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‘Madame Web’ is a sticky mess of a story waiting to be told

Dakota+Johnson+plays+Cassandra+Webb%2C+a+New+York+City+paramedic+who+develops+the+ability+to+see+into+the+future+after+a+near-death+experience.+
Courtesy of Sony Pictures
Dakota Johnson plays Cassandra Webb, a New York City paramedic who develops the ability to see into the future after a near-death experience.
1.0 out of 5.0 stars

Despite the low bar set by its predecessors “Morbius” and “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” “Madame Web” somehow is an even more underwhelming spin-off to the Sony Spider-Manadjacent universe. Despite its well-known cast of talent and award-winning director S.J. Clarkson, there is little to nothing that can be actually saved in this film. 

The film, released Feb. 14., takes place in New York circa 2003, focusing on paramedic Cassandra “Cassie” Webb (Dakota Johnson) as she learns about her recently activated clairvoyant powers. It opens up with a sequence set about 30 years prior in the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest where Cassie’s mother is researching a species of spiders with healing properties. In a way, these first few shots set a very clear idea of what the viewers can expect from the rest of the film: awkward dialogue, monotonous acting, a weak musical score and questionable shots. 

Viewers can practically guess the order in which scenes were shot based on Johnson’s uninterested performance. It is hard for audiences to commit to the storyline when it’s clear that not even the actors can believe what their characters are saying. Any dialogue that has potential is sabotaged by a poor delivery, and vice versa. 

Not only does the dialogue sound unnatural at best, but the first half of the movie is sluggish and forced. Persistent scenes make you wonder the motifs behind the characters’ actions, beyond the obvious order from the director. Any possibility of a riveting action sequence is messed up by extremely long shots where characters narrate to us how they got there instead of ever showing us what is actually happening in the plot. There is rarely a moment where a scene is justified into building onto an actual plot and not being yet another mundane moment to show off Webb’s (or maybe even Johnson’s) mysterious, and even a little cynic, charm. Every significant plot point we learn not through watching the film, but from hearing the characters talk about how terrible their family dynamics have been so far.

This is not helped by the fact that the scenes are shot in a confusing if not disorienting manner. It is clear that Clarkson had a vision for how to visually present the premonitions Cassie started having, a tool that works nicely for the first few times, but it seems to slip out of control as they add more and more creative liberties to the shots. Going back to that first sequence, this is showcased spectacularly by not only the strangely titled frames but the inconvenient zooming in and out as Cassie’s mother confronts a younger Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim). 

Let it be clear that while so far there’s yet to be any praise for this movie, it’s hard to put the blame on the actors or director for this sticky mess that is “Madame Web.” Instead, perhaps take into consideration the companies behind the production of these catastrophic attempts to revive what once was a thriving franchise. All in all, the plot that is explored throughout “Madame Web” is captivating at times, yet whenever a scene had potential, something was off and made it not worth watching. 

There’s an overlap of potential ideas as shown by the experimental shots and multiple character development arcs introduced. but none are fleshed out enough that we feel as if they’ve committed to tell a meaningful story. It is just a web of thoughts sloppily tied together, to attract fans and make as much profit as possible from a film with no real core.

Sims’ character is torn apart and reduced to a villain with no true motivation behind his actions other than self perseveration. It makes us wonder if we can truly blame Rahim for his bland performance or if maybe he did what he could with an already uninspired role. This isn’t helped by the fact that all his dialogue seems as if it’s been dubbed in post-production and never matches the on screen action the audience is watching. For a movie with an $80 million budget, there is little to show where that all went as the CGI is reminiscent of that of a 2003 movie — almost as if intentional with the timeline “Madame Web” is set in — which doesn’t help improve the quality of the already lacking action montages.

Cassandra’s character falls into the same old trope of cool, aloof, deadpan and “not like other girls” female protagonist. The film avoids leaning into her history as a foster kid and her lack of physical super-abilities. Instead, they try to replace any well fleshed character arc with a lame attempt to reference the iconic “with great power comes great responsibility” and an underwhelming resolution of her mommy issues. As for the three arachnid heroines in the making, besides the few visions of them in full costume of their futures, their origin stories are barely explored.

Currently, “Madame Web” has the lowest box office opening record for a superhero-themed Sony film. Since its Valentine’s Day debut, the film has made $26.2 million. Within social media, there’s a clear discontent with what “Madame Web” delivered, or didn’t. The conversations being had are less about the actual contents of the movie and more about the bizarre way that both the movie and the press tour has been conducted. “Madame Web” has become a meme because of the incoherent nature of the plot and dialogue, even being compared to the infamous writing of television show “Riverdale.”

Ultimately, “Madame Web” seems the initial draft to a collision of characters that are stripped from everything that makes them interesting to the already existent comic fan base — which one would think is the target for these profit-hungry producers. Meant to perhaps be a set up for future sequels focusing on our spider-women, it’s disappointing performance after its Feb. 14 release makes the public believe there’s little chances of these plans moving forward. “Madame Web” leaves viewers yearning for a reinterpretation of everything this movie could’ve been had the writers actually tried to make Cassie and Ezekiel worthy opponents and to perhaps see that original script that convinced Johnson to join the project.

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Mariana Contreras, Assistant Life and Culture Editor
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