Madame Web Review: This Might Be One Of The Final Films Of The Superhero Era


As we drift gently through the twilight of the superhero genre, something curious is happening. It seems to be drifting irresistibly closer and closer to the overwrought, ultra-stylized, almost-instantly-dated early-'00s era of the genre. There was a time when comic book fans were relieved to have escaped that phase, handily more comfortable with slick, expensive, deeply interconnected "cinematic universe" that Marvel began constructing in 2008. 

Now that said cinematic universes have lost the public's attention, superhero films are becoming cheaper again. The A-list was exhausted some time ago, and now the only characters filmmakers have left to explore ... well, one might need a putty knife to get them unstuck from the sides of the barrel. Audiences are now left with clunky, earnest, and weirdly charming oddities like S.J. Clarkson's "Madame Web." 

And make no mistake, "Madame Web" is an odd duck. Based on an obscure Spider-Man supporting player, and featuring three of the Marvel universe's Spider-Women — before they gained superpowers and costumes — "Madame Web" is a clairvoyance caper more than it is a superheroine movie. More time is spent with the four main characters panicked and on the lam trying to figure out what's going on than with fistfights, explosions, and the usual bland action pabulum that tends to feed the genre. 

For those portions, "Madame Web" feels like a slumber party about to break out. Like the perfectly decent "The Marvels" from last year, "Madame Web" is a testament to the power of young women hanging out, becoming friends, and forming sororal bonds. It's about three teens and their fortune-telling mom looking after each other while the (Spider-)Man tries to keep them down. The future is Spider-Female, and Madame Web knows it.

Meet Cassandra Webb

Admittedly, "Madame Web" is a messy, messy film. Credited to four screenwriters and three story writers, "Madame Web" is a massive, clunky jumble, replete with some strange editing and pacing that makes it feel like the result of a lot of experimental tinkering. Stylistically, it's all over the map, sometimes pushing action/mystery and sometimes settling on scenes of disarming affability. While it takes place in 2003, "What's Up?" by 4 Non Blondes and The Cranberries' "Dreams" — decade-old songs at that point — feature on the soundtrack. At least there is some authenticity to the scene where the three Spider-Women-To-Be table dance to Britney Spears' "Toxic" in a Jersey diner. Kudos to the film's costume designer, too, for recalling the midriff-bearing shirts and low-slung jeans that infected the era. The dated pop music and whirligig tone keep the film murky and shabby.

"Madame Web" narratively benefits, however, from staying focused on Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson) throughout. "Worldbuilding" and "mythology" are mercifully distant concerns, and the film doesn't get bogged down in snore-worthy conspiracies, tired multiverse interconnectivity, or world-threatening doomsday scenarios. 

Cassandra Webb was born under dire circumstances; her mother, nine months pregnant, was studying spiders in the Amazon right before she died. As she was giving birth, she was bitten by a rare and seemingly magical Peruvian spider whose venom can give its victims superpowers. Fast-forward to 2003, and Cassandra is now working as a New York ambulance driver with her deferent and affable best friend Ben (Adam Scott). A near-drowning on the job instigates Cassandra's latent superpowers, and she begins having uncontrolled visions of the immediate future. Her visions bring her into the panicked company of Julia (Sydney Sweeney), Mattie (Celeste O'Connor), and Anya (Isabela Merced) who are all being hunted by a wicked, black-clad version of Spider-Man. 

The Future is Spider-Female

This Spider-Man is not Peter Parker or Miles Morales, but Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), the man who double-crossed Cassandra's mom in the Amazon back in '73, and who gained his Spider-Powers from the same Peruvian bug that mom was searching for. He now can climb on walls but is afflicted with regular clairvoyant visions of being attacked and killed by the three above teens ... once they've grown up and become superheroes. He now aims to kill them before they have a chance to do that. Cassandra absconds with the girls — it's a very playful kidnapping — and they begin investigating.

Throughout the whimsical kidnapping, the girls and Cassandra bond over their mutual orphanhood; each one of them has been neglected or forgotten by their parents in some way, and they are eager to form an ersatz family, even if it was achieved through sketchy, criminal, almost Coen Bros.-like means. Cassandra becomes their default matron, protecting them out of a natural sense of obligation. Motherhood needn't be baby showers and domesticity (as represented by a very pregnant friend played by Emma Roberts). Sometimes it can be a conscious effort to usher young women into their rightful place on top of the superhero world.

One can't help but see a metaphor for insecure masculinity — the kind that has too often infected superhero fandom — at play with the Sims character. A male Spider-Man saw that he was to be replaced by a new generation of young women and targeted three teenagers to prevent it. Surely he is a stand-in for an aging fanboy, wholly uncomfortable with diversification in the genre. He senses his demise is on the horizon and lashes out at young women on the rise. 

Is this even a superhero movie?

I can't imagine "Madame Web" not being a massive disappointment to many superhero fans, as I hesitate to describe it as a superhero film. It's more like a pre-origin story, a tale of who various Spider-Women were before they got their powers. Audiences are treated to several flashes-forward to the time when they'll be in costume, but "Madame Web" isn't about how they got their powers or stitched together their outfits. It's merely about the assurance that they will indeed be heroes someday. As such, there's no "Big Fight" at the film's climax. There's no prolonged scene of equally matched heroes wailing on each other using carefully choreographed martial arts.

Indeed, some of the action sequences have more in common with "Final Destination" than they do "Spider-Man." There aren't even that many action sequences. This is a fantasy noir about psychics and sisterhood that gently and peculiarly riffs on Spider-Man lore, attempting to see how much can be stripped away from all-too-familiar tropes. One can look at "Madame Web" and witness the entire genre dissipating. Trust me, this is a good thing. 

Lacking superhero grandiosity, however, all but assures we'll never see sequels or follow-ups where these characters grow into the heroines we know they'll be. "Madame Web" does not provide a crowd-pleasing bombast. This is a pity, as this odd duck makes for a fascinating watch. This may be one of the final films of the superhero renaissance. Enjoy it before it topples over entirely. 


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