The first time Marvel’s logo played on the big screen, it wasn’t technically on a Marvel film. Those now-ubiquitous white-on-red letters emerging from the pages of a comic made their cinematic debut in front of 2002’s Spider-Man, produced and distributed by Sony. When Marvel started their own studio a few years later, they updated the logo for their own use; instead of a comic, the word “Marvel” gradually materialized out of scenes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and shots of stars like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans.

Studios like Sony who license Marvel characters can’t use the new logo; they’re stuck with the old version. In fact, that’s the Marvel logo that appears at the start of Madame Web. It winds up doing a pretty good job of setting the tone for what follows, since this movie feels like the sort of clumsy, clueless superhero adaptation Hollywood used to make in the days before Marvel started their film studio.

Like a lot of those pre-Marvel Studios Marvel movies, Madame Web seems vaguely embarrassed to be based on a superhero comic. The same goes for Dakota Johnson, who plays the title character — although can you technically call someone a title character if said character never actually goes by the name mentioned in the title? Johnson plays Cassie Webb; no one onscreen ever calls her “Madame Web.” With one very brief exception, she never wears a superhero costume in the film, either. Like I said, everyone looks a little ashamed of what they’re doing. (Under the circumstances, that’s not an unreasonable reaction.)

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Marvel Comics’ Madame Web is an old blind woman with precognitive abilities. She spends most of her in a high-tech chair, and occasionally offers Spider-Man cryptic advice about his future. In the film version, directed by S.J. Clarkson, Spider-Man is a literal fetus while the future Madame Web is still just a New York City paramedic. (Emma Roberts plays a small and essentially pointless role as Peter Parker’s mother, Mary.)

In the year 2003 — which is only important in the sense that it allows Madame Web to be an extremely vague prequel to other Spider-Man movies — Cassie survives a near-death experience at work and gains the ability to see glimpses of her own future. Her newfound and unpredictable abilities also reveal that three young women played by Celeste O’Connor, Isabela Merced, and Sydney Sweeney are all being targeted by a man in a black and red costume named Ezekiel (Tahar Rahim). Could this have anything to do with the fact that Ezekiel was in the Amazon with Cassie’s mom when she was researching spiders right before she died 20 years ago? It seems quite likely!

Cassie will need to figure out how to harness her abilities if she hopes to beat Ezekiel and protect her new charges. Easier said than done — in order to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding her mother’s disappearance, Cassie will have to leave these women alone for a week while she travels to Peru without them to figure out what her mother was doing in the Amazon.


Cassie is such a bad hero, in fact, that she abandons Ezekiel’s potential victims on multiple occasions while she goes off on her own to research Amazonian spiders and their magical venom. Not that Madame Web is much more useful when she’s around; most of the time she just yells at these innocent girls for not listening to her advice. (“You’re so entitled! You should be so sorry!” she yells in a typically cranky scene.)

This makes Cassie a very odd sort of superhero. When she’s not berating these women she’s complaining that she just wants to be left alone and doesn’t care about anyone but herself, which is a weird statement from a person who has chosen to save people as an EMT for a living. Johnson’s performance is mostly along those same exasperated lines. While she doesn’t exactly elevate the material, it must be noted that she is playing the surly grump that was written for her (by a group of five credited writers, including Clarkson).


Clarkson provides a few fun directorial flourishes, like when the camera rotates 180 degrees to follow Ezekiel as he flips upside down to hang from a ceiling. Moments of visual interest are very few and far between, though; it feels like half of the movie takes place in ambulances and taxis while Cassie drives the other characters around. Madame Web’s finale, set beneath the giant Pepsi-Cola sign in Queens, is a mess of phony CGI and shameless product placement.

While that sequence resembles the sort of action-heavy climax we’ve come to expect in this sort of superhero film, a lot of the rest of Madame Web is much smaller scale, closer in size and scope to a PG-13 horror movie. Cassie’s visions of the future are violent and sudden, and many arrive with irritating jump scares. Unexpected jolts of noise surprise Cassie so often you’ll swear you’re experiencing déjà vu in the theater. In a better movie, I might argue that was an intentional stylistic choice meant to mimic the protagonist’s powers. In this movie, it plays like a desperate attempt to keep the audience awake in the midst of a very snoozy storyline.

Various media reports have suggested that Madame Web underwent some tinkering in the editing room as Sony weighed how much or how little to connect it to their other Marvel projects. What they landed on never involves Spider-Man in any meaningful way; just enough to leave the door open for Cassie to return in a future film in a role closer to the one she traditionally played in Marvel comics. But after this boring and unsatisfying debut, it doesn’t take clairvoyance to see this franchise has no future.


-The Ezekiel character from Spider-Man comics is this fascinatingly enigmatic figure who appears in Spider-Man’s life with uncertain motives and hints at offering the answers to all sorts of questions Peter Parker may have held about his past. The Ezekiel of this movie is just an off-the-track super-villain. He committed horrible acts to get his hands on the spider that gave him his powers 20 years ago. Decades later, he is obsessed with killing these three women. But why did he want the spider so bad? What did he do with it in the meantime? The film never pauses for even a second to consider any of that.

-One character tells Cassie that her mind has “infinite potential.” In practice, she’s not a very effective superhero. Her main move is stealing a vehicle and running Ezekiel over with it. She does this enough in the film they might as well have called her The Cabbie, and given the movie that title.

-I’d pay a lot of money to watch this movie with Kevin Feige.

RATING: 2/10

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