If even proper Marvel movies are starting to fare poorly at the box office, what chance does a Marvel adjacent property have? Sony has had the Spider-Man IP since before Sam Raimi’s first movie in 2002, yet now that they are sharing it with Marvel Studios to allow Tom Holland’s character to appear in the MCU, some of the shine has gone off an exclusive right that is no longer exclusive. Diving further into the possibilities this IP might grant them, they have now released Madame Web to an all-time low fanfare – unless you are using the term “fanfare” generically in a way that encompasses howls of scorn from critics and audiences alike.


In truth, this story of a woman who was a paramedic alongside Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben is not as woeful as social media has led you to believe. There are a few horrendous line readings, a few bouts of unintentional laughter, sure. Overall, though, S.J. Clarkson’s film is more like the latest off the assembly line of uninspired superhero fare, minimally competent and maximally boring.

Let’s start with the poor footing of Madame Web’s opening, complicated by the disconnect it prompts in viewers. The very opening scene takes place in 1973, the next scene 30 years later in 2003, when Ben is played by 50-year-old Adam Scott. This does get us on the correct timeline for Holland’s Peter Parker – who, spoiler alert, is in his mother’s belly in Madame Web – but since we’ve never seen Ben played by anything other than a septuagenarian actor, it hardly strikes us as possible that a relatively fit and baby-faced Scott would be playing the character as recently as 2003. Which, if we come full circle, was a year after Raimi’s first Spider-Man. Probably better just not to show these years on screen at all. (Also, did we know Ben was a paramedic? Maybe we did. Let’s move on.)

So as the title and the IP would suggest, there are spider-related adventures in this movie, but they have nothing to do with the radioactive spider that would bite Peter some 14 years later, which now comes off as quite the coincidental occurrence. No, the spiders in Madame Web were born in the jungles of Peru, where our main character’s mother (Kerry Bishe) was searching for them back in 1973. These particular red beauties with a large thorax are supposed to have great healing properties. Naturally, therefore, there is also a guide who has his own designs on the pregnant scientist/photographer’s quarry, which you’d know if you saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Is she a scientist? Is she a photographer? We’re not sure.) He’s played, sometimes quite laughably, by Tahar Rahim, and will be our villain for the entire movie.

Born in this Peruvian jungle as her mother was dying, our protagonist – named as only a comic book would name her, Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson) – is now a New York paramedic who was raised in foster homes. An on-the-job near-death experience is going to bring her in touch with powers she acquired in that jungle when she was still in her mother’s womb, which have to do with seeing the future. Both she and the malevolent Ezekiel Sims (the guide turned captain of industry) are concerned about the future of three New York teenagers: Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced) and Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor). The teens don’t yet know each other, but Sims has a nightly dream vision that they will team up to kill him in the future, dressed as spider-themed superheroes. Needless to say, he does not want that to happen.


Seems like enough to make a movie, especially by the minimal standards of this genre. Then why is Madame Web so damned flat? One explanation could be that director S.J. Clarkson is making her first feature film after an exclusively television background, albeit a very successful television background. But the script is doing this film no favours. With the amount of exposition piled into the first ten lines of dialogue, it primes a viewer to see the forthcoming material as suspect at best, laughable at worst. And Madame Web does nothing to steer the proceedings onto a different track.

The film is a continual reminder of the fact that talented actors are constrained by the limitations of the resources around them. This protagonist and villain, Johnson and Rahim, have been celebrated in other films, she in such works as The Lost Daughter and he in his cinematic output in his native France. Maybe they’re both better than a superhero movie, but this particular superhero movie makes them seem worse than one.


Really, though, Madame Web is just one of those films that has quite a long time to take the time it needs, a full 116 minutes, yet everything feels rushed and the characters don’t get properly fleshed out. This leaves certain parts smashed together without any of the connective tissue that would allow the film to breathe, other parts mired in wasted motions. There tend to be too many demonstrations of Cassie’s nascent abilities. Like, we get it that she is having a sense of déjà vu, more correctly described as the thing she thought was happening hasn’t quite happened yet. They do this about a dozen times before finally determining we get it.

The reason some might consider this movie unintentional camp, though, is little funny details. One of these is that Cassie is always stealing vehicles, spending a fair bit of time in a stolen taxi before later stealing an ambulance. You figure if you are going to steal a taxi, you’d probably ditch it at your first available opportunity, but Cassie just keeps driving it around for a good 45 minutes of screen time. Then there’s the fact that after sort of kidnapping these three girls for their protection, because she’s had visions of Sims killing them with the toxins he releases from his hands, she keeps leaving them places, promising she’ll be back in x number of hours. One of these is in the middle of a forest, and because it’s 2003, they don’t have phones. If Madame Web is hoping these things will come off as intentionally funny, that’s not clear at all. Then there’s the relentless product placement by Pepsi, including times when it is self-defeating from a marketing perspective, like a Pepsi logo on a building that is going up in flames.


Probably the film’s biggest disappointment, especially if you’ve heard the advanced buzz, is that it’s not worse. Oh how we long for a genuine train wreck of a movie, which we almost never get these days because so much money is at stake and so much caution is exercised in making a product resemble every other product like it. If Madame Web were such a movie, I might not be giving it any different of a rating, but I’d be telling you to run out and see it. Instead, it’s just worth skipping.


Madame Web is currently playing in cinemas.

3 / 10