On Set: “Madame Web” doesn’t quite catch the fly

KHOL film critic Jeff Counts reviews the latest film from the Sony Spider-Man Universe.
(Sony Pictures)

by | Feb 15, 2024 | Culture, Film & TV

When Sony bought the rights to Spider-Man and the hundreds of characters that make up his specific comic book world back in 1999, they committed to managing a regular rotation of film releases that feature not just the webslinger himself, but now many of his obscure friends and enemies. So far, the Sony Spider-Man Universe (yes, there is an SSU to keep track of too) has produced two Venom projects and a Morbius movie. Upcoming titles include “Kraven the Hunter” and “Venom 3” but first we need to meet “Madame Web”.

“Madame Web”, out this weekend in theaters, tells the story of Cassandra Web, a paramedic who begins to develop clairvoyant skills after a near-death experience. Her new abilities make her day-to-day life merely confusing at first, but they soon place her precariously between a murderous villain and the three teenage girls he is bent on eliminating. It’s not as gross as it sounds. He has his reasons, based on what the young ladies will become as adults, and Cassie needs to protect them from him if they are to even have a chance of growing older. Spider-Man, if you’re wondering, isn’t in this one at all. In fact, he hasn’t been born yet when it begins.

It’s a deep-cut prelude to the stories that will eventually include the friendly neighborhood crusader himself, so casual Marvel-curious moviegoers might not know who Madame Web is. I didn’t, but familiarity is not a requirement for superhero film enjoyment. Good casting, however, really is. Dakota Johnson, who plays Web, made news in the weeks leading up to the premiere with her negative comments about the film’s special effects and more general statements about the lack of bravery in today’s Hollywood creativity. She might be right to question both things, but her palpable lack of enthusiasm for “Madame Web” could not have been fun for Sony. It’s certainly not fun for a viewer of the film.

I think the mild disgust suggested by Johnson’s real-life words followed her onto the set. She doesn’t appear to be enjoying herself at all and, with a script this dour, we need her to be fully committed. And not just her. Nobody appears to like anybody in “Madame Web”, except maybe for Adam Scott, who plays Ben Parker (Uncle Ben, yes), but that’s not enough. The atmosphere is unpleasant and morose when it should be tense and frightening. Superhero movies can’t work if the audience isn’t encouraged to admire any of the characters.

Director S.J. Clarkson has done mostly television before this, but I don’t think that is part of the problem. Clarkson worked on Marvel’s “Jessica Jones”, so she knows how to squeeze a little heart out of a brooding, misanthropic character. But she never stood a chance with Dakota Johnson as Madame Web, not when the snark and the barely withheld eyerolls seem to be happening as much off-camera as on. There was an opportunity here for a fun, dark and subversive ensemble experience with four strong female roles at the center of the action. Sadly, it never materializes. Our three imperiled teens are facing challenges, to be sure, but they can’t do it alone, not with such an incredibly forgettable villain and a mentor who would rather be anywhere else played by an actor who would too.

Dakota Johnson is not the first actor to attempt to distance themselves from a project they have lost faith in. But to watch “Madame Web” is to watch a star give her own movie a savage review in real time while she’s ineffectively acting in it. Her opinions, however accurate, are simply not bolstered by solid effort. Johnson can do wonderful things on screen, as she proved in “The Lost Daughter” in 2021. Even with her absolute best work, though, this project probably would not have succeeded. I admit that. But at least it would have been easier to keep an open mind about.

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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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