Film reviews and more since 2009

Madame Web (2024) review

Dir. S. J. Clarkson

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★½

It’s 2024 and studio executives evidently fail to understand that planning a series of movies rather than focusing on making the first installment strong enough to warrant moviegoing interest for further sequels and spinoffs. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is the exception, not the rule, and even it isn’t meriting the consistent praise nor financial windfalls it once did. The standards have long been raised for superhero movies, so to get something as thoroughly mediocre and uninvolving as Madame Web feels equally unacceptable and insulting.

To clear up any potential confusion (some discussions with friends and coworkers recently has led me to believe some exists), Madame Web isn’t part of the ongoing MCU nor “Phase Five” of Marvel. It’s part of “Sony’s Spider-Man Universe,” the same one which encompasses Venom and those two forgettable Andrew Garfield Spidey movies. Like clockwork, nearly every year, we get a real dog of a superhero movie that recalls the era when something like Elektra was seen as a marquee work of the genre. Whether it be Fox’s Fantastic Four, or repeat offender Sony, who last year give us the endlessly meme-able Morbius, Madame Web joins the table of fellow unwanteds of the genre.

The film opens with a flashback to 1973, deep in the Peruvian Amazon, where pregnant researcher Constance (Kerry Bishé) is desperately trying to find a new breed of spider. Cut to 2003 and the child she was carrying is now Cassie (Dakota Johnson), a wildly unlikable paramedic working in Queens (Spider-Man fans will note the significance of the setting). Her and fellow EMT, Ben (Adam Scott), enjoy their aggressively single lives, and take quiet pity on Ben’s sister-in-law, Mary (Emma Roberts), who is pregnant while her husband is perpetually away on business.

Life changes for Cassie during a bridge rescue, when she ends up submerged in a vehicle underwater. Instead of going into shock, Cassie develops her “Spidey senses,” so to speak, garnering the ability to see a few seconds (or minutes, depending on what the plot requires) into the future. After a few instances of it occurring in her personal life leave her perplexed, she takes quick action on a train readying to depart Grand Central Terminal. She saves the lives of three teen girls — the timid Julia (Sydney Sweeney), the nerdy Anya (Isabela Merced), and the rebellious Mattie (Celeste O’Connor) — from an attack orchestrated by Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), who also has the ability to see into the future. He’s hellbent on preventing his death, which he knows will come at the hands of these women if he doesn’t stop them and their new babysitter, Cassie.

Like Bob Marley: One Love, released on the same weekend, Madame Web boasts four screenwriters and suggests that multiple rewrites contributed to this wholly forgettable bore. Instead of developing the three teen girls, who, collectively, make up the “Spider-Women,” the Frankensteined script would rather save that for a never-to-be-made future installment. Instead, the movie amounts to Cassie ushering the girls around the city to keep them safe, thereby making her a kidnapper in the eyes of the law. The plot hopscotches so frequently that Rahim’s villain suffers the same fate of being undeveloped and unexciting, with little personality on which to capitalize.

Consider how well most of the movies in the Final Destination franchise incorporated premonitions into their plots. Madame Web takes the schizophrenic approach of Cassie having a brief glimpse into the future before a jarring transition and some loud synths snap us back to the present as we watch Cassie react in confusion to her vision unfolding in “real life.” This makes for a thoroughly unpleasant and disorienting movie experience.

Director and co-writer S. J. Clarkson has made a consistent career as a TV director on shows like Succession and Orange is the New Black. This also explains why Madame Web looks every bit like a television pilot for one of Marvel’s network TV shows that are allegedly watched by millions. Although, unlike in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, where the effects were so lousy at times they became distracting, it’s not the B-grade CGI that draws attention here so much as the overly obvious callbacks to the mid-aughts. The nods to vintage Pepsi cans and Calvin Klein ads aren’t nearly as obnoxious as an over-the-top table-dance to Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” Furthermore, none are as unintentionally funny as a skyscraper advertisement for a Beyoncé album poorly photoshopped onto a building.

Those little nuggets in Madame Web might make it a little more chuckle-inducing than the average dreadful superhero movie. However, less fun is the dialog and interplay between the characters, which is defined by them hurling out exposition in an attempt to add clarity to a drearily messy plot. The script entangles Dakota Johnson in its messy web too, and Johnson never looks completely comfortable breathlessly running around New York City in search of some direction. By the end credits, like Johnson, who bolted for a new talent agency following the release of the film’s trailer, I wanted to be rid of Madame Web and only reacquainted when I am hard-at-work on my list of worst films of 2024.

NOTE: Madame Web is now playing exclusively in theaters.

Starring: Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, Celeste O’Connor, Tahar Rahim, Adam Scott, Emma Roberts, and Mike Epps. Directed by: S. J. Clarkson.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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