Reel Talk: Madame Web misses mark


In comedy group Please Don’t Destroy’s sketch with Dakota Johnson this January, Ben Marshall asks Johnson in regards to her recent film, “Madame Web,” “What’s her superpower? Is it whispering in monotone?” 

Directed by S.J. Clarkson, “Madame Web” follows Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson), a paramedic who struggles with her newfound clairvoyance as she seeks to protect three teenage girls (Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced and Celeste O’Connor) from a villainous force. 

Clarkson’s inexperience is apparent. “Madame Web” is her first feature film, although her recent TV credits include  “Succession,” “Anatomy of a Scandal” and an unaired “Game of Thrones” prequel pilot. Clarkson co-wrote “Madame Web” with Claire Parker as well as Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama, who also worked on “Morbius” (2022), which was most famous for its fictional tagline “It’s Morbin’ Time!” Most of the exposition in “Madame Web” is through dialogue, as if the writers made an outline, saw their salary, and decided it was good enough for what they were being paid. Actually, that’s probably what happened considering the film’s $80 million budget, which positions it as one of the more economical superhero blockbusters. 

The script is choppy and lazy, and there is little characterization that allows the audience to truly  connect with any of the characters. But really, Dakota Johnson might as well have been playing herself: unaffected, cynical and completely deadpan. When asked how her clairvoyance works, Cassie replies, “It just happens,” and no further explanation is ever presented. When Cassie discovers the truth about her mother, she simply says in her signature monotone, “You did it… you did it…” 

The quote, “When you take on responsibility, great power will come,” is repeated twice, in case we missed it the first time. Sound familiar? Meant to connect “Madame Web” with the wider Spider-Man universe, this tagline lacks the snappiness of the original and is delivered by an unnamed spider-person whose significance is never fully established.  

Still, I don’t think Clarkson is the one to blame for the ineptitude of “Madame Web.” The failure  of “Madame Web” reflects the wider corporate culture of Hollywood and its rapid loss of creativity. It is clear this film was made to piggyback off of the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe (specifically Spider-Man) success, in an attempt to establish yet another pointless franchise. Similar to pink-washing for profit, the film’s female leads reflect a significant increase in Hollywood’s push for diversifying its casts without exploring the actual implications of diversity. 

Sweeney’s talent is well known from her role in “Euphoria,” but it is somehow continuously  overlooked when she is cast in shallow roles like Julia Cornwall, an aloof schoolgirl who is a stickler for rules and easily wooed by boys. Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced) is book smart and savvy, burdened by the recent deportation of her father. Mattie Franklin’s (Celeste O’Connor) rebellious nature predictably stems from her wealthy parents’ neglect. Their characters have no real depth, and the directors try too hard to exemplify their Gen-Z quirks, because apparently, we think we’re too cool for high-fives now. 

The girls’ banter is hollow and their sisterhood is never fully utilized. The film had potential to  explore how women learn to become vulnerable with each other in an unscrupulous world, yet there is not a moment of real connection in the movie, and their interactions are reduced to throwing popcorn and giggling. At one point, Mattie and Julia dance atop a diner table to Britney Spears “Toxic.” 

But being cliché is not the film’s biggest problem. Ezekiel (Tahar Rahim), the film’s villain, is equally hollow. Supposedly a mysterious power that has haunted Cassie for a generation, he ultimately poses no real threat. His motivations are boring and we never understand why it’s so important to keep his cause alive. Good villains earn sympathy, but “Madame Web” never gives a reason why we should care about Ezekiel.  

There is a rare moment of tenderness between Cassie and the girls when she teaches them CPR, but moments like these are ruined by the interjection of useless scenes and characters, like the computer lady assisting Ezekiel, who can magically do anything and everything. Clarkson has some good directorial bits, like the repeated imagery of webs, broken glass and umbrellas to symbolize fate and time, but it is frustrating to see how her style is obliterated by the hackneyed elements these superhero blockbusters demand.  

Lousy movies can still be fun. Recent films like “Cocaine Bear” (2023) and “Bullet Train” (2022) have received similar criticisms of being empty and nonsensical, but have become  instant cult classics and performed well at the box office. “Madame Web,” on the other hand, has a shaky foundation on top of the floundering “Venom” franchise and “Morbius.” The film itself lacks any tension, humor or excitement, and there is nothing purposeful driving the plot, which is also strangely rushed. Supporting actors like Adam Scott and Emma Roberts are well-loved and usually delightfully charming, but here, their deliveries were dry. I wouldn’t be surprised if this film was made purely for tax purposes. It seems everyone — from the actors and the producers to the set designers and editors — put the least amount of effort they could before taking checks and leaving. 


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