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Madame Web is a love letter to the golden age of bad comic book movies



The funny thing about watching audiences cool off from big-budget comic book adaptations in recent years is how, if you lived through the very early aughts, it almost feels like things are going back to the way they used to be. After years of Marvel tentpoles dominating the box office, it’s been easy to forget how unabashedly unserious these kinds of projects usually were outside of the handful that put the genre on the map.

But before the rise of the MCU, Bad Comic Book Movies™ — projects that didn’t take themselves or their source material all that seriously — were generally the rule rather than the exception. And while they might not have been great, they were the sort of films audiences knew how to have fun with.

It’s only since multiverses became the hot new thing in Hollywood that studios have gotten comfortable even acknowledging (and capitalizing on people’s nostalgia for) those halcyon days when Spider-Man’s webbing was organic. But unlike some of Sony’s other recent Spider-Man features which have been more focused on bringing specific characters and actors back from past franchises, director S. J. Clarkson’s Madame Web is far more interested in revisiting a specific moment in comic book movie history — one defined by iffy costumes, perplexing plots, and a palpable sense of on-screen embarrassment.

Set in a curious pocket of Sony’s larger Spider-verse of films where it’s still 2003, and Spider-Man himself doesn’t exist, Madame Web tells the tale of Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson), an acerbic paramedic whose life takes a series of strange turns one day when she (briefly) dies while saving a man’s life. As an adult orphan whose mother died in the Amazon while researching spiders, Cassandra has a hard time connecting emotionally with anyone who isn’t her colleague Ben Parker (Adam Scott), or the stray cat that regularly wanders into her New York City walkup.

But after a routine emergency rescue leads to Cassie plummeting to her death, she awakens to find herself imbued with an ill-defined set of precognitive powers, and while she has no idea what to make of her alarming visions, it soon becomes clear that they’re all guiding her toward a trio of young girls.

Disorienting exposition dumps in a film’s opening act are almost always a warning sign, but the way Madame Web clunkily juxtaposes a flashback to Cassandra’s past with glimpses into her charges’ futures almost makes it feel as if the filmmakers are trying to keep you from understanding what’s going on. Though his motivations are unclear, it’s simple enough to grasp in Madame Web’s first few minutes that perpetually barefoot explorer Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim) is eager to kill three masked women wearing spider-themed superhero costumes. It’s clear Madame Web wants you to wonder who Sims’ targets are, and why they don’t just use their powers to stop him in his tracks. 

But instead of teasing their identities out, the movie just dumps Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor), and Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced) into Cassandra’s lap about half an hour in at a point when there are already too many other things going on.

Sony’s plan to build out an entire cinematic universe on just the Spider-Man IP alone has always felt a bit dubious, but in Madame Web’s younger leads, you can almost see how the plan could work. Similar to Cassandra, the girls have all been orphaned (at least emotionally), and they need someone to guide them through the madness of being teenagers. 

You can also see how the girls’ thinly fleshed-out personality quirks might one day make them an interesting team of Spider-Women, and how Madame Web’s really a story about Cassandra stepping into her role as a mentor to a quippy new generation of heroes. But as present as that narrative intention is, the film doesn’t really set its characters up to feel like real players in a cohesive story, and the girls wind up being pushed into the background — first as they’re introduced as out-of-focus extras in the periphery of Cassandra’s story, and later as she takes the girls under her wing to protect them from Sims by… ditching them in the woods.

Between its frantic set pieces in which the camera lens can never seem to decide where it wants to focus, and the way Madame Web’s script briskly bounces between scenes, it’s obvious that the filmmakers are trying to make you feel some of the deep discombobulation Cassandra herself is experiencing. Even though the execution is more than a little off, it’s a clever idea, and to the movie’s credit, Cassandra’s visions of being murdered by a knock-off Spider-Man are pointedly disturbing. But as much time as Madame Web spends telling you that Cassandra’s terrified for her and the girls’ lives you’d be hard pressed to get that impression from Johnson’s deadpan performance and the way she portrays her character as someone who approaches most situations with a pronounced sense of apathy.

When you look at Madame Web as a modern comic book movie — one crafted with the knowledge of how much money these things can make — it’s hard to understand a lot of the choices that were made. But the film makes a hell of a lot more sense when you think of it not just as a movie set in 2003, but one that’s trying to evoke the vibes of comic book movies from that era. The signs are there pretty much from the jump, but it isn’t until Mis-Teeq’s “Scandalous” is dropped in during an action sequence that it becomes shockingly obvious how much Madame Web has in common with the 2004 Catwoman starring Halle Berry in terms of both films feeling like doomed misfires from the very beginning.

Rather than any of Sony’s previous Spider-Man spinoff films, the confusing way Madame Web reworks Julia, Mattie, and Anya’s origins makes the movie play much more like something out of the era that gave us the first Daredevil movie and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. People like to look back on that point in superhero movie history fondly now because enough time has passed for those films to shift into cult classic territory. But the simple truth is that, for quite a while, big budget cape projects missed as often as they hit, and with Madame Web technically being a follow-up to Morbius and a precursor to Kraven the Hunter, it’s fair to say that Sony’s definitely returned to that time.

Madame Web also stars Mike Epps, Emma Roberts, and Zosia Mamet. The film is in theaters now.

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