The Spider-Man universe has a cadre of supporting characters in its vault. Cassandra “Madame” Web is one such character who first appeared in the Amazing Spider-Man issue #210 in the fall of 1980. Created by Denny O’Neil and artist John Romita Jr., Cassandra is an elderly, disabled woman with precognitive abilities who helps Peter Parker find a kidnapping victim.
Transitioning from the comic book origins of Cassandra who is introduced as a character of depth and mystery, the film adaptation directed by S.J. Clarkson, and written by Clarkson, Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless and Claire Parker, squanders any possibility for expansion of the Madame Web world through clinical and formulaic storytelling.
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In 1973, in the Peruvian Amazon, a pregnant Constance Webb (Kerry Bishé) and her protector, Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), search for a mythical Spider with healing powers. Once they find it, Ezekiel becomes antagonistic, and wants the Spider for himself. Constance isn’t looking to give up the creature so easily, but this results in her being shot. Saved by the tribe that guards the Spider, Constance is bitten before giving birth to Cassie.
Years later, in early 2000s New York City, Cassie (Dakota Johnson), is an EMT worker following in her mother’s footsteps. One day while saving an innocent man on a bridge, she falls into the river below and is suddenly connected to metaphysical web of future scenarios, which ignites her ability to see the future.
Ezekiel, now in NYC with advanced technology, seeks to kill three young women: Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor) and Anya Corazon (Isabel Merced). Having gained the magical Spider’s powers, he sees the future of his death at the hands of the girls, once they achieve their Spider powers. Cassie, having crossed paths with the girls, foresees Ezekiel’s attack on them, steps in to save them and changes their futures.
Madame Web is an amalgamation of different characters from Spider-Man lore and brings them together as a bridge that holds the narrative together. In the comics, all three girls are Spider-Woman at one point or another in the timeline, and all three gain their Spidey-like powers through means different from Peter Parker. However, Cassandra’s connection to the greater arc is the mechanism that keeps her alive: a life support system that through various tubes, and cords, resembles a Spider’s web.
Clarkson’s cinematic endeavor into Cassandra’s world acts as an origin story for these characters, but and at the heart of the Madame Web film only lies a singular redeeming quality: the depiction of Cassie’s visions. These glitch-like edits, intended to mirror her psychic experiences, stand out as a rare instance of care in the film’s production. This also highlight the overall lack of attention to detail.
Exposition dominates the narrative landscape for a heavy-handed delivery of plot points devoid of urgency. There’s a sequence where Cassie’s journey to Peru results in an encounter with wise Indigenous people who, with a heavy dose of dialogue, guide Cassie towards her powers. So not only are we doing the magical person of color trope, but they have to be the ones to explain everything?! If the robotic performances were stronger, maybe some feeling could be gleaned from these exposition dumps.
The ADR mishaps are so pronounced that it transforms the viewing experience into something akin to watching a poorly dubbed foreign film, particularly with Ezekiel’s character, where the audio and actor are misaligned. The special effects seem unfinished, which made me wonder if they were ever fully rendered to begin with. Such blatant oversight not only distracts but also detracts from the storytelling, making the audience painfully aware of the film’s unfinishedness.
Spider-Woman (particularly Julia Cornwall) play a much larger part of the Spider-Man comics mythos, (she has her own comic for crying out loud), and fans have been asking for Julia to leap off the page onto movie screens for years. Unfortunately, there was no intentionality behind creating lasting characters with the aim of existing in a larger cinematic world. This embodies the pitfalls of mainstream superhero cinema: films not driven by story and character but seemingly by studio mandates, and franchise considerations.
Madame Web’s failure to engage on any meaningful level serves as a reminder of the importance of passion, care and authenticity in filmmaking. This movie comes across as a vehicle to maintain stake in the Spider-Man universe, rather than a genuine attempt to offer a refreshing take on the Spider-Man history that champions female protagonists and introduces a narrative filled with tangible suspense.
Title: Madame Web
Release date: February 14, 2024
Director: S.J. Clarkson
Screenwriter: S.J. Clarkson, Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Claire Parker
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, Celeste O’Connor, Tahar Rahim, Adam Scott, Emma Roberts, Omar Epps
Running time: 1 hr 56 min