When I was a kid, my mom steered us toward toys that looked like G.I. Joe or Transformers action figures, but weren’t. Their faces were wack, the joints all wrong, such that the limbs didn’t move right, or else they popped out altogether. Sure, these off-brand imitations cost less than the real thing — that made a difference on my meager allowance — but no amount of imagination could turn my busted GoBots into Optimus Prime.
Now, if 10-year-old me could’ve predicted the future (the way Cassie Webb can), he would’ve seen this disappointment as valuable practice for a movie like “Madame Web,” a hollow Sony-made Spider-Man spinoff with none of the charm you expect from even the most basic superhero movie. The title mutant — who’s never actually identified by that name — hails from the margins of the Marvel multiverse, which suggests that, much as Sony did with “Morbius” and “Venom,” the studio is scrounging to find additional fringe characters to exploit.
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In her original pulp form, Madame Web was an elderly, blind wheelchair user with uncanny psychic powers. Here, she’s an athletic Gen X ambulance driver who experiences vivid visions of terrible things that are about to happen, early enough to prevent them. She can also “be in more than one place at the same time.” Not the worst abilities to have, but hardly deserving of a stand-alone origin story. Her powers prove pretty boring once the pattern establishes itself. The premonitions are freaky, like “Final Destination” flashes, but Cassie’s “let’s try that again” do-overs render each situation less interesting.
Even with an actor as clever as Dakota Johnson (who seems to suspect she could be caught in the next “Catwoman,” covering her bets with eccentric line readings), “Madame Web” was never going to touch the relatively high-concept, Disney-made “Avengers” movies. The script is confusing, the action stale and the visual effects cheap. A recurring device that places Cassie at the center of what looks like a giant plasma ball, surrounded by static tendrils, is downright embarrassing. But guess what? Tickets still cost just as much as they would for a more canonical Marvel movie. So why settle for the knockoff?
For reasons it would spoil the film’s Spider-adjacent agenda to reveal, most of “Madame Web” unfolds in 2003 New York City — all but the opening, which takes place on one of those staged “Amazon jungle” sets you see in films like “Dora and the Lost City of Gold.” Weeks away from giving birth, Cassie’s pregnant mother, Constance (Kerry Bishé), travels all the way to Peru to find a rare spider with healing abilities. She’s a scientist who doesn’t believe in legends of Las Arañas, “mythical spider people who run across the treetops.” But maybe she should.
Betrayed by expedition sponsor Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), Constance dies in the jungle, but not before being bitten by one of the elusive spiders, who passes its powers on to her unborn daughter. Now, I know this is a comic book movie, but if you break down the plot, it sounds a lot more like Greek mythology: Cassie (short for Cassandra) grows up an orphan in New York, unlocking her future-forecasting abilities after a near-death experience at age 30. Unlike with her namesake, people tend to believe her.
Ezekiel also lives in Manhattan, obsessing over a recurring vision of his own (he stole a spider and got a slightly different set of hazily defined powers for his trouble). The monomaniacal bore has but one goal, and that’s to stop the three young women he sees killing him from carrying out that prophecy. Before Ezekiel can break their necks on a train, Cassie anticipates the attack and saves their lives. Ezekiel’s would-be victims are just teenagers — Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced) and Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor) — but they possess the potential to become Spider-Women, and he’s threatened by that.
Frankly, the world already seems a little overcrowded with arachnid-related superheroes, what with the seemingly infinite swarm of variations introduced by Sony’s recent “Spider-Verse” movies. Instead of clarifying all that confusion, Clarkson’s movie (co-written with three others) merely widens the web, teasing a future vigilante trio, plus whatever Cassie’s supposed to be by the end.
Future crossover potential aside, Clarkson’s approach feels like a throwback to the kind of unimaginative superhero movies Hollywood produced before Marvel got its act together over at Disney. But this was made at another studio altogether. Even when shooting on location, the movie feels like a backlot stunt show. While the ambulance-driving scenes are decent, taking advantage of a certain practical quality, VFX-heavy interactions with Ezekiel (whom the girls call “ceiling guy” because he crawls upside down) look laughably unconvincing. Even his costume is an embarrassment, though the mask does serves to cover Rahim’s mouth — it’s a shame to hide the gifted French actor, though his lips never seem to be in sync with what he’s saying, suggesting the performance didn’t go as planned.
By contrast, Johnson and Sweeney bring an endearing irreverence to their characters that could be read as camp, if needed. There are signs (loose ends, really) that “Madame Web” wanted to be more ambitious and eccentric than it turned out. One can imagine a version where the character was romantically interested in fellow paramedic — and future uncle — Ben (Adam Scott), which might have strengthened her connection to you-know-who.
Instead, Cassie spends most of the film babysitting the three young ladies, surrounded by less-than-sly nods to year-2003 consumerism: vintage Pepsi products, a classic Calvin Klein ad, plus a table dance to Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” In the end, “Madame Web” feels like a cross between an extended soda commercial and a teaser trailer for still more spinoffs. “Whatever the future holds, we’ll be ready,” Cassie promises. But you don’t have to be a soothsayer to see this particular franchise is DOA — or a snob to expect better.
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