Look out world, Madame Web (the character) is young, not blind, and socially awkward! In fact, Madame Web (the movie) spins such a new take on Cassandra Webb and so many other Marvel characters that it probably shouldn’t be called Madame Web at all! Separating its characters and their origins from their comic-book counterparts, this is a movie that makes basic decisions in dialogue and structure, and feels stuck in the year it’s set in, 2003. Sometimes that’s good thing! But most times it’s very bad. Madame Web is a waste of talent, a weak execution of its clairvoyant-hero-protects-future-Spider-Women conceit, and too focused on the family of the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler whose web truly connects this scattered cinematic universe.
Madame Web Trailer & Character Background
In the Madame Web trailer, Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson) recalls that her mother was studying spiders in the Amazon right before she died. While this fact about Constance Webb (Kerry Bishé) quickly became a copypasta punchline, Cassie actually has a good reason to be fixated with it: After all, her mother did die on that trip, and she was still pregnant with Cassie! Although Constance dies from childbirth, her daughter survives with the help of Las Arañas (a.k.a. Spider-People) and their super-healing spiders. The incident leaves adult Cassie feeling abandoned, angry, and full of disdain, and she keeps other people at arm’s length as a result. Little does she know that Las Arañas granted her a clairvoyance that will lead her to adopt a litter of other spiderlings who similarly have no web to call home.
We get very little background information on Cassie: She’s a New York City paramedic who likes American Idol and Chinese food, but hates “family stuff.” (Again, abandonment issues.) A product of the foster system (with no explanation of how she got back to the United States from the Amazon), she claims that she turned out fine, but “fine” is more like “surface level survival with a hard shell.” And underneath that hard shell? Just a slightly less hard shell? Cassie is a loner with horrendous bedside manner – but outside of professional settings, Johnson is perfectly cast in the role. She owns Cassie’s awkwardness and disinterest in pleasing other characters. I predict that Johnson’s delivery of canned retorts and clunky exposition will live on in the minds of the Terminally Online – it’s worth noting that only part of the “studying spiders in the Amazon” line makes it into the final cut – but she was made for this “reluctant mother” role.
The Depth of Madame Web
The tone of Madame Web fits uncomfortably between psychological thriller and coming-of-age roadtrip dramedy, but the quips and visual humor – like Cassie’s attempt to climb walls – of the latter hamper the former. This is a movie whose plot is driven by a man trying to kill three future Spider-Women in very violent ways! As delightful as they try to be with the script they’re given, Sydney Sweeney, Isabel Merced, and Celeste O’Connor are portraying basic, mismatched archetypes. Sweeny’s Julia Carpenter is meek and worrisome, searching for the same type of support and validation as the character she plays on Euphoria. Merced’s Anya is intelligent, discerning, and wary of new people, but she eventually loosens up. Franklin’s Mattie is outspoken, impulsive, and rebellious.
Family and Motivation
These are young women who share with Cassie the experience of being abandoned and forced to take care of themselves. After retreating inward, they pull together to find some semblance of a family – an emotional arc that I wish Madame Web explored more deeply, and from each character’s perspective, rather than being shared one-by-one when the chips are down. It’s a depressing motivation, but one that isn’t common in superhero movies, and while it’s a true bummer, I appreciate the direction of having these girls find fulfillment with each other, even if it’s not fully developed.
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Villain and Plot
Madame Web could be commenting on how girls are forced to grow up at a young age, while men rebel against this show of maturity with violence and manipulation. But you’d have to search real hard for that. Of course, Madame Web bad guy Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim) fits this mold: He wants to murder Julia, Anya and Mattie! But we also know he’s a bad guy because he has the most generic bad guy power, wealth, a calculating tech-wiz-hench-woman (Zosia Mamet as Amaria), and extremely stilted and generic villain dialogue, much of which makes Rahim feel like he’s talking at his co-stars, rather than with them.
Madame Web packs a lot into a nearly two-hour runtime when it really, really doesn’t need to. It’s weirdly paced and picks the wrong things to focus on – like Cassie’s co-worker Ben Parker (Adam Scott) and his very pregnant sister-in-law, Mary Parker (Emma Roberts). The whereabouts of Mary’s husband and Ben’s brother, Richard, are unknown, but his absence makes him look like a deadbeat father-to-be, which is unintentionally hilarious in a sad way, because the movie takes place over the course of maybe three weeks? Cassie herself travels to Peru for a week to get answers from Las Arañas and returns in the time that Spider-Man’s dad, wherever the hell he is, is still gone on his own trip?
The inclusion of Ben and Mary is shoehorning at its most meaningless. Venom as a character is inextricably tied to Spider-Man, yet those movies manage to tell stories without him. We don’t need Spider-Movies that make the Parkers the Skywalkers of Sony’s Spider-Man Universe. Madame Web demonstrates that Spider-People are made in so many different ways, so why try to retroactively rope not Spider-Man himself, but his relatives?
A more natural connection to the Spider-Man movie exists in Madame Web’s major showdowns set on trains and rooftops, and all of the creative bobbing, weaving, and misdirection such settings require. You can tell that a lot of the effects and sets in these scenes are practical, which is nice and actually does make the movie feel like it takes place in 2003 (complimentary). The subway sequence featured heavily in the trailers is the first time Cassie truly takes action to prevent death after being bombarded with vision after vision as each of the girls enter the train. It’s a flurry of vision, real-time, vision, repeat that disorients both Cassie and the viewer.
The depiction of those visions and the mystical realm of Cassie’s ever-connecting web is Madame Web’s most creative element. Director S.J. Clarkson borrows some stylistic choices from her work on Netflix’s Anatomy of a Scandal: Using diopter lenses and some practical stunts (which seemed a little too abstract for a straightforward legal drama series) works here to communicate Cassie’s clairvoyance, stuttering and slowing down the onscreen action to mimic the way a stray thought or memory passes through the mind.
Repercussions on the Spider-Verse
In many surface-level ways, Madame Web feels like Sony’s Doctor Strange. An abrasive, medical professional gets into an accident that (directly or indirectly) allows them to see beyond the natural limits of our reality. Both movies have a moment when an astral projection of the protagonist is thrust out of their physical body. They face adversaries on a mental playing field. And at some point they team up with youngsters even though they are definitely! Not! Babysitters! However, the approaches for introducing such a character with complex power set are wildly different.
After the all-lady team-up in The Marvels, where our three interlinked heroes work together to face a common enemy, I was hoping Madame Web would deliver another fun, badass story about women bonding over their abilities and learning how to work together despite their differences. However, it only gives us the beginnings of how cool and powerful Cassie, Julia, Anya, and Mattie will eventually be. Considering that’s more than half of the major characters in this movie, it’s a total waste of a story. They never suit up in Madame Web, nor even get the powers they’re going to get. What was the point of all this? This feels like a sequel story. And while a sequel is less guaranteed from Sony’s Spider-Man Universe, Madam Web at least could’ve tried to tell a story that leaves audiences wanting to learn more, or leaves them with a sense of connection to this character and all they can achieve.