To be a fly on the wall at Sony whenever another live-action Spider-Man Universe movie is pitched. At this point, it’s hard to tell if, perhaps in the beginning stages of their development, they have the best intentions of making something worthwhile or if they’re playing an elaborate joke on the masses by purposely releasing subpar material. Thus hoping that moviegoers will be so desperate for content, they’ll go see it no matter what. This is what I’m thinking the entire time watching Madame Web.


It worked for the first two Venom movies. Those projects didn’t live up to the comic book history of its titular character but weren’t the dumpster fire that critics suggested. Collectively those films pulled in $1.36 billion worldwide. So, in that case, Sony proved victorious. Then there was Morbius, a project delayed several times due to the pandemic, and other factors, when it finally hit the big screen it was almost a deep shock that it was so bad since the studio had plenty of time to try to clean it up.

Now we have Madame Web, a movie that couldn’t possibly be as bad as Morbius, right? Sadly, it’s just as bad and perhaps even more frustrating because the project has enough on-screen talent that it wastes on a pedestrian comic book effort. This film feels like a major step back for the genre. Just because it takes place in 2003, doesn’t mean it needs to feel like it was made in 2003.

However, Madame Web begins a bit before that in 1973 in the Peruvian Amazon. Constance (Kerry Bishé) is on a quest for a rare spider that is said to have healing properties. She is aided in this journey by her bodyguard Ezekiel (Tahar Rahim), who wastes no time betraying her so that she can harness the ability of the spider for himself. During this act of betrayal, Constance is left for dead but she is rescued by the people of the jungle who then let their pet spiders bite her in hopes of saving her life. Unfortunately, Constance doesn’t make it but does save the life of her unborn daughter.


Then in 2003 of Madame Web, we meet that unborn daughter who is now a full-grown woman named Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson). She works as an EMT in Queens alongside her partner Ben Parker (Adam Scott). The location of Queens and Ben Parker, along with a very pregnant Mary Parker (Emma Roberts) offer up Sony’s wink and nudge references to the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man”. Who, by the way, is never mentioned by name.

However, many of these Sony Spider-Man Universe films can’t seem to stand alone without a tangible connection to him. When Ben takes Cassandra to the baby shower, it’s mentioned that the fetus keeps “leaping around” inside of Mary. It all feels so painful on the nose. Throw in Ben not being able to wait to be an uncle, you know he’s so close to saying, “With power, comes great responsibility.”

Moving on. Cassandra’s aka the Madame Web origin story truly begins when she rescues a man from a car on a bridge and is injured in the process. During the process, psychic abilities are triggered within Cassandra which allows her to see the future. Imagine if Final Destination was attempting to be a comic book movie and that’s how some of these visions play out.

One major vision that she wants to stop from transpiring is the brutal attack of three teenage girls that include Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor), and Anya Corazon. They have become the target of Ezekiel, who now has been imbued with great strength and speed and has been having night terrors of his own. He keeps seeing his death at the hands of these three girls once they have become enhanced with their own spider-like abilities.


Sadly, nothing about Madame Web plays out surprisingly, and, as directed by S.J. Clarkson, much of it is done in such a pedestrian way. There is no real sense of spectacle that could’ve at least made some of the sequences and circumstances of the plot exciting. Clarkson is known primarily for TV and this is her feature film directorial debut. However, her time directing episodes of the former Netflix Marvel series Jessica Jones and the pilot of The Defenders indicated some promise. It’s hard to tell if she is let down by the screenplay, which is co-written by Claire Parker, Matt Sazama, as well as Burk Sharpless. Or did the studios not give her the resources or freedom to shine? None of the action scenes pop and there isn’t any real sense of urgency.

The Madame Web screenplay, which has two writers who were also credited for writing Morbius, also makes a curious misstep with the teen trio that is at the heart of Ezekiel’s visions. Firstly, their personalities are formed mostly by stereotypes. None of them feel like fully fleshed-out characters. Julia is shy and geeky. Mattie is brass and blunt. Anya is somewhere in between. Except for Sweeney, who is talented, but miscast. The girls have moments of overcoming how poorly their characters are scripted because of their natural charisma but even they can’t overcome a screenplay that does them no favors.

In addition, by the end of the film, the girls aren’t superheroes yet as Sony seems to think that moviegoers will be invested enough to see their evolution in a future film. It’s all a bit of a tease and any images of the girls you have seen in their spider-suits have already been revealed in the trailer and it’s not from some grand action sequence that the trailer is hiding. The only origin story that reaches completion is Cassandra’s and even hers on the lackluster side. A lot of her time is spent being a reluctant mother figure to her three no charges as they banter and are at odds before coming together due to its themes of teamwork and achieving one’s true potential.


Like some comic book movies, and this goes for Marvel and DC, the villain can be an issue if they’re not fully realized and that proves to be the case with Madame Web and Ezekiel. On top of bad ADR issues that make some of his delivery questionable, Ezekiel never feels like a genuine threat. Despite his enhanced strength and speed and a spider-suit of his own, you never question whether the women will triumph over evil. He seems to have issues taking out three teenage girls who have no super abilities yet which makes his capacity as a villain all the more low-level. Again, it’s hard to tell who is at fault here. Rahim has won awards worldwide for his work in A Prophet and The Mauritian so this could all come down to direction and the script.

Speaking more on the Madame Web script, which Johnson has revealed went through major changes after she signed on, it doesn’t have a sense of real fun. If a movie is going to be bad on this level, it should be self-aware enough to embrace it and maybe generate laughs in the process. Many of the film’s laughs are unintentional, such as when Johnson has to deliver a lot of exposition to make sure the audience is still paying attention. The film doesn’t have a knowing sense of humor and plays many of its scenes very straight, which only makes it all feel more ridiculous.

Johnson has proven to be a capable actress in recent projects that showcased her talent way more efficiently than any of the Fifty Shades of Grey films did. This could be why it’s disheartening to see that she takes a bit of a step back here. Again, it could be more about issues with the screenplay and direction but her take on Cassandra seems so emotionally distant at times that she comes off a bit unlikable. Things get a bit better for her when she takes on the role of protector for the three girls but what that also showcases is that maybe their youthful energy would’ve been suited for their own superhero project rather than Johnson leading this one.


Thankfully, for those who choose to give Madame Web a chance, there are no end credits scenes or big surprises that you need to stick around for, as has become the norm for movies in this genre. The depressing part about all of this is that this is a low-level standalone origin story that has trouble getting by on even the most minuscule of expectations.

However, by the time the credits rolled, I didn’t truly blame anyone in front of or behind the camera. The problems with Madame Web, much like Morbius and to a lesser extent the two Venom films, lie at the feet of Sony. They don’t seem invested in making viable live-action films based on any of these characters. Simply because they own the rights, they just choose to crank them out and see what sticks. You don’t have to possess psychic abilities to see that is a truly bad way to do business.

Madame Web hits screens nationwide on February 14

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