Web Analytics Made Easy - Statcounter

Madame Web traps a game cast in a snare of mediocrity

Share this Post:
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures


The Ben Affleck version of Daredevil hit screens on Valentine's Day back in 2003, so it's fitting that Madame Web not only is set during that particular year but also opens in theaters on the same day 21 years later. Heck, all that's missing is a hit Evanescence song on the soundtrack.

I bring this up because Sony's latest excursion into its Marvel Spider-Man—adjacent cinematic universe is the most second-tier, early-2000s comic book yarn that's seen the light of day in ages, and this includes both the Venom entries and 2022's Morbius. Director S.J. Clarkson has delivered a glossy, hyperactive jolt of colorfully unvarnished absurdity that could almost be fun if it wasn't so poorly plotted and obnoxiously dumb. The film comes tantalizingly close to being an unintentional parody of the superhero genre, and that happy accident makes watching the resulting mess somewhat worthwhile.

What Madame Web does have going for it is that it is fairly well cast, rarely slows down, has some nice visual flourishes, and doesn't take itself too seriously. Dakota Johnson's seeming disdain for the material nicely fits her lead character of New York City paramedic Cassandra Webb. She brings a sharp sense of humor and a cutting wit that makes much of this nonsense tolerable. Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, and Celeste O'Connor are also rather good as the teenage trio Webb protects from harm, while Adam Scott is having the time of his life as Ben Parker, a name that should be familiar to fans of everyone's favorite wall-crawler all over the world.

Granted, the same could be said about Daredevil, and yet two decades later, that piece of goofy schlock is still considered something of a disaster, and for good reason. But one thing it undeniably has over Clarkson's equally brain-dead slice of super-powered hokum: a great villain. Two of them, actually. However, Michael Clarke Duncan as a suitably threatening Wilson Fisk and Colin Farrell as magnificently out-of-his-gourd Bullseye both deserve to be in a much, much better motion picture.

Unfortunately, I have absolutely no idea what happened with Tahar Rahim's performance as Peruvian madman Ezekiel Sims. Though Rahim is a sensational actor, known for his superlative turns in A Prophet, The Past, and The Mauritanian, it sounds like almost all of his dialogue was done via automated dialogue replacement (ADR), as if he were starring in some 1970s Italian spaghetti Western or giallo. His character's motivations are never explored and rarely explained (and certainly not in any detail). Sims's superhuman abilities seem to change whenever the plot requires them to, making him not so much a threat as a vaguely unthreatening Terminator clone.

And what is that plot? Webb is an orphan who, 30 years after her traumatic birth, suddenly gains furtive Groundhog Day—like glimpses into the future that she can't control. This leads her to Julia Cornwall (Sweeney), Anya Corazon (Merced), and Mattie Franklin (O'Connor), three teens from different worlds who have been marked for assassination by a determined Sims.

Sims has been having nightmares of them growing up to be vigilante superheroes who, for reasons he does not know, break into his Manhattan skyrise abode and throw him out the window to his death. Instead of waiting for that to happen, he decides to kill them while they're still in high school, and Webb is the only one who can stop him.

Or something like that. It honestly doesn't matter. Simms wants to kill the girls. They don't want to die. Webb tries to gain control of her prognostication abilities to keep him from doing it and in the process learns about how her mother (Kerry Bishé) was betrayed and then murdered while researching spiders in Peru. There's not a great deal more to it.

The story and screenplay, credited to five different writers (including Clarkson), is all over the map. It makes playful references to the superhero-who-shall-not-be-named (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), although as he's nothing more than the bun in Mary Parker's (Emma Roberts) oven, which isn't a surprise. But the film also doesn't do a thing to flesh out any character other than Cassandra Webb, and this includes Julia, Anya, and Mattie. Heck, if someone revealed that Sweeney, Merced, and O'Connor ad-libbed all of their dialogue, I'd be tempted to believe them.

But that's the least of the film's structural problems. Not to be a broken record, but why is Sims the way he is? If this Peruvian spider is so well known around the world, why did no one other than Cassandra's mother go look for it (including after her death)? If Julia, Anya, and Mattie end up being spider-powered superheroes within a few short years, why does all of New York lose its collective crap when Spider-Man comes along after they've been doing their thing for probably at least a decade? What exactly are the rules regarding Webb's abilities?

Some of these questions are important, others arguably not so much. But the fact that all (and several more) are given not so much short shrift but no shrift at all is an issue. A few implausible occurrences here and there and a small cadre of narrative shortcomings aren't a deal breaker. But an onslaught of them? One right after the other? To the point where it becomes borderline comical? That's too much of an ask.

Which brings us back to those not-so-fondly-remembered 2000s catastrophes like Elektra, Catwoman, Fantastic Four, and the aforementioned Daredevil. There was talent involved with each from a production standpoint, they all had game casts, and the same can be said about Madame Web. But the latter falls a trap of mediocrity similar to the one they all became ensnared in, and it's a shame Cassandra Webb didn't see that regrettable turn of events coming, because then maybe she could have done something about it — like canceling production before it even began.