‘Madame Web’ Review: A Tangled, Grim Hunt

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Madame Web, yet another misfire from Sony in their attempt to deliver live-action Spider-Man films not featuring Spider-Man.
User Rating: 3

After a couple of Venom films and a Morbius, I’m not sure if Madame Web will bring any valuable weight to Sony’s Spider-Man-less Spider-Man universe. Granted, Tom Hardy has pulled in high numbers with his wild take on Eddie Brock, and who knows, maybe the upcoming Kraven the Hunter will spin this web of missed opportunities in a more vital direction. However, as it stands, for all the merit that could come with a film designed to be relatively standalone and focused on strong female characters that would ideally appeal to a teen girl audience, missing the mark in so many ways does no one any favors, and likely keeps Peter Parker swinging in a different direction.

While anyone at least a little comic book savvy (or those who remember their Spider-Man cartoons well enough) likely recalls the character of Madame Web as being a blind, elderly woman who sits in a fancy chair and passes along cryptic clues to our favorite web-head, this is a film that wants to go over how someone rose to be in this position. Set in 2003 (a loosely applied date, as several elements suggest this was not always the year the movie was supposed to be set in), the goal of Madame Web is to establish how a paramedic-turned-clairvoyant will lead a team of Spider-Women (Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, and Celeste O’Connor) to take on various bad guys. Why we need a whole movie to establish this, rather than get straight to it, emphasizes one of the key issues in this film and why it feels like a regression for 2024 comic book/superhero movies.

See Also: ‘Morbius’ Review: Jared Leto Is The Worst Bat Man

Having to go through the motions means watching Madame Web stumble through a series of scenes we’ve seen in plenty of these movies by now. Whether it’s the opening sequence where Dakota Johnson’s Cassandra Webb is born that is straight out of Blade, the awkward realization of having new powers that recalls Daredevil, or the eventual teaming up of seemingly unconnected characters being sought after by another, akin to X-Men, we have all the usual beats in place. Now, of course, many of these films, good and bad, all lift many of the same plotlines to get through their origin stories. Madame Web, sadly, opts to clumsily take its turn, not unlike Fantastic Four (pick one) or Ghost Rider.

It’s evident from the get-go, as we are quickly introduced to the film’s villain, Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), whose entire performance appears to have been badly redubbed. Add to that a poorly rendered CG spider, and my hopes for this film to at least top Morbius were quickly dashed. Cut to the film’s 2003(ish) present day, and you have Johnson and Adam Scott’s Ben Parker (aha!) doing their best to at least have fun banter before things take a turn. There’s probably something to be said about a paramedic whose abrasiveness and desire to be left alone is only countered by a strong sense of duty. However, that’s undone by the movie’s inability to show Cassandra as a hero we actually want to root for.

At times like these, one would want to at least be able to say something along the lines of, “For all its flaws, Johnson holds onto her dignity,” or whatever, but that’s not the case here. Detached in a way that suggests “this isn’t the film I signed on for,” Johnson hits a few necessary beats early on, only to become a character either annoyed by those around her or making a choice to leave the annoying characters around her to solve the mystery of why said irritants are being targeted. It makes her an odd superhero, and Johnson joins the other cast members by delivering lines in the style of “fifth attempt during Zoom re-recording” sessions.

This film not only feels like a throwback to the days of lesser superhero films that sat alongside what Raimi’s superior Spider-Man movies had to offer, but it also fits in by being seemingly embarrassed about having ties to a comic book that suggests having to use names like “Madame Web” (which is never said in this movie) and wearing “goofy” costumes. Director S.J. Clarkson, making her directorial debut following a long list of TV credits (including Marvel’s Jessica Jones), finds scant moments to inject any real sense of style here, with only Ezekiel’s more villainous form (a non-Spider-Man costume that looks an awful lot like a black-suited Spider-Man) getting a few instances that stand out thanks to camera rotation. While one could say this is a movie aiming to be a more street-level superhero flick, it feels more like a busy comic book thriller with no real sense of what to do with its $80 million budget (an awful lot of time is spent with characters inside vehicles).

Perhaps more could be done if this film wanted to either be more fun by way of its ensemble cast or harness the ridiculous energy that comes from a plot borrowing choice ideas from both The Terminator and The Dead Zone. Sadly, Madame Web does none of these things. It’s never morbin’ time in these parts. Even a random trip to Peru (where Cassandra ditches the teen girls she’s supposed to protect) doesn’t yield anything beyond yet another expository sequence. Ezekiel Sims, similarly, doesn’t get to live up to his awesome name, as he’s nothing but a force for evil. His over-the-top terribleness that quickly establishes him as a dangerous threat never amounts to anything more in the form of showiness. So, the film leaves us with Johnson, who is mostly out to sea, a dryly funny Adam Scott in the film’s 6th most important role, and, for some reason, comedian Mike Epps, who doesn’t get to say anything funny. In between are the three young women with very little to offer and Emma Roberts as a pregnant Mary Parker to allow the film some fun in making its audience do the math to figure out how an unborn Spider-Man fits into all of this.

There’s no joy in watching a film like this, as nothing good comes from it. I haven’t even mentioned that for all the nonsense being fed by this story, it’s also pretty lifeless, meaning it becomes a slog pretty quickly. But with that said, what else can I expect from yet another attempt to build something like this without much desire to deliver anything more than a demand fulfillment sent down by the studio? I can go along with the idea that plenty of people worked hard on delivering a final product, but it’s a shame to see a movie with so little “movie” to actually offer.

Worse than generic, Madame Web feels like an obligation come to life. With performances that lineup with the best sleepwalkers, iffy attempts at excitement via psychically-tinged action sequences, and a bland story designed to build toward a by-default more interesting concept to work with in a sequel that will unlikely happen, there’s just nothing here. Nothing has made me interested in seeing more of what this particular web-line in Sony’s Spider-Man Universe could deliver, and seeing yet another superhero movie that dares to sell audiences on a diverse, female-led story lose the thread on what works doesn’t help at all. This film is far from spectacular, as it’s a tangled mess.

Madame Web is now playing in theaters and IMAX.

3
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Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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