Madame Web Is More Fun Than You Think

Courtesy of Sony

The superhero bubble has been on the precipice of bursting for what seems like years. Last year (2023) was the first time since 2015 that Disney did not take home the crown of the highest-grossing studio at the global box office. There’s a general fatigue about the genre, and yet Hollywood continues to churn out films about lesser-known heroes, villains, and everything in between. Sony’s latest, Madame Web, is no different. While Spider-Man is a household name, the origin story of Madame Web is a bit of a deep cut. While Madame Web doesn’t make the case for creating an all-out superhero revival, there’s something fun going on here.

Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson) is a paramedic in New York City in 2003. She’s awkward around kids, co-workers, and strangers. Cassandra, like all reluctant heroes, leads a boring, mostly solitary life. Her only friend is Ben (Adam Scott), her paramedic co-worker who does his best to drag Cassandra out of her shell. While responding to an emergency call about a flipped-over car hanging off a bridge, Cassandra falls into the Hudson River. She’s considered dead for three minutes, until Ben revives her. Cassandra then begins to have visions of the future where a masked man (Tahar Rahim) is trying to kill three teenage girls (Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor, & Isabela Merced).

Cassandra at the scene of an emergency
Courtesy of Sony

By no means is Madame Web the answer to the problem of superhero movies, but it is an example of the mindless action fun that the genre can provide. Sure, there are problems with the plot and some of the characterization is sloppy, but there’s a weird, charming heart to Madame Web, thanks in large part to Johnson. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Johnson is more than her work in Fifty Shades of Grey. Her recent Saturday Night Live hosting gig should have proven to people that Johnson thrives when given dry comedic lines. There are moments when Madame Web allows Johnson to live in the awkward strangeness that she so clearly feels most comfortable with, and when the film leans that way we can see what might have been. Her chemistry with the trio of young teenagers makes one wish for a version of the film without superhero suits or powers. Where it’s just socially awkward Cassandra and her kind-of-kidnapped group of teens trying to find a place in this world.

As far as the superhero aspect of the film goes, Madame Web is earnestly trying to make something that’s interesting and new. The editing is sharp and uses match cuts to liven up the repetition of Cassandra’s visions. The camera twists, inverts itself, and moves about, making for a compelling visual language that breathes some life into a story we’ve all seen before. It’s not redefining the art of camerawork, but Madame Web has made the effort and that is admirable.

Julia in her spider outfit hangs upside down
Courtesy of Sony

The film falls into the trap of being a rote origin story, which is why we aren’t talking about Madame Web as a beacon of the new superhero genre. The audience has to watch Cassandra begrudgingly get roped into a dangerous game of life and death, figure out her powers, and finally harness them to save the day. It’s a set-up audiences have seen countless times, but there’s a small amount of newness because Cassandra’s powers aren’t what we’re used to seeing. She doesn’t have super strength, she can’t climb up walls (she does try), and she’s not a web slinger. Even the teenage girls, who are hinted at becoming “Spider-People” in the future, don’t have powers. In that sense, Madame Web is something we haven’t really seen before. It’s a movie about mostly powerless people fighting against someone with super strength.

The biggest issue is the film’s villain, Ezekiel Sims. He has ties to Cassandra’s mother (Kerry Bishé) and her research on a reclusive Peruvian spider. His main goal is to kill the people he sees in his visions because they will, in the future, kill him. He has no grander dreams or desires, but continuously hints at the fact that he grew up with nothing. Even the character’s comic book roots don’t illuminate a greater purpose for Ezekiel. Rahim plays him in a menacing fashion, but without a reason, Ezekiel isn’t much to fear.

Cassandra, Julia, Mattie, and Anya on a street corner
Courtesy of Sony

There’s also the wrinkle that all Rahim’s lines sound as though they were dubbed in later. It’s almost as if he originally performed the lines in another language on the set, only to later recite them months later in English in a vocal booth. Without a strong villain, what kind of superhero movie do you have? They’re two sides of the same coin, both with powers, but with different intentions when using them. It’s not even a matter of asking for a complex villain in Madame Web, because the fight is barely between good and evil. In order to bring new life and purpose to the superhero genre, there must be villains who ask questions of the viewer. It’s not enough to simply dress a guy in a black suit, have him want to kill some teens to prevent his murder in the future, and call him the bad guy.

Madame Web is not going to strengthen the superhero bubble that’s on the verge of bursting, but nor does it deserve to be spoken of in the same sentence as Morbius. Johnson’s charm does keep the film afloat, even as it veers into redundant territory, and the chemistry of the younger leads makes for breezy fun. Never overstaying its welcome and complete with a throwback ’90s/aughts soundtrack, Madame Web could find a future where it belongs.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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