Sony’s stewardship of Spider-Man has produced underwhelming spinoffs from that universe, from “Venom” (not good, but successful) to “Morbius” (not good, and RIP). In terms of stand-alone appeal, though, “Madame Web” likely represents the weakest of those concepts, yielding a movie that screams “streaming series,” and even that might have been a wispy stretch.
Indeed, this film starring Dakota Johnson as a relatively obscure Spider-Man figure likely would have struggled in the best of times, but with superhero movies hitting a rough patch, its prospects look particularly grim. Much of that has to do with a central character whose “power” exists entirely in her head, which blunts attempts to spin much excitement out of the premise.
“Madame Web” does benefit slightly from existing as a stand-alone origin story set in 2003, with only glancing (and reasonably clever) connections to more familiar material. Yet even the hardiest of hard-core Marvel fans might have difficulty forming a serious attachment to something anchored by such slender threads.
The movie opens in a remote part of Peru, where a scientist’s search for a spider believed to possess extraordinary healing properties results in the birth of a baby unaware of her special gifts. The arachnid also imbues a villain (Tahar Rahim of “The Mauritanian”) with more tangible spider-like powers, and later gives him nightmares about a trio of teenagers who, in the future, will bring about his demise.
Flash forward 30 years, and Cassie (Johnson) is working as a paramedic alongside her partner Ben (Adam Scott, generally wasted here), when a near-death experience triggers eerie visions hinting at her ability to see the future.
That future includes glimpses of the danger facing the teens, played by Sydney Sweeney (who might have thought twice about this gig had she known “Anyone But You” would be such a hit), Isabela Merced (who played Dora the Explorer, now more grown up) and Celeste O’Connor (“Ghostbusters: Afterlife”).
Understandably skeptical at first, Cassie gradually convinces them that the wallcrawling dude in the weird suit is determined to kill them, not because of who they are, but who they’ll become.
Director S.J. Clarkson collaborated on the mess of a script with three others, creating a reasonably brisk pace that doesn’t compensate for its bouts of extremely clunky dialogue. Part of that has to do with the challenge of introducing not just Cassie but the youthful trio in her care, whose personalities and interactions almost by necessity must be shoehorned into narrow Disney Channel-style cliches.
Looking at the bigger picture, Sony will take another crack at a “from the pages of Spider-Man” movie later this year with the long-delayed “Kraven the Hunter,” which at least comes wrapped in the more conventional trappings of an action vehicle.
Ultimately, “Madame Web” might have sounded like an interesting experiment, and it sort of is, but the execution feels less like a fully realized film than an extended prologue for a movie to come. Even without a supernatural ability to clearly see the future, based on this outing that scenario seems unreasonably optimistic.
“Madame Web” premieres February 14 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.
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