Madame Web Review: A Soapy and Strange Break From Modern Superhero Formula

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  • Aadhya Fuentes

    It’s safe to say that, in the twenty-plus years between when Sony’s Madame Web is set and when it is being released, the landscape of female-fronted superhero stories has dramatically changed. In the 2000s — a decade that Madame Web exhibits an unabashed love for, both in aesthetics and in execution — a few ill-received superheroine solo movies were believed to be enough to kill the subgenre altogether. It would take at least another decade for the proverbial glass ceiling to break, and another handful of years to reach our current moment, in which more female superhero stories than ever have been told in movies and TV, albeit amid an onslaught of high standards and cultural misogyny. In a way, it’s simultaneously impossible to imagine a movie like Madame Web existing twenty years ago, and incredibly easy to imagine its end product fitting in amid the experimental era of that time. While that sentiment does not absolve Madame Web of its shortcomings, it turns one of the most unexpected titles to come out of the current superhero boom into a fascinating cultural artifact. Both by design and by accident, Madame Web is a modern-day throwback to the superhero adaptations of yesteryear — with all of the good, bad, and baffling things that entails.

    Madame Web follows Cassandra “Cassie” Webb (Dakota Johnson), a paramedic in New York City who unlocks clairvoyant abilities after a brush with death. Cassie’s newfound powers not only force her to confront her past, but warn her of a deadly fate for three latchkey teenage girls in her orbit — Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced), and Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor). Together, the four women must protect each other from Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), who is hunting them for dark and obsessive reasons.

    From the second it was first reported to be in development in 2019, through its marketing campaign and release almost five years later, Madame Web has been a unique talking point in the superhero movies landscape. As the field of Marvel and DC blockbusters has gotten both literally and conceptually bigger, trying to feign audience fatigue with sprawling crossovers and overdesigned gimmicks, many have been skeptical about devoting an entire solo film to a lesser-known and largely static Spider-Man supporting character. Instead of trying to force Madame Web into an impossible ecosystem, the film dovetails back around to evoking the media, both superheroic and otherwise, of the 2000s. Comparisons will surely be drawn between Madame Web and the standalone and often-disliked Marvel and DC movies of the era, including Daredevil, Elektra, and Catwoman, which sacrificed comic accuracy and plausibility for misplaced spectacle. But that mentality undercuts some of Madame Web‘s charm, as well as some of the swerves it subconsciously takes in reaching its obvious story beats.

    A better point of comparison might be the superhero television shows of the same decade, like DC’s Smallville and even its short-lived Birds of Prey series, which recontextualized the tights and fights of the comics in a soapy, earnest package. While the exact story of Madame Web absolutely doesn’t exist in the comics, with Cassie almost-exclusively portrayed as a tragic elderly woman and the movie’s three Spider-Women barely crossing paths, the movie is an admirable distillation of the spirit of the source material. Once Julia, Anya, and Mattie fully enter the story, the movie even has shades of the plucky, teen girl-centered romps of the 2000s (which the industry has largely fallen out of making), adding a youthful exuberance to the movie’s immediate action-driven stakes.

    That isn’t to say that Madame Web is without its flaws, particularly with regard to its narrative. The aforementioned obviousness of its story is undeniable, which proves to be both a blessing and a curse in equal measure. Some of those clear-cut story beats are still endearing, using the ubiquitousness of the Spider-Man mythos to earn certain laughs or heartwarming moments. Others give the movie — especially in its first half — a much slower pace than it easily could have. The nature of Cassie’s new powers gets both repetitive and perplexing, only really coalescing into a driving force once she is united with her three wards. There are multiple instances where the narrative tension almost skids to a halt, repeating information we already know and dropping a new confusing narrative nugget in the process. As one example, it takes a good chunk of Madame Web for Cassie to even learn that, to quote the most infamous line from the movie’s trailer, Sims was researching spiders in the Amazon with her now-deceased mother — something that the audience became aware of in the film’s very first sequence. There’s a hypothetical version of Madame Web that revels in the process of uncovering that mystery, but instead, it stops and starts the film’s drive far too often. Once the third act of Madame Web synthesizes together, it is both the exact finale that suits its list of plot points, and the no-holds-barred culmination of something even more heartfelt and wacky than what we’ve actually seen.

    As the titular character, Johnson easily gives Madame Web‘s most enigmatic performance, delivering acerbic charm in one moment and an unfortunate flatness in the next. Much like her limited role in the comics, Cassie is at her best when she’s interacting with those around her, whether that involves bantering with her coworkers or becoming a reluctant guardian to Julia, Anya, and Mattie. Luckily, Madame Web provides just enough of those moments for Cassie to exhibit earnestness and growth, which balance out some of her more awkward developments. Sweeney, Merced, and O’Connor all do right by the complicated comic histories of their respective Spider-Women, capturing their individual exuberances even in a deadly and unprecedented context. Even though Julia, Anya, and Mattie have only sporadically crossed paths in the comics, the rapport between them proves to be effortless, and leads to some of the movie’s best sequences. Outside of our four main leads, Adam Scott proves to be the biggest highlight of Madame Web‘s ensemble, becoming a quietly reliable scene-stealer every time he appears on screen. Rahim, and other supporting players like Zosia Mamet and Emma Roberts, all do the best with what they are given, even if the end result does not prove to be particularly memorable.

    On a technical level, Madame Web is filled with a lot of highs and lows, but those extremes only add to the movie’s overall mystique. The costume design from Ngila Dickson is easily the biggest highlight, delivering some of the most comic-accurate supersuits in recent memory, without being encumbered by a busy or militarized aesthetic that might come from existing in a larger cinematic universe. The production design, led by Ethan Tobman, also works wonders to seamlessly cement the movie within its mid-2000s setting, which is impressive given the amount that is filmed on practical locations. Although some of Madame Web‘s VFX comes across as overstimulating and underbaked, it never ventures close to uncanny valley. The cinematography from Mauro Fiore and the music from Johan Soderqvist are both unobtrusive, adding to the movie’s disorienting quality without leaving much of an impact once audiences leave the theater.

    While Madame Web might not contain the heart-pumping tension, massive franchise connections, or painfully authentic verisimilitude of many of its modern contemporaries, it makes a convincing argument that an entertaining-enough story can still be found outside of those traits. The charisma of its lead heroines and the specificity of its premise prevent it from being too boring, too goofy, or too irredeemable to ignore. For better or for worse, Madame Web further illustrates that Sony’s Spider-Man Universe has potential when not trying to be a modern cinematic universe at all, and instead being a springboard for the most niche genre stories imaginable.

    Rating: 2.5 out of 5

    Madame Web will be released exclusively in theaters on Wednesday, February 14th.


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