Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Madame Web: A Review (Review #1795)



When is a Spider-Man movie not a Spider-Man movie? 

I was, to be honest, unaware that there was such a thing as a Spider-Man Cinematic Universe where our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man does not actually appear or is even mentioned by name. Instead, we get various characters from his world with the vague notion that he (be it Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield or Tom Holland) is hovering about somewhere in Queens. 

All of these films have some connection to Spidey but don't actually feature the webslinger. There were Venom and Venom: Let There Be Carnage, films that proved wildly popular and successful which despite all logic I did not end up hating. There was Morbius, as great a debacle as any in the comic book film genre.  Now we get Madame Web, the newest effort to create a franchise that seems doomed from the get-go. Perhaps it is to the film's credit that I did not end up hating Madame Web, even if I cannot speak for other members of the audience, but more on that later.

Darkest Peru, 1973. Constance Webb (Kerry Biché) is a pregnant scientist searching for a mysterious spider with healing properties. Once found, however, her fellow explorer Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim) betrays the group, killing everyone to get the rare spider. Connie is hit in the chaos, but the Arañas, a mysterious people who have been the protectors of the rainforest and have spider-like abilities, manage to save Connie's baby if not Connie herself.

Move on thirty years, where that baby is now Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson). She's a cynical, emotionally distant EMT in NYC, saving lives but vaguely aware of whom she is saving. Her closest friend is her EMT partner, one Ben Parker (Adam Scott), and even that is not a particularly close relationship. Cassie has a near-death experience that leads to her having visions of the immediate future, though that future is not set. 

Good thing that Sims is not aware of Cassie's clairvoyance or her connection to Connie. He is too busy trying to track down three teenage girls whom he has recurring visions of them killing him when he is older. Sims figures that if he can kill them now, he can avoid his fate. He uses vaguely futuristic technology to track down the three troublemakers. There is sweet-natured Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), sarcastic rich bitch Mattie Franklin (Celeste O'Connor) and timid Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced). 

Cassie eventually finds that they are all connected, and she becomes their unofficial protector when she has a vision of a strange spider-like man hunting them all down. She asks Ben to care for them while she goes to Darkest Peru to uncover the past that binds them all together. Ben, who has his own issues in caring for his pregnant sister-in-law Mary (Emma Roberts), does his best, but they still face great danger. Will our heroines save themselves and bring Ezekiel down? Will Ben Parker be a good Uncle Ben to his new and unnamed nephew?

Is it damning with faint praise to say that Madame Web is not the worst film of 2024 that I have seen so far? Out of the six 2024 film releases that I have seen as of this writing, Madame Web is the second-best. That is not a compliment: Madame Web is so clunky, lifeless and pointless that it is inexplicable as to why Sony and Columbia in association with Marvel continue plunging into films that just do not work. 

Everything in Madame Web is pretty much a fiasco. Right from the beginning, director S.J. Clarkson makes one oddball decision after another that it quickly becomes a fun experiment finding which element is the worst one. The film opens with a very poorly shot sequence, where the camera for no discernable reason zooms all over the place while also indulging in various Dutch angles. One genuinely wondered if the cameraman was having a stroke and they decided to just keep rolling. More bizarrely, this same sequence was essentially replayed later in the film.

Granted, the information Cassie is presented is new to her. However, not once did anyone ask when going over Clarkson's screenplay (writing along with Matt Samaza, Burk Sharpless and Claire Parker) why they just couldn't go flashback instead of repeating themselves. Add to that the sheer illogic of it all: Cassie, who is technically a fugitive, leaves three teen girls with her bestie, flies to Peru, goes into the jungle, manages to find the mysterious Spider-People and then returns to New York in apparently a matter of hours? This trip would have taken days if not weeks, with Cassie and the girls being hunted down at every second. You can suspend disbelief for only so long before it becomes too ridiculous.

The screenplay, over and over, appears to go out of its way to be idiotic. What the villain actually does is unclear. Did he gain fame and power with the spider? How does he get visions of his future assassins? How do he and Cassie manage to communicate telepathically? Why insist on killing the three in one blow when killing them one-by-one would have been easier? 

If that weren't enough, having a call-out to a previous Spider-Man film is eyerolling. "And when you take on the responsibility, great power will come," the Spider-King tells Cassie. On a myriad of levels, this does not make any sense. "With great power, comes great responsibility" is from the 2002 Spider-Man film. However, Madame Web cannot tie itself into the Tobey Maguire version because Uncle Ben is already a senior citizen and Peter is a teenager. Madame Web, moreover, is set in 2003 and the unnamed nephew to Ben Parker is born at the end of the film. It can tie in, albeit forced, with the Andrew Garfield version, but again it still would be almost impossible to do so. Forget the Tom Holland version. Neither Garfield or Holland, to my recollection, quoted the "Great Power" line, so why use it here?

Actually, forget connecting Madame Web to any of the "Sony-Verse" films. 

Madame Web's disaster goes beyond the screenplay. Everyone in the film is so blank and emotionless. It is astounding to see such a collection of bad performances. One bad performance, I can understand. Having the entire cast be awful is on the director. 

Dakota Johnson is not even trying. One wonders if she was literally drugged into performing. She recited her lines as if she was trying to figure out what the words meant, bringing nothing to the role. Cassie has no personality, no charisma, nothing that indicates she is a functioning human. The trio of Sweeney, Merced and O'Connor all similarly look expressionless. They never connected to each other, but oddly they never looked like they were in conflict. 

Tahar Rahim is an interesting case. He is French, and as such I do not know how strong his English is. He may be quite fluent, but Madame Web can't show us how. There is a curious disconnect between when he speaks and when we see him speak, like the dubbing is off. At times, I wondered if the film was trying to hide him speaking (hence the strange use of Dutch angles and negative space). Scott and Emma Roberts as Ben's sister-in-law Mary were there to do a job and move on.

Madame Web is a nothing. While I have read and heard the vitriol about it, calling it the worst film they have ever seen or the worst ever made, I thought of it more as an enjoyably bad film. It is not good. It is not even a "so bad it's good" film. It is just that in a world that has Lisa Frankenstein and Argylle, I cannot call Madame Web the worst film of 2024.

The best summation that I can give Madame Web comes not from me but from another audience member at the screening I attended. While he did not shout out his comments, he was audible enough in his succinct review. He said, and I quote, "This movie sucked". That pretty much captures Madame Web perfectly.

The Original Madame (Web)


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