Thursday, February 15, 2024


 by Rob DiCristino

“Was it over then, and is it over now?”

In most cases, it would be appropriate to open a review for the latest superhero franchise blockbuster — a film that Sony insists is just one part of its sprawling “Spider-Man Universe” (or SSU) — with a little background and context. We’d consider the larger history of the saga, how previous entries have advanced its intricate tangle of storylines, and where this newest adventure will take us next. Up until just a few months ago, it would have been necessary to set the stakes, to analyze the larger machinations of this corporate juggernaut and discuss the implications of this new entry’s presumed reset of the status quo. But in this year of our lord 2024, a year in which the Marvel Cinematic Universe will bring us exactly one film — July’s Deadpool and Wolverine — all that housekeeping feels a bit superfluous. There is no SSU, folks. Grow up. The shared universes have disbanded. The bubble has burst. With that in mind, there’s no reason to bury the lede: Madame Web is an unmitigated disaster, one of the worst mainstream studio offerings in recent memory.
Set somewhere between the late ‘90s and 2003 — sloppy reshoots and incongruent needle drops make it hard to nail down the original intent — Madame Web introduces us to New York City paramedic Cassie Web (Dakota Johnson), who was left orphaned after her mother (Kerry Bisché) died by spider-related misadventure some years before. After she and her partner (the wildly-overqualified Adam Scott, presumably paying off his summer house) are nearly killed rescuing a stranded motorist, Cassie begins experiencing scattered hallucinations, clairvoyant peeks into potential futures. Also seeing visions is industrialist (?) Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), who was in the Amazon with Cassie’s mom when she was researching spiders right before she died.* His dreams foretell his death at the hands of three spider-suited teenage heroes: Julia (Sydney Sweeney), Mattie (Celeste O’Connor), and Anya (Isabela Merced). Bent on survival at any cost, Sims steals NSA surveillance technology and employs Amaria (Zosia Mamet) to help him track them down.

Meanwhile, Cassie’s failure to act on a vision leads to the death of a colleague (Mike Epps), and she atones by rescuing the not-yet-super-powered girls from Sims’ wall-crawling clutches (Oh yeah, Sims has evil poison Spider-Man powers). In most major studio films of this size and scale, what follows would be a ticking-clock thriller that forces Web to take hold of her power, forge a bond with the three unruly teenagers — who must also discover their own potential for Great Power and Great Responsibility — and unravel the mystery of her mother’s super spider research before Sims dooms their futures forever. Madame Web, however, is less a major studio release than it is some kind of prank played on first-time feature director S. J. Clarkson, whose reasonably inoffensive production work has been hacked and slashed into stunning incoherence by a studio that seems to have a vendetta against its would-be audience. What results is a film with a gun to its head, a deeply uncomfortable watch that gradually crests into an unintentionally comedic farce.
Euphoria fans (and internet perverts) hoping for a new entry in the Sydney Sweeney canon will be sorely disappointed by Madame Web, as the Anyone But You star figures only incidentally as the unassuming Julia. Isabela Merced (who recently scored a role on HBO’s The Last of Us) does her best with the three lines afforded to her Anya, nearly all of which take Celeste O’Connor’s considerably more charismatic Mattie to task for her wealth and privilege. It should be noted that none of these characters actually become the Spider-Women promised by the trailers, suiting up only in two brief visions that adorably promise more adventures in sequels that will absolutely never, ever happen. Tahar Rahim’s villain is saddled with some of the worst dialogue you’re likely to hear all year — Including “It’s not a dream; I’m going to be murdered some day,” a stand-up-and-groan moment that had my preview audience in stitches — made all the worse by ADR that sounds as if it was engineered as part of an elementary school project. One that got an F.
What remains is Dakota Johnson, a gifted and capable actor whose open hostility toward both the film and her character become almost endearing as Madame Web reaches its laughable excuse for a conclusion. Between joking about infant mortality at a baby shower and making one earnest attempt at a Keatonian pratfall (“You don’t know if you can climb walls until you try” is another winner from a screenplay credited to four separate writers), Johnson is the glue and popsicle sticks that barely — just barely — hold Madame Web in one piece. As it’s impossible for even the hardest-core comic book fans to get too frazzled over Sony’s now-infamous lack of quality control, there’s little else to do but Marvel at Madame Web’s goofy incompetence: Why does the same spider bite grant different people different powers? Will our teenage Spider-Women be bitten at some point? Why? How? How did Cassie get that taxi into the woods? Wait, Emma Roberts is in this movie? Madame Web can’t be bothered to answer these questions, so we’d all do well not to ask them.

*The heavily-memed trailer line is not in the final cut.

Madame Web is in theaters now.


  1. The Empire Podcast dubbed these movies the SPUMC - Sony Pictures Universe of Marvel Characters. A much more entertaining moniker than SSU.

  2. All the live-action Sony Spider-Man-adjacent Universe stuff somehow feels like the balance nature requires in order for Sony to also make something as good as the Spider-Verse movies.

  3. But is is so bad that (in a chemically altered state) it makes it around the Horn of Africa to be entertainingly bad?
    It kinda sounds from your review that it would be a slog no matter how many Alabama Slammer’s one drinks in advance.

    1. Critics’ screenings are almost always dead silent, and we were openly laughing at this movie during the second hour. Take that for what you will.