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Madame Web Review: Sony’s Spider Stumble

Dakota Johnson looks shocked in the film Madame Web

Sony Spider-Man Universe film Madame Web, starring Dakota Johnson as NYC paramedic with clairvoyance Cassandra Webb, never delivers on the promise of its premise.

To borrow from On the Waterfront, Madame Web could have been a contender. The movie, starring Dakota Johnson (Persuasion, The Fifty Shades franchise) as the somewhat clairvoyant Cassandra Webb, has all the basic building blocks of what could have been a good superhero movie. Madame Web disappointingly never delivers on the promise of its premise. Let’s be clear: it is not a bad movie, but so much about the film misses the mark that even casual audiences will realize the opportunities missed with this Sony outing. 

What’s incredibly frustrating is that, on paper, everything about Madame Web sounds excellent. If you were a studio wanting to throw heaps of money at a project with the hope it would turn out well and you would be rewarded with a commercial success, this is the kind of team you would want to assemble. Consider the elements: you can almost feel some studio brass going down a list of elements to make this work.

Interesting lore – in this case, healing spiders and the Peruvian jungle. Check. A talented cast that has carried films on their own? Johnson and supporting cast Isabela Merced, Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor, and, oh yeah, Adam Scott. Check. And talent behind the camera with a flare for specific comic book action – director SJ Clarkson, who cut her teeth on Netflix’s lauded Jessica Jones and The Defenders, and Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore, who interestingly also DP’ed the Sony Spider flick No Way Home. Check. 

But it doesn’t work for Madame Web. And it’s like you can feel the studio honchos congratulating themselves over picking this group of people brimming with talent. As you watch the film, the same fingerprints and death by a thousand notes are all over the story and how it is told on screen.

As comic book fans and moviegoers, we will suspend disbelief if we’re entertained and told a good story. I enjoyed the movie Lift, where Kevin Hart was his own charming version of Thomas Crown and stole a plane full of terrorist gold, because it was such a fun movie with movement. It was entertaining, and while Madame Web piques curiosity, it doesn’t respect the time you spend watching it. 

Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor), Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced), and Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney) stand on the train platform looking shocked in the film MADAME WEB.
Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor), Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced), and Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney) in Columbia Pictures’ MADAME WEB. (© 2024 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Cassandra Webb is a NYC paramedic in 2003 who “dies” after suffering cardiac arrest while drowning after a rescue call goes bad. After her near-death experience, she starts to have visions of the future – usually only a few moments in advance. Cassandra realizes she can change things – at first, saving a pigeon from death via her apartment windows. This power sets her on a collision course with three young women (Sweeney, Merced, and O’Connor) who are in danger but don’t know it yet.  

Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), who is fabulously rich, has mysterious spider powers, and it turns out – is cursed, thanks to double-crossing Cassandra’s pregnant mom in the jungle, wants to kill them before their future powerful selves kill him. (Rahim is also horribly dubbed to the point of being noticeable, saying very different words than what was ADRed. ) Channeling her best impression of every character from the Terminator franchise (thank you, Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor), Cassandra pulls a “Come with me if you want to live” line to her new charges. After a dangerous encounter on a subway car with the ceiling climbing and spider suit-wearing Sims, Cassandra, and the women are on the run

What happens next is an overly long film that sometimes forgets it’s supposed to be a thriller with a ticking clock element. At one point, Cassandra goes on a week-long trip to Peru for answers, all while the girls are back in NYC being hunted. But it all worked out in the end for Cassandra and her spider teenagers, thanks to the help of Pepsi and some fabulous product placement. Clearly, Sony was taking notes when DC debuted Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’s heavy Guinness sponsorship. 

Cassandra does change throughout the movie and has an arc. While she at first is relatively low-energy about life, at the end of the film, because of the events of the final grand Pepsi-sponsored battle, she has her sight altered and is in a wheelchair. This will be extremely familiar to comic book fans as it is close to her portrayal in that medium. The film doesn’t have a post-credit scene, but it does strongly hint at future stories.

I won’t waste too many words on the cast’s performances because you can only give so much of yourself to the project and expect to make such an impact when, clearly, lots has been lost in the studio notes process.

Madame Web: Powers (Sony)

I will say that the chemistry between the “teenage” (excuse me, adult women pretending to be teenagers) spider people was great. The three had a great team and even sibling dynamic – and as these three people brought together by fate go on, we experience them to earn the trust of each other. Of all the things in this movie, that was highly satisfying. And their Britney Spears moment was terrific.

What Madame Web does right is also centering the story of Cassandra and her teammates. When the movie was filming, and casting and story details started leaking out, there was much internet hubbub over the fact that Adam Scott was playing a young Ben Parker. And when people realized that Emma Roberts played a pregnant Mary Parker in the film – Ben’s sister-in-law- people immediately wondered about the child’s identity. While Madame Web does have some cheeky moments hinting towards how important the baby will be, the story is refreshingly focused on the Spider Women. 

But also, that’s part of what makes it so frustrating. We have, at this point in movie history, been Peter Parkered to death. Not only have there been a ton of solo Spider-Man movies, but there have also been several MCU movies where he is an important character. Madame Web found new stories to tell in an oversaturated Sony Spiderman Universe and then totally whiffed it. 

Madame Web is not fun and not entertaining. Most of all, it’s disappointing, because it teases you with possibilities that never come to bear. If you really want to experience a period superhero film from way back in the 2000s, go and watch Sam Raimi’s Toby Maguire-helmed Spider-Man. It’ll save you the cost of a movie ticket.

Madame Web is now available to watch globally in theaters.

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