Madame Web strands Dakota Johnson in an inert superhero origin story that plays like a death knell for the genre

click to enlarge Madame Web strands Dakota Johnson in an inert superhero origin story that plays like a death knell for the genre
This Spider lacks any bite.

For a film about a character with the power to see into the future, the greatest joke of Madame Web is how regressive it feels. Even more egregious, rather than being in on the bit, it's like a bad cover of already forgettable 2000s-era superhero movies. It might draw a crowd looking for a familiar tune, but that still doesn't make the music any good. The sole surprise is how it somehow almost makes one feel like we were too mean to Morbius. (Almost.)

Written by five writers (including Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless of the aforementioned Morbius), Madame Web operates in a similar vein in all the wrong ways. It's not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, instead merely being a cog in Sony's live action Spider-Man Without Spider-Man-Verse, a half-hearted, corporate character rights-based attempt to expand the world of the web-slinging Spider-Man — without him being around — by focusing on characters adjacent to him. This time it's Cassandra Webb, gamely played by Dakota Johnson, who is living in New York City in 2003. She works as a paramedic with the superhero genre's most memorable modern uncle, Ben Parker (because of course she does), while largely keeping to herself and her cat. Briefly played by a wasted Adam Scott before he vanishes almost entirely from the movie, this movie's Uncle Ben is the first of many bizarre and painfully hamfisted references to other better superhero stories. And all of them land with dull thud after dull thud.

The more self-contained main narrative of Madame Web begins with Cassandra's mother who died giving birth to her after going out into the Peruvian Amazon in 1973 to research spiders believed to have healing properties. The awkward line explaining this — which was in the trailer and endlessly skewered because of the stilted way it sounds — is merely the beginning of the movie's unending and woefully poorly written dialogue. Much of this clunky verbiage is given to the otherwise solid actor Tahar Rahim, who plays the film's sad excuse for a villain, Ezekiel Sims. He delivers said lines while he tries to search out three teenagers that he believes will kill him in the future. It then falls to Cassandra to save them following an accident at work where she drowns and comes back to life — only to suddenly be able to see through time.

While not the most imaginative of premises, this sounds like it could be almost schlocky superhero fun on paper. Instead, it's a slog, as the film goes through the same motions over and over again with no spark to any of it. When Cassandra begins to discover her power, the way this is dragged out is more tiresome than thrilling. Though quite straightforward, the film explains her powers to us multiple times, demonstrating a severe lack of trust in its audience. When Cassandra then properly meets the three youths, Julia (Spokane's own Sydney Sweeney), Anya (Isabela Merced), and Mattie (Celeste O'Connor), they feel like cardboard cutout characters with no chemistry. This becomes increasingly perplexing as they get ditched multiple times, making it feel like even the film doesn't know what to do with them. The action they do get up to all feels empty — either brief or scattered CGI nonsense. Even a clumsy post-9/11 surveillance angle feels wildly undercooked for all that it is supposedly gesturing toward.

If there is one small saving grace, it is Johnson. She has been great in films like the surprisingly stellar Suspiria remake and the regrettably buried Am I OK?, though this film doesn't even let her have fun with its powers. One early scene at a baby shower sees her getting a laugh on delivery alone, but that is soon forgotten in the mess to come. Even if you overlook some of the technical distractions — like entire lines of dialogue that have clearly been rerecorded and are not actually being spoken by the characters — paying attention does the experience no favors either. While much has been made of the looming death of the superhero subgenre, Madame Web is the film that truly feels like it may put the genre in its grave for a bit. But like the film's protagonist, it will likely be resurrected again. One just hopes it has more life than this.

One and a Half Stars MADAME WEB
Rated PG-13
Directed by S.J. Clarkson
Starring Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, Celeste O'Connor

Expo '74: Films from the Vault @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 8
  • or