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“Madame Web” is a disaster of indescribable proportions

A graphic illustrating the negative reviews Sony Pictures’ “Madame Web” received. The new Marvel movie was released in theaters on Feb. 14, 2024.  ILLUSTRATED BY JERRY WEINTRAUB/THE STATESMAN

This review contains spoilers.

Following my viewing of the $80 million trainwreck that is Sony Pictures’ “Madame Web,” I was genuinely gobsmacked. It’s of a rare breed of movies, like the melodramatic “The Room” (2003) or the campy “Showgirls” (1995), where there’s a schadenfreude-esque quality, a twisted pleasure of sorts, to see a movie so naïve of its shortcomings.

Classifying “Madame Web” as a Sony Pictures movie is an important distinction, and it’s a classification that is not meant to degrade the talents of those involved in the film. After all, the ensemble has had its fair share of great performances in other movies and shows — Sydney Sweeney’s performance in “Reality” (2023) is top-notch, and Adam Scott’s multi-layered character in “Severance” (2022) speaks for itself. However, I simply refuse to believe that this movie was crafted with any semblance of creative direction and without studio interference breathing down its neck.

Through its disjointedness, that interference becomes most apparent in its clumsy screenplay, littered with poorly written dialogue that accidentally makes you burst into laughter. Whether that’s twisting the iconic “With great power, comes great responsibility” into the drawn-out, embarrassingly-written, “When you take on the responsibility, great power will come,” or the equally lackluster and uninspiring, “You know the best thing about the future? It hasn’t happened yet.” Everything about the movie’s writing feels so shockingly elementary. 

Speaking of elementary writing, the memed-to-death expository line, “He was in the Amazon with my mom when she was researching spiders right before she died,” unfortunately didn’t make the final cut.

This leads us to Dakota Johnson’s lead performance as Cassandra Webb. By now, through her bizarrely self-deprecating press tour for the film, it’s fair to say that the 34-year-old actress almost completely disowns the film. When she hosted “Saturday Night Live” in January, she described the film as “if AI [artificial intelligence] generated your boyfriend’s perfect movie.” The uncanniness of Johnson’s description of “Madame Web” perfectly encapsulates how uncannily this movie’s script both aligns with and diverges from her low-key, nonchalant acting style.

Cassandra works as a paramedic in New York, holding unresolved feelings toward her deceased mother — restful that her mother prioritized researching an unidentified species of spiders over her well-being. However, Cassandra’s life changes course when she starts experiencing small glimpses of the future. These poorly edited, uber-disorienting visualizations of her foresight instinctually lead Cassandra to abduct three teenagers: Julia Cornwall, Anya Corazon and Mattie Franklin, played by Sweeney, Isabela Merced and Celeste O’Connor, respectively. Without Cassandra’s intervention, these visions show the teenagers being killed by an evil Spider-Man-looking figure, Ezekiel Sims, played by Tahar Rahim.

Johnson seems to embody this character seamlessly. Cassandra is someone who wants to do right by Julia, Anya and Mattie, reluctantly taking action to rescue these teenagers from impending doom, only to later express her frustrations of caretaking for these ungrateful, reckless teenagers. But with what we’re given, it’s so easy to interpret Johnson’s modest and restrained acting style as pure boredom — and, hey, maybe she was bored. Consequently, when the lead actor doesn’t appear to show any commitment to the movie, the audience will either disassociate from the narrative or find the weirdly-worded, borderline artificial feel of the script perversely funny, which was my experience.

Though we can’t know for sure what about “Madame Web” was changed post-production, it’s fair to say that Ezekiel was the biggest victim of all these last-minute changes. I wouldn’t be saying this if I didn’t believe it, but Rahim’s performance here would unironically be a career-killer for any actor. It’s a performance filled to the brim with automated dialogue replacement (ADR) so poorly executed that I heard several dozen audience members audibly laughing at the actor struggling to bring to life cringe-worthy lines. To make things worse, there are multiple scenes where Ezekiel — who is revealed to be responsible for Cassandra’s mother’s death — isn’t shown speaking, only for the ADR to kick in, creating a dissonance that made my theater’s audience erupting with uncontrollable, unhinged laughter.

Somehow, “Madame Web’s” worst offense is that it barely classifies as a typical superhero movie. For a film that’s supposed to function as your run-of-the-mill origin story, it’s inexcusable for there to be no scenes of Julia, Anya and Mattie becoming the superheroes the movie claims they’ll be in Ezekiel and Cassandra’s visions. It almost operates like a pre-origin story, as the movie sacrifices pivotal parts of its plot to serve a larger cinematic universe that almost certainly won’t exist, which is just plain cynical when given extra thought. Sony Pictures burned tens of millions of dollars to reshoot and rewrite this film only for it to be a big, obnoxious advertisement for the crumbling, dysfunctional multi-verse that is Sony’s Spider-Man Universe.

When it’s all said and done, “Madame Web” is an outdated superhero movie plagued by an endless slew of questionable directing, writing and acting. The movie’s disastrous legacy will persist through the occasional midnight screening a decade or two from now, where audiences will forever laugh at the movie rather than with it.

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