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Madame Web Review: Dakota Johnson’s First Foray into Superheroics is Far From Perfect

Maybe the current ennui towards superhero movies won’t be ending anytime soon, and certainly, the latest Spider-tangential film from Sony, Madame Web, isn’t likely to be the movie that saves the superhero “genre,” although you do have to give it a little bit of credit for trying to do a few things that are semi-daring and different.

Even lifelong Spider-Man fans (such as myself) may not be that knowledgeable about Madame Web’s tangential place in the Spider-verse, though thankfully, the multiverse doesn’t play a factor in this movie, and any connections to anything else related to Spider-Man are relegated to the subtlest of Easter eggs. In other words, Madame Web is one of those rare superhero movies you can watch without ever having seen another movie.

In this case, Dakota Johnson plays NYC paramedic Cassandra “Cassie” Webb, but before we meet her, we go back in time to 1973 with a prologue set in Peru, as her explorer mother (Kerry Bishé) is seeking a rare spider whose venom might provide healing qualities. It’s there when she first encounters Ezekiel (Tahar Rahim from Un Prophet), who wants the spider for his own nefarious purposes, and three decades later, he starts plaguing Cassie and a trio of young women – Julia, played by Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced‘s Anya, and Celeste O’Connor as Mattie – who Ezekiel believes will kill him. By then, Cassie has gained precognitive abilities that allow her to see Ezekiel’s plans ahead of time.

Prolific television director SJ Clarkson (Jessica Jones, The Defenders) makes her move to theatrical with this origin story of a character that will be new to many, and may rely heavily on whether one is a fan of Johnson or some of the other cast. Those who aren’t fans may find that her normally flat delivery do little to help a screenplay that constantly falls to pacing problems. The other actors, particularly Sweeney, have all done better work, as well.

A scene from Madame Web (Sony)

It’s hard to fully accept Madame Web as some sort of groundbreaking female-centric superhero movie, since we’ve had quite a few of them before, for better or worse. Furthermore, the marketing for the film seems to suggest that it’s about gathering a group of young female superheroes, ala Birds of Prey, but that’s a bit misleading, since we only really see the three young women as their heroic alter-egos in Ezekiel’s visions and at the very end.

There is action for sure, but otherwise, Madame Web is essentially a “Final Destination” movie where Cassie sees something that’s going to happen, then does whatever she can to stop it. It’s not an original premise by any means, but it’s one that’s also hurt by a screenplay fulled of cheesy dialogue with a pace that keeps it from ever getting too exciting. Even so, the movie has a good sense of humor, much of it conveyed by O’Connor’s Mattie, but also, with Adam Scott as Cassie’s paramedic co-worker, Ben, and that often makes up for what feels like quite a standard good-vs-evil origin story that never quite delivers.

As far as Clarkson’s crafts team, Production Designer Ethan Tobman does a fine job recreating 2003 New York City (presumably without filming in the city), and the film benefits greatly from Clarkson having Avatar’s Oscar-winning DP Mauro Fiore by her side. Even with those two collaborators, the film never looks that spectacular or unique as its own thing.

Dakota Johnson in Madame Web (Sony)

The film’s biggest problem may be that critics are going to be even tougher on Madame Web than they would be on any normal Marvel or superhero movie, and one wonders whether any movie can survive at the box office with critics seemingly on a warpath these days. (Saying that “the critics are revolting” is just too easy a joke.) Madame Web should benefit from being more female-centric, but it has plenty of other competition for women moviegoers, and who knows if guys will even bother to give it a look? It’s certainly a conundrum that must have puzzled those deciding on a production budget.

Maybe saying Madame Web is better than Morbius and the two Venom movies is akin to a back-handed compliment, but it really does offer something quite different from other Marvel and Spider-Man movies, and the last act is pretty terrific as things do start coming together after far too much set-up time.

Maybe some will question whether Sony needed to make a Madame Web movie at all, but in a business where big swings are sometimes necessary to jar moviegoers out of their doldrums, Madame Web does its best to not be another Catwoman.

Talent: B
Story: C+
Crafts: B
Awards Potential: Nil
Box Office Potential: This should be be good for somewhere between $50 and $70 million domestic, but it will be relying heavily on international.
Renewability: Maybe Madame Web and her Spider-Girls can fight the Sinister Six.

Overall Score: B-

Madame Web opens in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, February 14. Look for Above the Line‘s interview with SJ Clarkson sometime later today.

Studio: Sony Pictures
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, Celeste O’Connor, Tahar Rahim, Adam Scott, Mike Epps, Kerry Bishé
Director: SJ Clarkson
Screenwriter: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Claire Parker, S.J. Clarkson
Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura
DP: Mauro Fiore
Production Design: Ethan Tobman
Costume Design: Ngila Dickson
Editor: Leigh Folsom Boyd
Score by: Johan Söderqvist

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.


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