Dakota Johnson in Madame Web (2024)

‘Madame Web’ movie review: Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney stuck in Spider-Man spinoff

NOW STREAMING ON:

A New York EMT uses her long-dormant powers of clairvoyance in order to save three teenage girls in Madame Web, the latest entry in Sony’s Spider-Man Universe opening in the Czech Republic and cinemas worldwide this weekend. Coming on the heels of Morbius, this one was already the internet’s whipping boy ahead of its release, and a ridiculed trailer and critical drubbing following a late embargo (a Prague press screening took place on the day of release) didn’t help matters.

Audiences may be in for a surprise, then, when they encounter what appears to largely be a competently-made film. Unlike the murky Morbius, Madame Web looks great, with efficient direction from S.J. Clarkson, terrific location filming on the streets of New York City from Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar), excellent 2003 production design that evokes the feel of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, and a minimum of overblown CGI effects.

Madame Web also boasts four appealing central performances, with Dakota Johnson as the perpetually-perplexed protagonist flanked by Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, and Celeste O’Connor as future Spider-Women. They’re playing dress-up here cast as ingénue teenagers, but not without flair, especially Sweeney.

But the promise of talent behind and in front of the camera is never realized; thanks to a braindead screenplay from the director and Claire Parker, Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama (Dracula Untold, The Last Witch Hunter, Gods of Egypt, and Morbius), as well as some awful post-production tampering, Madame Web gets dumber and duller as it lurches towards an improbable two-hour runtime. In the end, this really is worse than Morbius, if only because it could have been so much better.

Madame Web‘s opening prologue opens with a pregnant Constance Webb (Kerry Bishé) in the Amazon researching spiders shortly before she dies. Specifically, one kind of spider, one that can give people the super-powers of the mythical tree-hopping Las Arañas tribe, cure disease, and build a better world. But the villainous Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim, who appears to have had his entire performance dubbed by the “paging Mr. Herman” guy) shoots her as soon as she finds it, leaving the Las Arañas to deliver her baby.

If you happen to arrive to the film ten minutes late, don’t worry: this entire sequence will be replayed, almost frame by frame, at the end of the film’s second act to show us how Cassandra Webb (Johnson) learns of her mom’s fate. This isn’t just an origin story, you see: this is the origin story about someone learning their own origin story.

After using the spider to give himself super-powers, meanwhile, Sims wakes in fright every night with a dream of three mysterious spider-women who kill him in the future. So he quietly waits three decades for technology to advance to the point to allow him to track them down.

Ezekiel’s plan? He hasn’t see these women in real life, and they’re each wearing masks in the dream. But he creates an artist’s rendition from memory, digitally de-ages them a decade, and hacks into 2003 NSA facial recognition technology to track them in real time. Foolproof.

Cohort Amaria (Zosia Mamet, staring at a computer screen for the entire film) just happens to locate Julia Cornwall (Sweeney), Anya Corazon (Merced), and Mattie Franklin (O’Connor) at the same time, and in the same location: Grand Central Station. The final stroke of Sims’ masterplan is about to come to fruition as he strangles them one-by-one, in broad daylight, in front of multiple witnesses.

Not so fast! NYC EMT Cassandra, who has been having premonitions of violence every since a near-death experience, just happens to be on the same train as the girls, and sees this whole plan in action Final Destination-style before Sims can carry it out. She saves the girls, and spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out what’s going on. The audience, painfully, is three steps ahead of her.

Yes, yes, every spider-fan knows that with “great power comes great responsibility.” But what about “if you take on the responsibility, great power will come,” an actual line of dialogue spoken in perfect English by the Amazonian spider-man tribesman who delivered Cassandra and patiently waited 30 years for her return. Brilliant! But does it make sense? No, not really. Cassandra does indeed gain great power after throwing herself in danger’s way, but exactly why this happens is a complete mystery to the audience.

Madame Web gets more and more senseless as it goes along, leading up to a literally overblown climax set at a fireworks factory. By the end, an epilogue gives us about 30 seconds worth of the protagonists in costume, as if to threaten the reappearance of these characters in future installments. One fears that the next three movies will be origin stories for the three spider-women, as their full geneses have yet to be explained in painstaking detail.

This movie also contains, for reasons that feel like contractual obligation: a literal Spider-Man birth scene as Mary Parker (Emma Roberts) delivers a newborn Peter, Spidey’s Uncle Ben as played by Adam Scott, Sims crawling around in a Spider-Man costume that can’t be called Spider-Man (Cassandra terms him “ceiling guy”), and a host of other elements that keep reminding us of what the movie doesn’t contain: our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

On the back of Venom, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and Morbius, audiences walking into Madame Web probably know what to expect. On a technical level, this one represents a step forward from the previous movies… but on a storytelling level, it’s two steps back. The stage is set for Kraven the Hunter, due out later this year

Madame Web

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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