MADAME WEB Is a Tedious, Lifeless Tangle

Picture this: a Peruvian rainforest, 1973, green forest everywhere, an expanse of mystery and possibility. Remember it, because it’s the last time you’ll know peace for the next hour and 57 minutes. It’s a shame, because Madame Web had the chance to be a spunky, idiosyncratic take on the Marvel Comics character. A fun early-Millennia setting (the bulk of the film takes place in 2003), a cast of young female talent, direct ties to the Tom Holland Spiderverse. But the result is a film drained of any and all pleasure, held together by a flimsy web of careless story beats, bad action, and dead-on-arrival performances. It’s almost intolerably bad.

Dakota Johnson stands behind a giant spider web in Madame Web
Sony Pictures

Madame Web centers on Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson), a New York City paramedic who lives a pretty melancholy and detached life. She’s uncomfortable around kids, even the children of people she saves. She also doesn’t have much of a life. Her only real friend is fellow paramedic Ben (Adam Scott) and a stray cat who comes to her apartment for milk. This “outsider” status is borne of early-life trauma. Her mother Constance (Kerry Bishé), an arachnologist, died during childbirth, so Cassie grew up in the foster system. 

Unbeknownst to her, a man named Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim) lives in the city too. Sims has ties to Cassie’s origins. He knew—and betrayed—her mother in Peru those 30 years before. The source of his betrayal? A mysterious, powerful spider whose venom contains mystical, psychotropic properties. Sims seemingly procured these properties, given he looks exactly the same in 2003 as he did in 1973. The venom also allows him to see into the future. He’s haunted by visions of his own death at the hands of three young women dressed in spider-like superhero gear. This prompts him to go looking for his would-be killers. 

Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim) in an evil Spider-Man suit in the movie Madame Web.
Sony Pictures

And that’s where fate intervenes. After a work accident throws her off a bridge and into the river, Cassie starts developing her own super-abilities. Time exists all funny now. She sees visions of the future that quickly rewind, catching her in uncontrollable mini time loops. Soon after, at a train station, she encounters Sims as he’s about to murder the three girls from his vision. Cassie uses her precognition to intervene, but it comes with a price: now the girls—Julia (Sydney Sweeney), Mattie (Celeste O’Connor), and Anya (Isabela Merced)—are in her care. Together, they go on the run to avoid Sims’ wrath and figure out how the four of them are interconnected. And how it all might tie back to some legendary Peruvian spider people.

While the plot is mostly legible, it’s almost shocking how lifelessly it comes together, right down to the semantics. Characters just… arrive in places with no real set up. Cassie “kidnaps” the girls in Manhattan and minutes later they’re deep in the woods. There’s no logical reason for their escape, either. The script needed them at a new set piece, so it plunked them there without logic or coherence and expects us not to care. And hey, maybe that was the right call, because it’s doubtful anyone will—about anything. 

Sydney Sweeney as Spider-Woman in Madame Web.
Sony Pictures

The dull story might be less noticeable with a charming cast, but somehow that element is even worse. Johnson deserves much of the blame. She could not appear less interested if she tried. In an interview, director S.J. Clarkson described the character of Cassie as “abrasive” and “quirky” but Johnson makes no attempt to be either. She gives an entirely toothless performance, lazing through each scene as if dreaming about the 14 hours of sleep she’s missing out on. She needs to be the gravitational pull of the film, but her low energy, terrible line delivery, and general “who cares” vibe tanks the whole thing. It does, at least, give us some hilariously bad line reads that will likely become memes. Like the way she says, without an ounce of energy, “Seriously, don’t do dumb things.” 

Her co-stars aren’t doing much either. Rahim also delivers lines with such stiffness that I wondered at times if his entire performance was dubbed. Sweeney is entirely miscast as a naive teen forgotten by her family. (Not even the teddy bear she carries around can make you believe she’s a minor.) O’Connor and Merced try their best with the crumbs their characters receive—a shame, given who they’re meant to become—and Adam Scott has almost nothing to do. The only actor with any spark is Zosia Mamet as Sims’ computer-whiz assistant, but she’s barely around. It’s an odd assemblage of people who have next to zero chemistry. What was going on with this casting process?

Celeste O'Connor as Spider-Woman with multiple robot arms in Madame Web.
Sony Pictures

But bad directing, bad plotting, and bad acting aren’t the worst thing about Madame Web. The most grueling aspect is how oddly it exists within the larger Sony Spiderverse. You know immediately who characters like Ben are meant to be, but the film never just comes out and says anything. At one point, Emma Roberts appears as a character who exists just to wink largely in your face without any notable revelations.

The film knows that you know these people and their fates. But instead of just letting them exist as real characters, the film forces them to coyly tease things that should be basic plot. I’m sure there are people behind the scenes who found this all rather cute, but it’s not. It’s infantilizing an audience already over this type of superhero schtick. You can’t keep feeding them slop and expect them to stick around. Especially not slop that directly insults their intelligence.

Madame Web poster features Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, and Isabella Merced.
Sony Pictures

Unfortunately for Sony, Madame Web isn’t just slop. It’s completely forgettable slop. Not even the fun kind of bad movie. Just an aching waste of time, the memory of which evaporates before it ever takes hold. If the idea is to spin this into some larger Spidey storytelling, it’s time to reevaluate or maybe even close up shop entirely. No one involved in this film seems to care much that exists, so why should the audience? The cinematic superhero death knell is growing louder by the day.

Madam Web

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