It’s fair to say that audiences have learned to adjust their expectations for Sony’s live-action Marvel Universe. From the two Venom movies to Morbius, they at their worst feel like the bottom of the barrel of what modern comic-book films have to offer. However, at their best, they feel like oddball throwbacks to the early 2000s with charming, sometimes totally accidental comedy. Scenes like Venom giving a “coming-out” speech at a rave and Matt Smith showing off his vampire muscles while dancing to ‘EKSE’ by Off The Meds have created a meme culture around this franchise, boosted by the fact that it’s forced to constantly tiptoe around connections to Spider-Man (with him still being shared with Disney and the MCU) despite being officially called “Sony’s Spider-Man Universe.” It all makes for a sort of fascinating dumpster fire that you can’t look away from, and this continues in Madame Web.
The thing is, though, Madame Web has a lot of surprising merits. We’re just going to get this out of the way now and clarify that this is yet another messy Spider-Man spin-off from Sony, but one that’s actually quite entertaining and dare I say, maybe even a new guilty pleasure? Plus, the film’s sense of humor goes from being genuinely funny to accidental in the way you can already see the waves of memes and online reactions. And I’m not talking about forced jokes like the way Redditors tried hard to make “It’s Morbin Time” relevant. Madame Web does feel like it’s aiming for something subversive in the superhero movie genre, making it far more admirable than Sony’s previous efforts. While it doesn’t fully achieve these goals, we’re dealing with a low bar to begin so that’s at least something, right?
Set in 2003 New York City, we’re introduced to the skilled yet socially awkward paramedic Cassandra “Cassie” Webb (Dakota Johnson) as she’s doing what she does best: saving lives. Alongside her fellow EMT Ben Parker (Adam Scott), Cassie tries to get the job done from an emotional distance, meaning that she doesn’t like accepting thank you’s or any kind gestures from people even after saving their lives. She’s not a people person and doesn’t get out much, but that all changes after she survives a near-death experience on the job. This accident unlocks psychic abilities within Cassie that connect to her roots, specifically when her mother Constance (Kerry Bishé) was researching rare spiders in the Amazon rainforest while she was still pregnant with her. In learning to adjust to her unlocked clairvoyance, Cassie is faced with the opportunity to now save people’s lives before the threat even occurs.
Fate brings Cassie face-to-face with three young women – Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor), and Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced) – all of whom are being hunted by the mysterious Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim). Cassie decides to act on her new heroic instincts and save the three teens moments before Ezekiel’s first attack, setting off a race between who can change the future first. Ezekiel is also a clairvoyant with ties to Cassie’s mother, and he’s seen visions of the future where the three girls form a team of costumed Spider-Women who eventually defeat him. The trailers and promotion for Madame Web have heavily teased these versions of Spider-Woman, showcasing all three actresses in full unique costumes. However, they only appear in vision sequences as the story of Madame Web follows the three girls way before they get their Spider powers.
It’s a classic Sony move to market Madame Web, which has no actual Spider-Women in costume for more than a few minutes, like some kind of superhero team-up movie. In fact, that also goes against the core theme of the film. Co-writer and director S.J. Clarkson is familiar with the comic-book genre, having helmed episodes of Marvel’s Jessica Jones and The Defenders. Clarkson is the saving grace of Madame Web, focusing this story on a group of women coming together to defy all odds without the need for Spider powers. Ezekiel Sims is the only character with your typical set of Spider abilities in Madame Web, like super strength and wall-crawling, with the bonus of having a deadly poison touch. All that our group of girls have is each other, under the guidance of Cassie who is barely learning to master her clairvoyance.
Madame Web is at its best when exploring Cassie’s psychic abilities and how they can be used to even stop a super-powered villain. The film is forced to think outside of the box in these instances, leading to some creative sequences where director S.J. Clarkson and cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Spider-Man: No Way Home) put you in Cassie’s perspective of seeing the future and reliving events before they take place. One sequence early on where Cassie sees the future for the first time while she’s on the scene of a medical emergency with Ben and FDNY Chief O’Neil (Mike Epps) is impressive in particular, making you think for a second, “Wait, are they actually onto something here?” Unfortunately, all of this goodwill is soon sidelined by the need to drag in excessive amounts of Spider lore that is somehow more boring than it is silly.
The parts where we dive into the backstory with Cassie’s mother and her ties to an ancient secret tribe of Spider warriors known as “Las Arañas” in the Amazon rainforests of Peru feel like they are from a completely different movie. This is where it becomes obvious that the script had four other co-writers – Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Claire Parke, and Kerem Sanga – who were probably under the studio’s requests to further expand their Spider-Man universe. This is ironically hilarious considering that Ben and Mary Parker (Emma Roberts) are already in the film interacting with the main character! Of course, this is all in true Sony fashion with there being vague mentions to Peter Parker. It’s amusing to see Madame Web dance around Uncle Ben himself but then literally pause the plot to have Cassie travel to the Amazon for a huge dump of Spider lore.
Likewise, Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey, Suspiria) as Cassandra Webb only feels like a real character either when dealing with her life as an EMT in Manhattan or when learning to help the three teenage girls with her psychic abilities. In any other scene where Johnson is forced to spew exposition of Spider gibberish, she’s plainly reading lines and you can’t blame her. Still, her signature deadpan humor shines in a few light-hearted moments, and her chemistry with her co-stars is quirky in a way that makes you often unintentionally laugh. Given this script, whether that’s good or bad is up to you. Sydney Sweeney (Anyone But You), Celeste O’Connor (Ghostbusters: Afterlife), and Isabela Merced (Dora and the Lost City of Gold) all take a while to settle into their roles through some extremely rough dialogue, but by the end form a found family you can root for.
Madame Web is by no means the worst the genre has to offer. It’s got an entirely forgettable villain whose motivation is explained in single lines of dialogue, a dull origin story, and an ending that just might contradict the whole ethos of what director S.J. Clarkson was going for. This is true! What also can’t be denied, though, is how entertaining it can be – for both the good and the bad. Madame Web is destined for endless memes and the “so bad it’s good” treatment. People tried to do the same with Morbius, yet in this case, we have a movie that you can tell had a unique vision at first but was stumped by Sony’s usual studio antics. It’s not a good film, but will it be a good time when you watch it with your friends? That answer could be a hard yes.
Release Date: February 14, 2024.
Directed by S.J. Clarkson.
Screenplay by Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Claire Parker, & S. J. Clarkson.
Story by Kerem Sanga, Matt Sazama, & Burk Sharpless.
Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura.
Based on Marvel Comics.
Main Cast: Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor, Isabela Merced, Tahar Rahim, Mike Epps, Emma Roberts, Adam Scott, Zosia Mamet, & Kerry Bishé.
Cinematographer: Mauro Fiore.
Composer: Johan Söderqvist.
Production Companies: Columbia Pictures, Marvel Entertainment, & Di Bonaventura Pictures.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing.
Runtime: 116 minutes.