Let’s just get this out of the way up front: the film Madame Web (in theaters February 14) does not feature its most iconic line. Which is to say, the moment that launched a thousand memes (at least in my gay little corner of the internet) appears only in the trailer. In the actual film, newly clairvoyant paramedic Cassie Web (Dakota Johnson) does not say “he was in the Amazon with my mom when she was researching spiders right before she died.” All of those words are in the movie, directed with both flair and helplessness by S. J. Clarkson, but they are never strung together in that order.
Which may come as a disappointment to those eager to see Madame Web for its imagined camp. Plenty of other silliness exists in the film, particularly in its final minutes, but otherwise Madame Web is a muted affair—not outright terrible but certainly not good, neither inert nor as meme-worthy as hoped. It’s a strange movie whose tortured existence is the most compelling thing about it.
Here we have a film that is ostensibly connected to the Spider-Man universe, and yet seemingly unable to commit to tying itself directly to that lore. It’s 2003, and Cassie is friends and ambulance partners with Ben Parker (Adam Scott), who will one day become doting and doomed uncle to one Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man. Ben’s sister-in-law (Emma Roberts) is pregnant with a child we keenly know to be Peter, and yet his name is never said. One gets the impression that before Sony got skittish and decided to make Madame Web more standalone, that name was definitely spoken toward the end of the film. But in the theatrical cut, it is only a weird tease—Madame Web is either unnecessarily coy or the victim of a junky hack job, depending on how generous you want to be.
How are we feeling about superhero movies these days? Not great, if recent box office tallies (and reviews!) are any indication. Madame Web feels very much like a relic from a go-go heyday recently ended, a risky bit of IP barrel-digging that might have fared at least a little bit better seven or so years ago. Or, maybe not. The movie also plays as a throwback to an earlier, pre-Iron Man era of comic-book adaptation—it has more stylistic kinship with Halle Berry’s disastrous Catwoman (2004) than it does with anything recently churned out of the Marvel factory. The question is whether Clarkson is doing that deliberately; she adds plenty of period touches to her film (an early Beyoncé billboard, mention of Martha Stewart’s incarceration), but maybe the whole movie is itself a half-ironic commentary on the aesthetic trappings of 20 years ago. Again, it is the more generous read to assume that Madame Web is that self-aware.
Mostly, the movie is a Pepsi ad strangely populated by performances turned to low volume. Johnson, so likable in fare as varied as 50 Shades of Grey and Suspiria, is a minimalist performer. Her casting here—in a movie that requires a certain dynamism, a fluidity with silly language about venom and augury—is an unfortunate mistake. So are Tahar Rahim as a spider man (not Spider-Man) villain and Sidney Sweeney as one of three teenage girls targeted by Rahim’s Ezekiel Sims, a sketchily drawn character whose existence is reduced to stalking teenagers and having stilted techno chats with Zosia Mamet.
Sweeney’s counterparts are played by Celeste O’Connor and Isabela Merced, livelier performers but given only the faintest of characters to play. They and Sweeney are meant to be destined for superhero greatness, in a followup film teased at the end of Madame Web that will likely never come to be. Everyone involved is stuck in the limbo of brand uncertainty; the only concrete confidence anyone is really allowed to have is that they sure do love a crisp Pepsi cola on a hot New York City day. (Or, at least, Boston pretending to be New York City.)
That said, I enjoyed a stretch of Madame Web, when the film is mostly an offbeat chase picture, saturated in Clarkson’s interesting hues and curiously enlivened by the dazed chill of Johnson’s performance. There’s something worthy buried in the film, a story of women bound by both fate and choice to steal into the night together, trying to keep one another alive. Johnson’s humor, dry as London gin, gives Madame Web more personality than the canned snark and whimsy of most latter day MCU movies.
Alas, eventually the plot must accelerate toward something like an action climax, and Johnson gets lost in a tangle of expository language. And Clarkson never makes good use of Cassie’s supernatural gifts. Cassie’s glimpses of the future could, in theory, make her an expert fighter, one who can see an opponent’s blows arriving moments before they actually do. Instead, she crashes a few cars and sets a fireworks warehouse ablaze, only barely escaping calamity. I suppose Ms. Web is meant to come into full command of her abilities in a sequel, which will likely only ever exist in the multiverse of our minds.
In the real world, Madame Web will be a solitary exercise, an odd and erratic vision of what once might have been had the superhero movie industry figured out a way to truly sustain itself through its second decade. But despite the relentless churn of product, the increasingly convoluted synergy, and the inevitable waning of novelty, the powers that be don’t seem to have seen the end coming. Some prophets, them.