Advertisement

Movie review: 'Madame Web' hits a new low for superhero debacles

Dakota Johnson is "Madame Web." Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures
Dakota Johnson is "Madame Web." Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- Madame Web, in theaters Wednesday, is bad in ways even debacles like Catwoman and Batman & Robin never broached.

Those movies had laughably misguided explorations of cat and bat powers, but Madame Web struggles to even explain its premise.

In 2003, Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson) is an EMT who avoids connecting with patients or her partner, Ben (Adam Scott). But, after a near-death experience, Cassie begins to see glimpses of the future.

Her nemesis, Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), can see the future, namely the three women who kill him. Their paths cross when Cassie rescues Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced) and Mattie Franklin (Celeste O'Connor) before Sims gets to them.

Seeing the future is a perfectly fine superpower, but movies have had a lot more fun with this concept. Nicolas Cage played a psychic who could see two minutes ahead in Next, but the ultimate are the Final Destination films.

From left to right, Isabela Merced, Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney and Celeste O'Connor are on the run in "Madame Web." Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures
From left to right, Isabela Merced, Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney and Celeste O'Connor are on the run in "Madame Web." Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

For Cassie, psychic visions are merely a plot device. The viewer witnesses violence as Cassie sees it, then she's able to act differently and escape danger.

But Madame Web loses its way long before Cassie ever gets her powers. The exposition establishing the film's mythology and connections to Spider-Man play like temporary dialogue in a first draft that never got revised.

Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim) uses spider powers for evil. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures
Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim) uses spider powers for evil. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

The film begins showing Cassie's mother, Constance (Kerry Bishé), exploring the Peruvian Amazon in 1973 while pregnant. Sims was her assistant, who betrayed her and managed to get some spider powers he uses for evil, but the Peruvian spiders saved Constance's baby.

Comic books, and comic book movies, forgive a lot of farfetched technobabble, such as the radioactive spider that originally gave Peter Parker his powers. The joy of movies like Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films, Iron Man or Captain America is how they explain themselves with sincerity.

Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson) was just an EMT before she got superpowers. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures
Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson) was just an EMT before she got superpowers. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

From the moment Sims asks Constance about the spiders she's looking for, it does not sound like a conversation any human beings would have, let alone two partners. They're literally telling the audience the information required for the story, but grudgingly so.

Even as the supervillain, Sims speaks in awkward declarations that wouldn't even fit in a comic book dialogue bubble. Sims says of his nightly vision, "It's not a dream. I'm going to be murdered someday."

Dakota Johnson stars in "Madame Web." File Photo by Chris Chew/UPI
Dakota Johnson stars in "Madame Web." File Photo by Chris Chew/UPI

Someone who's been living with that nightly prophecy could probably think of a more organic way to break the news. Later he says, "Every day that goes by, my appointment with death gets closer."

Maybe if Sims stopped cackling so hard, the superheroes in his vision wouldn't have a reason to kill him. Sims also keeps repeating his vague backstory, that he came from nothing, but it's not important enough to specify any of the details.

Sydney Sweeney stars in "Madame Web." File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
Sydney Sweeney stars in "Madame Web." File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI

Sims' personal hacker, Amaria (Zosia Mamet), hacks into the National Security Agency and marvels at their surveillance, for the first time in 2003. Rather than a commentary on the surveillance state that evolved, it feels like a TikToker just summarized a Wikipedia entry.

To show how driven Constance is, she says her kicking baby is trying to keep her from working but she won't be deterred. This is not only a terrible line, but a trick so the movie can reveal Constance's true motivations later in the film.

Cassie tries to be funny about not understanding what is going on, from her own powers to Sims' or the three girls' connection to him. It's hard to find her amusing when she's right, to the point that Constance's 30-year-old notes have to blatantly explain the plot to Cassie.

The premise of a loner discovering she actually does like a chosen family is a sound staple of narrative fiction. However, Cassie only befriends the three girls because of the plot, not any connection they make.

Cassie wants to keep Sims from killing them, and she teaches them CPR, but they never get to know each other. Each of the three girls has a different scenario that separated them from their parents, but they recite those stories as more exposition, not an emotional need.

Nor is there much spectacle for all the setup. There is minimal spider-walking, primarily by Sims.

The action is mainly Cassie and the three girls on the run from Sims, but a mediocre version of a chase movie. As an ambulance driver, Cassie has some useful vehicular moves, but they're barely fast and hardly furious.

It takes the entire movie to reveal what Cassie's real superpower is, besides her visions. Imagine if Superman didn't fly until the last scene, or if Spider-Man didn't sling a web until the end.

Discovering one's powers is often the best part of any superhero movie. They still have to get there by the midway point.

Madame Web feels desperate to connect with Spider-Man. Two characters from Spider-Man's backstory are in the film, and even more are referenced.

On the positive side, Madame Web features more location work than standing in front of screens. They filmed in New York, some action scenes in Boston, additional shooting in Los Angeles and Mexico, which must have doubled for Peru.

Unfortunately, Madame Web doesn't stage any interesting scenes in front of those locations.

At least Catwoman and Batman & Robin believed in what they were doing. They were wrong, but Madame Web just feels like a cynical copy of the bare minimum to qualify as a comic book movie.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.