Madame Web

Madame Web Review: A Lifeless Origin Story

Madame Web is the third entry into a Spider-Man-less cinematic universe made up entirely of Spider-Man characters and the returns keep diminishing. For all of the goodwill that Tom Hardy‘s (inspired?) performance as Venom created, Morbius poisoned Sony’s efforts irreparably. When the Madame Web trailer debuted, the mood around the film soured to mockery. You know the line. When Julia (Sydney Sweeney) asks Cassie (Dakota Johnson) about a man in a Polaroid, Cassie replies, “He was in the Amazon with my mom when she was researching spiders right before she died.” Fortunately, Madame Web isn’t the train wreck that Morbius was, but it is not an improvement either.

Exposition replaces dialogue, franchise-seeding takes precedence over making characters authentic, and the action is underwhelming. Part of that may be by design. A lower budget means less spectacle and less spectacle helps Madame Web feel different from every other Marvel release. That works in the film’s favour as the stakes are relatively low. After a decade where every superhero climax means the end of the world, the survival of three women feels refreshingly low-key—even if those three women are future superheroes.

Paramedic Cassie Webb survives an accident that leaves her with newfound powers: the ability to see forward in time. Cassie wastes no time in exploring her time loop gift and establishing a quick formula. Fail hilariously, quip, and try again. For that reason, the time loop sub-genre is popular to revisit. Whether the loops are about Bill Murray trying to be nice (Groundhog Day), Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti surviving a wedding (Palm Springs), or Tom Cruise trying to survive at all (Edge of Tomorrow), the results are usually a hit with viewers. Madame Web risks threatening that streak.

The plot, thin as it is, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Cassie abandons her job with fellow EMT Ben (Adam Scott), using the time she has to unite Sweeney’s Spider-Woman, Isabela Merced’s Arana, and Celeste O’Connor as another Spider-Woman. The only problem? They aren’t those heroes yet, and they don’t see Cassie as anything more than an overworked ambulance driver. As Cassie fights to keep these future spider heroes alive, antagonist Ezekiel Sims (a criminally wasted Tahar Rahim) hunts them down, hoping to prevent a timeline where they kill him. But with duelling time-loopers, wouldn’t they fight each other for eternity? Such is the problem with the sudden influx of multi-verses and time-traveling heroes.

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Superhero fatigue is in high gear, but that’s not why films like Morbius and Madame Web do poorly. If a story succeeds on its own merits, the status of a shared cinematic universe is irrelevant. Even with the DCEU’s problems, people went to see The Batman in droves. Rushed stories cash a quick buck on Marvel’s popularity, but word spreads fast when people dunk on the movie all weekend on social media. The “with great power…” quote that we all know is tweaked to something clumsier, in the studio-mandated way of giving people the same thing but slightly warmed over with a new ingredient no one wanted. The line drew a laugh from the audience.

However, I don’t want readers to walk away thinking nothing in Madame Web works. The practical suits are a nice touch, though it’s hard to ignore that the women wearing them are likely the reason behind the choice. Sydney Sweeney of Euphoria fame is a gifted performer (watch Reality), but none of that is why she’s featured on a one-sheet in skin-tight spandex. It’s a lazy ploy, but one that will sell tickets.

As endearing cast as the cast is, they can only do so much with the material. The film relies on the vibes of Johnson, Sweeney, and Adam Scott, yet they’re constantly bogged down with ridiculous exposition and running away from garish CGI. Then there’s the impractical camera work. Sudden zooms work in Succession because they reveal a tic or reaction from characters as developments inform a scene. It acts as visual whiplash during most of Madame Web, tearing attention away from dialogue that already sets your mind to wander.

The characters aren’t defined particularly well. Not even Johnson’s protagonist. Cassie is our in for the story, but there’s nothing special that binds you to her plight. Scenes of the four women hanging out are satisfying, but only because they derive from the kinship of the actresses’ charisma. Watching the group sing karaoke along to Britney Spear’s “Toxic” is a highlight, but, again, not because of anything the script brings. S.J. Clarkson, who directed episodes of several notable TV shows, handles the reins, making the most of the limited budget. But the script, by Morbius writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, is lifeless.

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Sony’s universally-beloved animated Spider-verse is one of the best things going on in movies. Tom Holland’s run as the MCU’s Spider-man is equally popular. So why is the live-action villain universe in such disarray? The Venom franchise succeeds because Tom Hardy leans into its B-movie sensibilities whenever possible. Madame Web has no direction. And without direction, all you can expect is flailing. In a year where DC and Marvel have two film releases pending, Sony is putting out three comic book films. Sony should stop diluting their shared Spider-Man universe, but with Kraven The Hunter coming in August and Venom 3 in November, the corporate churn continues. Partially because Sony releases these films to keep ownership of the Spider-man film rights from going back to Marvel.

At least we have Beyond the Spider-Verse to look forward to.

Madame Web releases into theatres on February 14.

 



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