Madame Web Is Not the Worst Comic Book Movie of All Time, but It Ain’t Good

Madame Web Is Not the Worst Comic Book Movie of All Time, but It Ain’t Good

Madame Web is a two-hour trailer for the movie you think you’re watching, but actually aren’t. If that’s confusing, welcome to the world of Madame Web, where everyone—the characters, the actors, the audience, and everyone in between—is confused about basically everything, all of the time. It’s a film that sets specific expectations in terms of story and payoff, proceeds to seed and tease those payoffs throughout the movie, and then never delivers on them. When a film has to pretend to be something it’s not to keep you interested, that’s not a good sign, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg with Madame Web.

In Madame Web, Dakota Johnson stars as Cassandra Webb, a New York EMT who doesn’t like anything that has to do with kids or families. She’s a bit of a jerk, frankly, but her best friend Ben Parker—yes, that Ben Parker, played by Adam Scott—doesn’t care. He understands that Cassie, as she likes to be called, is the way she is because she grew up an orphan. You see, a prologue reveals Cassie’s mom died during childbirth while in the Amazon studying spiders. Spiders that, if captured, could give people superhuman abilities and cure many diseases. The mission, albeit noble, doesn’t go well for Mama Webb (played by Kerry Bishé) because once she finds the spider, the man she thinks is protecting her, Ezekiel (Tahar Rahim), betrays her and steals it.

Decades later, Ezekiel has done quite well for himself in some vague, never-explained way, with one small issue. Every night he wakes up to the same nightmare: three super-women teaming up to kill him. So he makes it his life’s work to find the women and kill them before they get these powers. The women are the mild-mannered Julia (Sydney Sweeney), rebellious skater Mattie (Celeste O’Connor), and confident brainiac Anya (Isabela Merced), three strangers who, the dreams suggest, will eventually become Spider-Women.

The four leads of Madame Web.

Madame Web has a lot of set-up to do before it even gets into the main drive of the film, which is Cassie slowly discovering her mother’s Amazonian adventure gave her mysterious powers of foresight which she uses to protect the girls from Ezekiel. Along the way, director S.J. Clarkson consistently leaves breadcrumbs to a larger story we expect to pay off, especially because the characters continually raise the same questions we have as the audience. We’re confused about who is who and how this all fits together, but so are the characters, so you assume that’s the point. However, worthwhile narrative cohesion largely goes out the door as Madame Web gets increasingly monotonous. Ezekiel finds the girls, conveniently all together. Cassie has a vision and saves the girls. The girls assume they’re safe and get caught again. Cassie has another vision, etc., etc. Which is repetitive on its own, but is also told via an inherently repetitive construct because the audience has to see each scene at least two times. That’s repetitive on top of repetitive and it makes up the bulk of the movie.

Confused characters caught in a lazy story loop might be forgivable if those characters were endearing in any way—but unfortunately, they are not. As previously mentioned, Johnson’s Cassie is kind of a jerk, and the whole movie is structured so she becomes less of a jerk, which isn’t a particularly interesting arc. O’Connor and Merced have clear visions of who their characters are, but they’re so thinly written that you can really feel the acting. As for Sweeney, she just feels like she’s in another movie. Is she shy? Is she sad? Why did she mention martial arts? Is she being honest about her family? Her character and performance are a mess.

Sydney Sweeney is great, but not in Madame Web.

Plus, everything in Madame Web is so, so serious. You keep hoping for some injection of humor to lighten the mood or a huge sweeping set piece to bring that superhero bombast, but neither comes. The biggest laughs are from awkwardly shoehorned product placements or awful, unintentionally funny dialogue. And when there is a big action beat, often it’s so random and dumb that it loses any of its excitement. (Three words: “Ambulance through billboard.” Three more words: “Condemned fireworks factory.”) Together, that makes for a dreary tone which, on top of the repetitive plot and bland characters, makes the whole thing feel excessively dull.

Eventually, when the film hits what’s clearly its big, exciting conclusion, anything happening on screen is lost in the crushing realization that almost everything you assumed was going to happen in this movie is not going to happen. Major questions will not be answered. Huge reveals will remain a mystery. The whole thing has sort of been a lie. Then it ends, you sit there scratching your head waiting for some kind of redeeming end credit scene, only that never comes either.

Image: Sony Pictures

And yet, the saddest thing about Madame Web is that as bad as it is, it’s the type of bad you forget 10 minutes after you watch it. It’s never bad enough to be enjoyable and it’s (obviously) never good enough to be memorable. There aren’t any exciting comic book teases to break down (there are teases of teases more than anything else) or satisfying emotional achievements to latch onto. It’s a story that only makes sense if you don’t think about it, filled with performances that aren’t very engaging, and then it ends. That ending does tease there could be more Madame Web to come, but we’d be very, very surprised if that ever happens.

Madame Web is in theaters on Valentine’s Day. (Why? We have no idea. There’s not a shred of romance in the entire film.)

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