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Monday, February 19, 2024

Madame Web (2024)

 Note: Co-written by staff writer Mallika Rao.

Kraven outstanding, Madame Web is the definitive death knell in Sony's Spider-Man universe, officially the mouthful known as Sony Pictures Universe of Marvel Characters. To virtually everyone, my girlfriend Mallika included, this result was completely expected. I, however am frustrated by the potential and glimmers of hope that I effectively am trying to conjure out of thin out for this movie.

Madame Web is directed by S. J. Clarkson, and it's written, presumably as they were shooting and editing, by Matt Salaam & Burk Sharpless and Claire Parker & S. J. Clarkson. The story follows NYC paramedic Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson). After a near death on the job, she unlocks clairvoyant abilities that she quickly puts to work. 

Madame Web Poster
French Theatrical Poster for Madame Web | Copyright 2024 Sony and Marvel

Tasked with protecting three young women (Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O'Connor, and Isabela Merced) from D-list villain Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), Webb will discover secrets of her past and her potential place in a larger multiverse...if this movie was well-made.

Way back in 2014, there were rumors of a potential Aunt May movie that was among a dozen or so straws Sony was grasping at after The Amazing Spider-Man 2 struggled at the box office. I was part of the few and the proud that championed this crazy idea. 

Spider-Man, like Batman, has the deepest bench of well-developed side characters in comics, and any number of these people could go off and do their own thing for an enjoyable two hours without any mention of arachnids or insects. Venom proves this and Peter Parker's parents are, at least in some stories, goddamn spies. Clarkson and company utilize the surface-level of what they're given to play with in the most surface way possible.

The surface stuff that works includes the use the 2000s settings and references, the unfulfilled promise of grounded, stunt-driven action, and the casting of the main four leads. 

From a clever Sony tie-in of a Beyonce album cover billboard (Queen Bey is a Sony Music Entertainment artist) to a memorable dance number with the three youngest actresses bopping to Britney Spears' "Toxic" to try and impress young men, and even a callback to another superhero flop with R&B group Mis-teeq's 2004 banger "Scandalous" (from the Halle Berry "Catwoman") playing briefly in the background. 

There's enough of a world here that audiences can stay anchored to something even as the plot and pacing start-and-stop sporadically. It's a two hours that doesn't feel like three or even two and a half, thank goodness, but does feel sleepy. The performances, or at least appearances of actors we know and love, keeps our eyes open luckily.

Johnson, Sweeney, O'Connor and Merced have great chemistry from the start. The film itself wastes their potential to work as a force for the greater good. It's a shame the writing had to be so mid, as kids today would say.

The always wonderful Adam Scott makes a memorable appearance as Ben Parker (yes, Spider-Man's Uncle Ben). To that point, Emma Roberts plays Mary, who is implied, with all the force of a sledgehammer, to be the matriarch of Peter Parker himself, and Peter's birth scene is one that hit close to home for me, as a month-prematurely born baby myself (sorry for the spoiler alert). I'm going to hold onto the headcanon that that applies to most multiversal Peter Parkers forever.

With a smaller budget compared to mainline Spidey films, the scaled-back action has an appreciated believability and spark of creativity to it. The hand-to-hand fights aren't caked in CGI until the very end of the movie, so they're luckily comprehensible. The highlight of the few confrontations in Madame Web is when one of the characters uses a defibrillator from inside an ambulance to shock Sims off them during the climatic chase. It's nice, tense, and at least a little inventive. 

Webb's clairvoyance does not get the same treatment. It's really just kind of there and seems to work like the movie Next, where the character just gets a few minutes of a heads up. Maybe if she lost her sight when she got her powers more could've been done with that, but they save her going blind and her comic-accurate look for the final minutes of the movie, ultimately leaving viewers feeling like they wasted their time and money. Still, a final positive, the costume design has a bit of that creative spark, too.

Madame Web's costumes are designed by Ngila Dickson (Lord of the Rings). Right off, there is something new, notable, and inspired about seeing spider suits without the classic one-way lenses. The trio of Sweeney, O'Connor, and Merced give us something close to live-action takes on the 2099 suit and two color-swapped Future Foundation outfits. Rahim wears a cross between the classic black suit and Far From Home's stealth suit, and it's always fun to see a covert Spider-Man costume slowly skulk across ceilings. It's way, way too brief, but at least it's there and saving the movie from a completely failing grade. 


(Not the four stars it tried to will into exist by having a scene at a place called the Four Star Diner in Jersey. Better luck next time with KravenEl Muerto, Spider-Man: Noir, and the now most likely doomed Silk project. Thank goodness for the animated movies and Venom.)