Movie Review: Madame Web weaves a threadbare story

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Madame Web's a tangled and fragmented narrative that trips over its own plot holes on a joyless slog to nowhere.
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Quick Take: Madame Web should've been a fun and fantastical origin story for a dynamic comic character with real spin-off potential. Instead it’s a mishmash of barely interesting plot points, disjointed visual trickery, and underwhelming performances. More than anything else, Madame Web proves it’s not enough to throw all the “expected” set pieces in a movie, you actually need to know what to do with them.

**

Official Synopsis: Cassandra Webb develops the power to see the future. Forced to confront revelations about her past, she forges a relationship with three young women bound for powerful destinies, if they can all survive a deadly present.

Director: S.J. Clarkson
Writers: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Claire Parker, S.J. Clarkson
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, Celeste O'Connor, Tahar Rahim, Mike Epps, Emma Roberts, Adam Scott

**

Madame Web, Sony’s third standalone spin-off of a Marvel comic character, opened the door for the studio to fully reimagine the origins of its titular character and set the stage for robust worldbuilding in its Spider-Man Universe. The Cassandara Webb of the comics is an elderly woman, with a neuromuscular disease, connected to a life support system that resembles a spider web. She’s fully in control of her clairvoyance and precognition.  Webb’s an exceptionally powerful mutant and infrequent supporting character in the Spider-Man comic book series. There’s very little known of her beginnings. When carving a lane for future stories, it doesn’t get much better than having firm grounding in source material but an otherwise clear field to play. 

There’s something to be said for nostalgia in movie styling (we won't talk about those reshoot blunders). Setting a story in the recent past opens the way for the sleight-of-hand of soft revisionist storytelling often beneficial when telling a story with supernatural elements. For audiences, everything feels familiar and contemporary but the edges are just blurry enough to make way for a world full of magic, mystery, and untold danger existing alongside the mundane. What Madame Web gets right(ish) is blending an intentionally pulp-esque vibe into a recognizable version of the contemporary New York City circa 2003. The story moves at a digestible (and thankfully relatively quick) pace of a thriller. So it’s a shame that absolutely nothing else; not direction, editing, character arcs, visual effects, cast performances, or story direction, amounts to more than a “comic movie” checklist neither the screenwriters nor the director knew how to navigate.

The movie opens with a flashback, because of course it does, of a pregnant Constance Webb (Kerry Bishé) deep in the Peruvian Amazon in 1973. She’s on the hunt for a spider said to have miraculous healing properties. She’s whip smart, driven, and desperate. So desperate she misses all the glaring red flags that her impatient head of security, Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), isn’t really there to protect her waving in her face. Through hamfisted dialogue, a lore info-dump about a secretive indigenous people with powers, known as Las Aranas, (that would’ve carried more weight as naturally occurring revelations), and scenes of a furtive tent search practically lifted from Tomb Raider, it’s obvious Sims’ intends to acquire the spider for his own ends. The action sequences that follow shortly after the expected doublecross are a reminder that staging and filming action and stunts is a skill not all directors possess. Director S.J. Clarkson relies on quick cuts, odd camera angles, and bouncing shots of rustling foliage and blurred glimpses of people leaping from great heights to simulate action and fast-moving “spider people” traveling through the trees coming to the rescue. It’s the first sign, of many, that Madame Webb’s practical and visual effects are a detriment to an already poorly conceived storyline. And although the flashback is a smart entry point for Webb’s origin story, it’s also the movie's first failure.

Ezekiel Sims, a character also pulled from the comic Spider-verse, and his connection with Constance Webb offer a rational way to introduce the various mystical rites and ceremonies associated with the arachnid-based superpowers. In the comics he’s proven to be knowledgeable about spider-derived powers and resourceful, if selfish. His powers are stolen and that theft carries far-reaching consequences. But instead of taking a beat to really dig into both his background and the society whose secrets he’s hunting, Madame Web sloppily paints Sims with an imminent “villain of the week” energy and yada-yadas Constance Webb’s first (and last) contact with Las Aranas; reducing it to a failed attempt to save her life that manages to spare her child. 

Even without knowing Sims’ background - or his importance - in the comics, it’s painfully obvious that his character’s poorly thought out. The script written by Clarkson, Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless and Claire Parker never fleshes out his motivations beyond increasingly annoying rants about needing to “protect” all he’s built. The storyline sheds absolutely no light on how he escaped the jungle without incident thereby wasting an opportunity to: 1) reveal more about Las Aranas and/or the rites involving the spider and 2) explain how and why this French-speaking mercenary is even in Peru hunting superpowers to begin with. This failing, regrettably, is a hallmark of all the character development and worldbuilding from this point forward. Brace because it becomes intrusively tiresome. There are other important elements along the way treated as throw-aways moments rather than touchstones essential to sticking the landing in the second and third acts.

The timeline soon jumps to 2003 and a thirty-year-old Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson). Cassie’s an EMT with attachment issues and a fast-approaching future as a Manhattan cat lady. She’s cynical, reckless, and, after (an unexplored) childhood in foster care, purposefully emotionally unavailable. Everything she knows about her mother fits in a suitcase kept under her bed. Johnson’s portrayal of Cassie does a barely serviceable job of embodying a woman who actively avoids personal connections outside work. There are a few scenes - and relationships - intended to be both Spider-verse easter eggs and demonstrate Cassie actually does care about her circle of friends particularly her EMT partner Ben Parker (Adam Scott) and his family despite her aversion to fully being present as a friend.

Sadly, Johnson’s perpetual smoothed-faced delivery results in an emotionally dead and inauthentic portrayal. Her middling efforts can't overcome the script’s flimsy dialogue, joyless quips, glaring worldbuilding inconsistencies (like a New York cab without lojack or CPR that never includes clearing an airway) and constantly unfinished looking and/or awkwardly executed visual effects or stunts. Johnson lacks the range to play a character that simultaneously requires make believe to bring the story/world to life and the ability to make us believe in them. 

Compounding the errors baked into the opening, Madame Web skips over everything related to showing how Ezekiel Sims actually fits into the world in the present day. Beyond a few moments meant to show the lengths he’ll go to preserve his power; including plotting murder based solely on a vision. His entire part of the story lacks depth. That might not be so unforgivable had the time been spent adding texture to this world through the story arcs of the teenage (future) dynamos: Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced), and Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor).

But again, Clarkson barely expends the energy to make these characters two dimensional. Every bit of their portrayal feels sketchy; paint-by-numbers (from bad tween flicks) at best. Which is a real shame because Merced, Sweeney, and O’Connor bring the only chemistry and dynamic energy to be had. Each does what they can to make these shallow personalities even slightly believable in spite of spouting insipid one-liners, obnoxious teen antics, and being reduced to multiple instances of over-explaining to make up for “the show” that never happens. Unfortunately their contributions to the plot were never going to amount to anything noteworthy. Their storylines are woefully threadbare and not strong enough to weave into anything beyond muddled “side characters.” 

So, transitioning from the, Cassie’s spidey senses activate, portion of this adventure to Cassie not only embracing her powers but becoming the type of person who selflessly leaps in to save three teenage strangers, never really clicks the way it needs to. That misfire leads to an entire latter half that requires a level of belief suspension not even amnesia can accomplish. The stakes don’t feel real. The journey lacks the kind of compelling grit to keep you invested and rooting for anyone’s survival. This might be the first time that including a training montage - instead of a wholly unbelievable and lackluster trip back into the jungle - might’ve served to better bridge that gap.  But alas, no. The end result is a tangled and fragmented narrative that trips over its own plot holes on a joyless slog to nowhere.

The anticipatory energy of the movie's final moments is entirely unearned. No one’s buying this as the origin story for a person meant to assume the role of mentor and powerful oracle to those destined to wield powers in the Spider-verse. Because Madame Webb’s built on the type of shoddy character development and disjointed storytelling often blamed on the “shortcomings” of comics as source material. But in reality, is indicative of a weak pen-game, a complete lack of respect for the genre and no vision, creativity, or talent behind the scenes. 

**

Distributor: Sony/Columbia
Runtime:  1 Hour 57 Minutes
Release date: February 14, 2024


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