Word on the street is that S.J. Clarkson’s openly abysmal “Madame Web” took place in the 1990s until the whole film was time-shifted forward to the start of the 21st century during reshoots (part of a last-ditch effort to better align Sony’s latest Spider-Man spin-off with MCU canon, it’s said), and while that rumor might sound like a satire of the creative bankruptcy that led superhero movies to go from “No Way Home” to “No One Cares” in less than two years, actually watching Clarkson’s lifeless cobweb of an origin story left me with a lot more questions than answers.
On the one hand, the assortment of Clinton-era classics on the soundtrack (e.g. “Dreams,” “Bitch,” “What’s Up?”) definitely feel like orphaned cues from an earlier cut. On the other hand, a building-sized ad for Beyoncé’s 2003 album is flagrantly Photoshopped into the background of a shot that serves no other purpose, and Dakota Johnson has a line of ADR about how she’s “gotta get home in time for ‘Idol,’” so who’s to say. There are some mysteries in this world that are simply too vast for mortal understanding.
More from IndieWire
Of course, if the answer comes down to a few songs and a shoehorned reference to a popular TV show, it doesn’t really make a single lick of difference when “Madame Web” is set — or if it was always supposed to be that way. And yet, it’s only by recognizing the sheer arbitrariness of this film’s non-aesthetic that a deeper truth becomes clear: Even if “Madame Web” had taken place in the 1990s, it would still feel as if it had been made in 2003.
An inoffensive, almost endearingly lame whiff of a movie that has the misfortune of arriving at a time when the superhero genre has almost returned to pre-MCU levels of popularity, this “Daredevil”-ass disaster is hilariously retrograde for a story about someone who discovers that she can see a few seconds into the future (it’s also deliciously ironic for a project that was rushed into production at a time when studio films about spider-people still seemed like automatic eight-legged hits). But at least “Daredevil” was goofy on purpose. From its lack of stakes to its absence of style, and from its laughable CGI to its palpable discomfort with the rhythms and tropes of its genre, “Madame Web” is a superhero movie that feels like it was made by and for people who have never seen a modern superhero movie. In theory, that might have been a blessing in disguise. In practice, only Johnson is able to make it seem that way.
It starts, of course, with Cassandra Webb’s mother (Kerry Bishé), who was in the Amazon researching spiders just before she died. She was killed, in fact, by a man named Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim, shrewdly making the leap from “A Prophet” to “for profit” in a movie that no one will ever remember seeing him in), who had spent years hunting for a mysterious arachnid whose venom is capable of bestowing supernatural powers. Why would a spider evolve to make its prey more powerful? I don’t know, and “Madame Web” doesn’t care. All that matters is that Ezekiel murders the very pregnant woman he was hired to protect, and flees the scene unaware that an indigenous tribe — embodied by exactly one person — used the magical spider venom to save baby Cassandra from being stillborn.
Cut to: Queens circa 2003, where Cassie (Johnson) is working as a paramedic alongside her pal Ben (a thankless Adam Scott). A product of NYC’s foster system who describes herself as a “stray,” Cassie has a natural affinity for saving lives, but she has little interest in being a part of them — as is evidenced by the awkwardness she displays when the young child of a woman she’s saved tries to express their thanks. As anyone who’s been following the movie’s incredible press tour has recently seen in action, Johnson has a rare gift for weaponizing social discomfort into sandpaper-dry comedy, and “Madame Web” threatens to become a real movie whenever it allows its star to revel in the fact that she doesn’t really want to be in it.
Almost every superhero origin story includes a few scenes where its disbelieving hero rolls their eyes at their newfound powers and responsibilities, but few actors have ever had more fun with it than Johnson does here. I don’t want to spoil the best moment of a film that only has about three good ones, so let’s just say that Johnson manages to redeem one of the most gratuitous and worst-written scenes in the history of superhero movies — or modern studio movies of any kind, really — with a joke so wildly morbid and perfectly delivered that the otherwise half-conscious audience at my screening roared with laughter.
Alas, Johnson can only spend so long making fun of superhero movies before she has to submit to the indignity of starring in one, and “Madame Web” quickly begins to lose what’s left of its bite once Cassie awakens to her powers. Suddenly plagued by visions of the imminent future, Cassie finds herself on the same Metro-North train where Ezekiel is hoping to murder the three teenage girls whose faces he’s seen in his dreams for decades; his visions end with these girls killing him, and so Ezekiel has determined that he will simply kill them first. How does he find them? With a hacker played by a delightfully miscast Zosia Mamet (who serves all sorts of “what the fuck am I doing here?” energy before the film mercifully forgets her character exists). Why are these girls all on the same train, and what does it matter that all of them have crossed paths with Cassie at some point over the last couple of days? Hell if I know, but once Cassie uses her clairvoyance to save them from Ezekiel, they’re bound together in the exact kind of found family that Cassie has spent the better part of her life running away from.
Are these characters at all interesting? They are not. Celeste O’Connor plays the spoiled and snotty Mattie Franklin, Isabela Merced plays obligatory STEM propaganda Anya Corazon (she wears a t-shirt that says “I eat MATH for breakfast,” which is more memorable than any of the lines that were actually written for her to stay), and Sydney Sweeney plays the goody-goody Julia Cornwall, whose nerd-Lolita styling feels like it’s engaged in some kind of ninth-dimensional chess with the horniest subset of Sweeney’s “Euphoria” fandom. “Madame Web” frequently alludes to — or more than alludes to — the fact that these girls are all going to be superheroes one day, but this movie, in its primitive understanding of what it can do within this space, seems to think that it’s incapable of showing us what that might look like.
And not just because it’s teasing a sequel that will never, ever, ever be made, but also because this film lacks the ambition and/or imagination to express its own vision of the future, let alone Cassies’. The characters just stand around and trade perfunctory dialogue in bland locations — sometimes while watching much better movies than the one they’re trapped in — until they inexplicably decide to come out of hiding at a moment that absolutely does not require them to do so, thus precipitating a pulseless chase scene and a low-wattage finale that’s capped off a bit of Pepsi product placement so weird that not even Madame Web could see it coming.
The finale is strange for other reasons too, the most obvious of them being that it goes full CGI force-ghost in order to make good on the concept of a movie that otherwise tries to remain as grounded as possible. The clash between those two modes makes both of them feel glaringly, amateurishly fake in their own right, and undoes whatever scintilla of real human emotion might have been generated by the bond that develops between Cassie and her loyal trio of parentless adolescents.
I can’t say for sure that “Madame Web” has been hacked to pieces and diluted within an inch of its life by a studio machine that has no idea what it’s trying to make or why, but Sony’s latest swing at superhero glory stars an actress whose affect seems to perfectly channel their audience’s expectation for better material. Johnson is one of the most naturally honest and gifted performers to ever play the lead role in one of these things, and while that allows her to elevate certain moments in this movie way beyond where they have any right to be, it also makes it impossible for her to hide in the moments that lay bare their own miserableness.
“He was in the Amazon with my mom when she was researching spiders just before she died” isn’t actually a line that appears in the final cut of this movie, but it was only such a focal point in the trailer because it was delivered straight into the uncanny valley that forms when singular artists are forced to sell a product that’s already gone bad. It’s almost as hard to believe as when someone tells Cassie that she’s “the only one who can change the future.” And even if she were, that feels like a moot point in a film that doesn’t have a future, even if it only makes that point by taking us back to a time when its genre didn’t have anything else.
Sony Pictures will release Madame Web in theaters on Wednesday, February 14.
Best of IndieWire