webb exemplifies this unfortunate trend, serving as a perfect example of a dropped egg.

The film hinges on a twisted plot: In 1973, spider researcher Constance Webb (Kerry Bishé) is murdered by her assistant, Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), but before her death, Constance gives birth to Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson). 30 years later, Cassie, now a paramedic in New York alongside Ben Parker (yes, the iconic Ben Parker!), awakens her latent psychic powers after falling into the river. Drawn to three teenagers—Julia (Sydney Sweeney), Anya (Isabela Merced), and Mattie (Celeste O’Connor)—she becomes their protector as they’re targeted by Sims, who’s haunted by visions of their imminent transformation into Spider-Women destined to kill him.

Critics and fans alike have eviscerated Madame Web, primarily due to its lack of a coherent story and underdeveloped characters. While the aforementioned sequence may appear to offer a semblance of narrative, it ultimately descends into a convoluted pseudo-plot riddled with illogical elements. For example, at one point Johnson’s character steals a NYC cab, which we then see in the middle of the woods, where she leaves the three girls for several hours while she figures out her superpowers.

Firstly, I don’t know New York, but I’d wager it takes some time to drive out into the middle of nowhere. You can’t just turn off 5th Avenue, cruise for a bit, and find yourself in Deliverance (1972) country, before leaving your guests to listen out for banjos while you pop back to your apartment.

Secondly, the guests in this case are three vulnerable underage girls, one of whom’s a runaway and another the child of deportees, fending for herself outside the system, who at one point admits that she doesn’t officially exist. Web decides to leave them in light clothing in the woods near a truckers’ rest stop, for several hours, with the sun setting. Jesus Christ. It would honestly serve her right if she came back to three slaughtered Jane Does. And then she has the nerve to call them entitled brats for going to the rest stop where it’s warm and they can eat!

Bad guy Sims, meanwhile, doesn’t appear to have aged at all in the three decades since Richard Nixon was still President. I don’t recall the film saying that that’s a side effect of the spider venom, but who knows, maybe it is?

Sims lacks depth and backstory, rendering him perhaps the most forgettable comic-book figure ever. He exhibits neither strong personality traits nor discernible motivations, and his connection to the world feels superficial. Contrastingly, the antagonist in The Marvels (2023), despite being a stereotypical tyrant, at least found grounding within established science-fantasy tropes. Humorously, Madame Web suggests Sims acquires access to advanced global surveillance technology through the mere seduction of a single NSA agent. This portrayal raises questions about the film’s treatment of gender dynamics. While Sims certainly embodies the ideal physique for a disco-era individual, his smouldering intensity, supposedly designed to instil fear, might instead leave audiences begging for something more substantial. In such a scenario, national security be damned.

Dakota Johnson, undoubtedly a talented actress, deserves better representation. Between this film and the critically divisive Fifty Shades trilogy (2015-18), she risks being typecast as a “Mary Sue-ish” character—pseudo-vulnerable, whiny, and lacking depth or wit. Her performance in the arthouse horror remake Suspiria (2018) served as a refreshing escape precisely because it contrasted sharply with the lifeless, misogynistic caricatures she embodied for three years. Viewed through this lens, Madame Web feels like a regression, even if the character isn’t subjected to BDSM scenarios by abusive men with mummy issues.

The three teenage girls struggle with clunky expositional dialogue but do their best. Unfortunately, character development seems lacking. Instead, they feel like mere constructs designed to showcase the underwhelming effects. Speaking of which, the effects are genuinely dreadful. Take the scene where Madame Web discovers her powers. Ignoring the nonsensical plot point of her inexplicably appearing outside the car after plunging into the river (which we never see), the CGI itself resembles something ripped from a low-budget television show.

Madame Web is a dull, pathetically shoddy piece of work. An alternative approach, focusing on Madame Web as the comics depict her (a blind elder directing a team of crime-solving Spider-Women) would have been more engaging. However, such an approach would necessitate a level of creativity that often seems absent at Sony Pictures.

USA CANADA | 2024 | 116 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider sony pictures

Cast & Crew

director: S.J Clarkson.
writers: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Claire Parker & S.J Clarkson (story by Kerem Sanga, Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless; based on ‘Marvel Comics’).
starring: Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, Celeste O’Connor, Tahar Rahim, Mike Epps, Emma Roberts & Adam Scott.