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‘Madame Web’ Review: Dakota Johnson Leads a Depressingly Inert Spider-Man Spinoff

There’s something so demoralizing about lambasting another underwhelming Marvel offering. What is there left to really say about the disappointments and ocean-floor-level expectations created by the mining of this intellectual property? Every year, studio executives dig up minor characters, dress them in a fog of hype and leave moviegoers to debate, defend or discard the finished product.

Madame Web is one of these recently exhumed efforts. The film, directed by SJ Clarkson and starring Dakota Johnson as a clairvoyant paramedic in New York, has as much energy as an employee subjected to an ice breaker during a corporate retreat. It is an airless and stilted endeavor driven by a mechanical screenplay (written by Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless and Claire Parker & Clarkson). Its lack of imagination would be astounding if it wasn’t so expected. When Sony dropped the trailer two months ago, the early reactions were nothing short of brutal. Responses to the three-minute video effectively summarizing the film turned the obvious dialogue into a meme.

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Madame Web opens with a prologue that does little to defend the movie from all the mocking. In this chapter, we meet Constance (Kerry Bishé), a scientist conducting field research in 1973 in the Peruvian jungle during the final month of her pregnancy. She’s accompanied by a furtive guide named Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim). “He was in the Amazon with my mom when she was researching spiders right before she died,” Cassie (Johnson) will say decades later during her own journey to figure out the past. After Constance and her team find a rare spider, a tragic turn of events leads to their death. Fortunately, her child survives.

Madame Web jumps to New York in 2023 with Cassie racing an ambulance through the city streets while her partner Ben (Adam Scott) tries to keep their emergency patient alive. Their communication is snappy and intimate, a sign, surely, of how long they’ve worked together under these stressful conditions. Madame Web doesn’t concern itself much with the kind of specific background that might lend its characters some depth. The film operates on a need-to-know basis, forcing people to explain themselves through inelegantly breathless exposition.

Early scenes lightly sketch Cassie’s life in New York. She grew up in foster care and keeps a suitcase of her mother’s photos, letters and old journals underneath her bed. She hardly makes plans, preferring to stay home with her cat. Johnson initially seems like a fine match for the role. Cassie has a droll sense of humor, and many of her lines land thanks to Johnson’s deadpan delivery. The actress is strongest when Cassie navigates socially awkward situations with a chaotic honesty; there’s a particularly funny scene in which she dampens the mood of a baby shower. But when the film requires Johnson to bump up the energy, the Fifty Shades actress stumbles.

After trying to save a man whose car flipped on the highway, Cassie falls into the East River. The near-death experience activates her clairvoyant powers and kicks off the intrigue of the film. Already misanthropic, Cassie now feels even more alienated from society. She walks through the world with heightened senses and nagging déjà-vu. Clarkson experiments a little here using slick effects and off-kilter angles to underscore Cassie’s changed worldview and state of unease.

As Cassie adjusts to the new terms of her life, Ezekiel hunts for three teenage girls in the city. Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Anya Corazon (Isabel Merced) and Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor) don’t have anything in common until Cassie starts seeing visions of their death. Cassie doesn’t know why Ezekiel is after them, but she knows she must save them. The reluctant socializer becomes a den mother to three girls, who all realize they have been emotionally abandoned by people in their lives. Madame Web doesn’t capitalize on the affecting potential of this realization; most of these discoveries are relegated to corny exposition, and the girls never move beyond stock-character territory.

The cat-and-mouse dynamic between Ezekiel and Cassie plays out routinely. If there’s one interesting thing in Madame Web, it’s how the film navigates the post-9/11 personal security landscape. Through Ezekiel’s villainous planning with his assistant (Zosia Mamet), Madame Web shows how much privacy civilians voluntarily gave up — or the United States government took — all in the name of national security. It’s a rare satisfying element in a film that otherwise fails to deliver at every turn.

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