Madame Web (2024, dir. S.J. Clarkson)

by | Feb 15, 2024

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 116 mins

UK Distributor: Sony Pictures

UK Release Date: 14 February 2024

WHO’S IN MADAME WEB?

Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor, Isabela Merced, Tahar Rahim, Mike Epps, Emma Roberts, Adam Scott, Zosia Mamet

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

S. J. Clarkson (director, writer), Claire Parker, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (writers), Lorenzo di Bonaventura (producer), Johan Söderqvist (composer), Mauro Fiore (cinematographer), Leigh Folsom Boyd (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A clairvoyant paramedic (Johnson) protects a trio of young women (Sweeney, O’Connor and Merced) from a mysterious assailant (Rahim)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON MADAME WEB?

Unlike most of the internet, I really wanted to give Madame Web a fighting chance. Even after that hilariously lacklustre trailer began circulating, with clunky lines of dialogue that briefly became popular memes, I still was curious that maybe, just maybe, there was something salvageable about it. Furthermore, female-led superhero movies have a depressingly harder time with winning the approval of the masses, with the likes of Catwoman, Elektra and Supergirl being notoriously regarded as being among the worst examples of the genre, and even when they’re good – like Wonder Woman or even last year’s underappreciated MCU offering The Marvels – they are usually undermined by rampant online misogyny. So, in a way, I went into Madame Web rooting for it to maybe be a nice surprise.

Unfortunately, it really is as bad as people were predicting it would be. Shockingly so, in fact, to where it’s not even the kind of bad that you can giggle at; it’s just plain, old, boring bad.

Set in 2003 New York, the film is about Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson), a paramedic who has a near-death experience and suddenly finds herself with the ability to see into the future. She soon uses her newfound power to save three teenagers – Julia (Sydney Sweeney), Anya (Isabela Merced) and Mattie (Celeste O’Connor) – from being killed by a man named Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), who has powers and even a suit that looks suspiciously like a yet-to-be-born arachnid-like Marvel hero. As it turns out, Sims not only had something to do with the death of Cassie’s mother – who, as per the infamous trailer line that isn’t even in the final movie, was in the Amazon researching spiders just before she died – but is after the teens because in the future, they become Spider-Women and end up defeating him rather badly. Now, Cassie must try and protect the future heroes before Sims can get his poisonous fingers on them, while in the process figuring out exactly where her powers have come from.

I’ll be honest, Madame Web is not a character that I’m especially familiar with – in fact, I probably know her better from the 90s Spider-Man animated series than I do from the actual Marvel comics – but what little I do recall of her is that she was originally an elderly woman who, in addition to her precognitive powers, is also blind and paralyzed. So, in hindsight, perhaps casting Dakota Johnson in this part should have been the first major red flag for this film, because a) God forbid a middle-aged female actor gets a lead role in a major Hollywood blockbuster, and b) while Johnson isn’t terrible here, as she’s making the most of what she’s been given, she is radically miscast as a lead who’s clearly written to be more lively than the actor’s dry deliveries will allow. You can feel her struggling to make it through all of her excruciating dialogue without cracking a tongue-in-cheek smile, and with the same level of indifference she brought to the Fifty Shades trilogy, both of which make for a central hero who’s pretty bland as well as wildly uninteresting.

As often is the case with any bad movie, it’s the script that primarily lets down her and the other talented actors roped into this hot mess. Partially credited to Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, the writers who previously added to Sony’s so-far underwhelming string of Spider-Man spin-offs with Morbius, the writing here is quite atrocious, filled with lines clunkier than even that infamous one from the trailer (which, to reiterate, is nowhere to be heard in this movie), amidst a narrative that makes frustratingly little sense. Very often, you’ll be wondering to yourself what exactly the film is supposed to be about, whether it’s Johnson’s Cassie learning to harness her powers that are straight out of That’s So Raven, or a set-up for these three Spider-Women who apparently all exist at the same time in the future, or a desperate attempt to cram in every possible Spider-Man reference to remind the audience that the hero does, or at least will, exist in this universe. The narrative is so convoluted, with characters who you don’t know that much more about by the end, that it’s barely worth caring about, even as an apparent standalone in this franchise.

Sadly, part of the blame must also go to director S.J. Clarkson, who with Madame Web makes her feature debut after directing episodes of shows like Succession and Marvel’s Jessica Jones. You can tell this was made by someone without much experience in feature filmmaking, because Clarkson’s direction is all over the place, with odd camera techniques – you’ll lose count how many crash zooms are put into the film’s prologue – that are often disorienting, and weird soundtrack placements, particularly with a dramatically active piece of score music playing over a scene in a car where nothing happens. The pacing is all off, as it’s too slow for anything exciting to happen, and too fast to try and make sense of what is happening, especially as it inserts so many quick edits and bright flashes that might make sense for a shortened episode of a TV series, but not in a film that should have a more thorough structure.

Under Clarkson, this film also has perhaps the worst ADR work in a major big-budget movie since perhaps Dolittle, as each one of Tahar Rahim’s lines as villain Ezekiel Sims sounds like they’ve been blatantly dubbed over, which makes him sound like the hero of an old kung-fu movie that’s been hastily dubbed into English (half the time, his audible dialogue doesn’t seem to match the actor’s lips). It’s incredibly distracting every time this character appears and talks, because not only does it takes you out of the movie (though it isn’t as though there was much to take one out of in the first place), but it makes you wonder if they even got Rahim back to do the ADR since it hardly feels like it’s even his voice coming out of his mouth.

With so much wrong with it, and without anything to really latch onto in terms of competency, Madame Web is disappointingly awful, because you can see how a movie like this could work, not to mention the fact that female-led superhero movies should be encouraged rather than rallied against, but this movie being this bad does not do anyone any favours.

On the plus side, maybe all of those who wrote off The Marvels before it even came out will have a newfound appreciation for it, because it’s far better constructed and executed than Madame Web is.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Madame Web is a disappointingly awful Spider-Man spin-off that is dull and tedious in both its atrocious writing and inconsistent direction, which strands talented (if miscast) actors like Dakota Johnson with material that is far too uninteresting and convoluted to even pass as a mediocre superhero movie.

One out of five stars

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