Sony’s animated Spider-Verse films have been amazing, which is more than can be said about the studio’s stabs at creating their own MCU-adjacent live-action movie series centered around Spider-Man. That process got off to a goofy start with Venom and its sequel before running aground with 2022’s Morbius, and it now fully crashes and burns with Madame Web, a torturous saga that haplessly spins about in circles trying to fashion a competent tone or coherent action sequence. No matter its heroine’s clairvoyant super-powers, it’s a debacle incapable of seeing—and thus avoiding—its every subsequent misstep.
Madame Web (Feb. 14, in theaters) begins in the Peruvian Amazon circa 1973, with Constance (Kerry Bishé) searching for a rare spider that possesses potentially magical healing powers (thanks to its peptides!). Upon finding what she’s looking for, Constance is promptly betrayed by her bodyguard Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), who wants the spider and its abilities for himself. Left for dead, Constance is rescued by the jungle’s legendary spider-people, who spirit her back to their spider cave, put her in a pool and compel their pet spiders to bite her—none of which protects her from death but does allow her unborn baby to live. This is as absurd as it reads, and director S.J. Clarkson stages it with all the grace of a runaway train, her snap zooms, whiplash cinematography, canted angles, and overly theatrical lighting turning this prologue embarrassingly comical.
Thirty years later in New York City, Constance’s now-grown daughter Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson)—yes, that’s her last name, and no, no one makes a joke about it—is an EMT working alongside Ben Parker (Adam Scott), aka the future uncle of original Spider-Man Peter Parker, whose name is never uttered but whose birth (courtesy of Emma Roberts’ expectant Mary Parker) tangentially factors into these helter-skelter proceedings. Cassandra is a fearless lifesaver if far from a people person, as she demonstrates when she rudely accepts a thank-you gift from a young boy whose loved one Cassandra has brought to the hospital. As clumsily embodied by Johnson, Cassandra is dedicated to her altruistic profession and also something of a loner jerk—a contrast that never meshes and isn’t helped by the headliner either under–or over-acting every moment in the film, thereby transforming it into a showcase of unintentionally hilarious expressions and utterances.
Written by Clarkson, Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless and Claire Parker, Madame Web is full of bad dialogue delivered badly by talented men and women stuck with crummy material and equally lousy stewardship, and no one is more poorly served than Rahim.
The film’s villain, Ezekiel is imbued with spectacular speed and strength (and the capacity to dispense poison via his touch), as well as plagued by nightly visions of his death at the hands of three mysterious spider-enhanced women. Consequently, he’s consumed with staving off his forthcoming demise by locating and assassinating these individuals. At outset, that mission motivates him to seduce and murder an NSA agent (Jill Hennessy) so he can steal her techno-surveillance systems and hunt for his would-be killers. His ensuing efforts are marked by one nonsensical detail after another, beginning with his skill at fashioning picture-perfect drawings of his homicidal dream trio for his featureless henchwoman Amaria (Zosia Mamet).
Rahim is a native French speaker but that’s no excuse for the awfulness of his largely ADR’d line readings, which sound as if they’ve been filtered through an AI voice program. Madame Web then draws further attention to this nouveau-spaghetti Western aesthetic device by hiding Rahim’s mouth in darkness in almost every shot in which he’s not wearing his costume—which is an obvious and pedestrian riff on Spider-Man’s signature suit. So similar are these two outfits that coincidence couldn’t possibly explain it, and yet Clarkson’s film doesn’t proffer a different explanation, ostensibly because it figures that all moviegoers will naturally assume that, were one to gain extrasensory arachnid abilities, this would be the sole design choice for a disguise.
While rescuing a man from a car on a bridge, Cassandra suffers an accident that triggers latent psychic powers that she soon uses to save Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor) and Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced) from Ezekiel on a Metro North train whose plush interior is arguably the most fanciful facet in this unreal film. Defined solely by their cartoony appearances and demeanors, Julia is the gawky white nerd, Mattie is the brash Black skateboarder, and Anya is the non-descript undocumented Latina, and all of them are bonded by their (literal or figurative) lack of parents.
Luckily, in Cassandra they get a surrogate mother, although before they can accept her as a caregiver, they have to engage in lots of petulant back-and-forths that would make your average ’90s TV teen drama cringe. Of the three, Sweeney fares worst, asked to awkwardly squirm and stutter while dressed like a coquettish schoolgirl, and it’s easy to imagine that had her star been as bright when production began (in 2022) as it is now, she’d have swiftly passed on the thankless part.
Madame Web’s story involves Cassandra earning the trust of her charges and, in doing so, keeping them safe from Ezekiel, whose failure to kill three average teenagers quickly becomes a referendum on his third-rate villainy. Clarkson’s compositions are clunky, her musical cues are inelegant, and her period-specific flourishes (a Beyonce album billboard, a reference to American Idol) strained and unnecessary, since there’s no reason to call attention to 2003 except to underline that this is approximately two decades before the arrival of everyone’s favorite NYC wall-crawler.
Cassandra’s eventual trip to Peru to find her spider-benefactors is ridiculous, as is the means by which she ultimately harnesses and wields her fortune-telling gifts during a finale that doesn’t grasp how dynamite works and drearily shouts out to the conclusion of Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man.
In the end, everything hinges on Julia, Mattie and Anya demonstrating that they were paying attention when Cassandra taught them how to properly perform CPR. On the basis of Madame Web, however, Sony’s Spider-Man Universe is now completely lifeless—and in no need of resuscitation.