New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Review: ‘Madame Web’ is somehow worse than you thought

He was in the Amazon with her mom when she was researching spiders right before she died, and I was asleep in my seat. Also, the line wasn’t even in the movie.
(Courtesy of Sony Pictures)

“Madame Web” is an indefensibly bad film.

Such poorly made and agonizingly dull schlock can only be the result of a complete lack of inspiration. “Madame Web” is the endgame of the impending decline of the studio superhero film empire — a movie so lazily made and uniquely soulless that it is doubtful that even the most ardent fans will come to its rescue at the box office.

The story follows Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson), an EMT whose mother died in childbirth while researching spiders in the Amazon — a line from the trailer that has been relentlessly memed. She now resides in Queens, where she saves lives and talks sassy smack with her coworker Ben, the ever-loveable Adam Scott.

An opening flashback, shot somewhat cleverly with stylistic hints of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” establishes that her scientist mother was betrayed in the Peruvian jungle by her companion Ezekiel (Tahar Rahim) after capturing a rare spider with possibly groundbreaking medicinal possibilities. A mythical tribe of spider people save her from bleeding out, and deliver her baby moments before her death with the aid of a rare spider’s bite. Following an on-the-job accident, Cassie discovers that she is able to catch glimpses into the near future, leaving her perplexed and terrified — particularly when she foresees but fails to prevent the accidental death of another EMT.

Through a nebulous and quite ill-explained web of somehow fated connections, she ends up outrunning the now-evil billionaire Ezekiel, who is attempting to kill three teenage girls (Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor, and Isabela Merced). Believing the trio is destined to one day murder him, Ezekiel seeks to hunt them down before they realize their powers — somehow, they are all endowed by the spiders or something too, it’s never properly explained — and Cassie, having foreseen this in a vision, takes them on the run.

The rest of the movie is an awfully paced snoozefest in which Cassie and the three teens outrun Ezekiel and not much else.

Fundamentally, Madame Web herself is a lame character. Up against a weird superhuman with spider powers, she can only really foresee the next blow or obstacle and get out of the way. Sure, Spider-Man has a similar ability with his Spidey Sense, but he also has super strength and the ability to stick to things, among other actually powerful enhancements.

This lack of useful powers becomes painfully apparent in the final confrontation with Ezekiel, which takes place, quite ridiculously, inside a warehouse full of fireworks. With rockets firing off from all directions and the building collapsing, all Cassie does is duck and roll, over and over. It is so unbelievably boring to watch the film try and make an exciting action star out of a character who basically has no superpowers in the conventional sense.

It should be said, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Johnson’s performance is just fine. For someone helming a superhero movie, she is oddly low energy, and seems pretty glaringly uninterested in being there at all. Her line deliveries are often hilariously bizarre and completely detached from the speaking patterns of a real person. One of Cassie’s only real traits is that she is awkward and out of touch with her peers. With all due respect, this comes very naturally to Johnson.

But there are some surprises to be found here. Her chemistry with Scott is great, and their scenes are genuinely enjoyable and at least approach being emotionally interesting. The film’s best sequence follows her, the three girls, Ben, and his sister (Emma Roberts) who is going into labor, as they race to the hospital with Ezekiel in hot pursuit. However, the film seems determined to assassinate any momentum it gathers by doing something completely idiotic. Since Cassie is, and I cannot emphasize this enough, hardly a superhero, this sequence ends with her crashing an ambulance through a billboard, which hurdles over traffic before smacking Ezekiel out of midair.

Audiences may have suspected from the film’s now mega-viral trailer line “He was in the Amazon with my mom when she was researching spiders right before she died” that the screenplay would not be this movie’s biggest strength. Of course, they would be correct. As if the dry, absurd story were not enough, audiences aren’t even given the satisfaction of hearing Johnson deliver that absolutely hilarious line. Many viewers will be crushed to find that it was noticeably cut from the film; seemingly a misguided response to the brutal ridicule it received.

What is left is a shlocky, poorly constructed mess that attempts to turn one of the least compelling main characters in superhero movie history into the springboard for what producers may have hoped could be a multi-film series. The dialogue here is at its best, clumsily expository, and at its worst, extremely stupid. In hindsight, though, it was brought to us by the same people who wrote “Morbius,” so maybe we should have seen this coming. There are probably only a handful of scenes in this movie that feature what feels like a real conversation, and the unbelievably sloppy dubbing on dozens of lines is shockingly bad for a big-budget blockbuster.

On a technical level, “Madame Web” looks so bad that it is almost unbelievable to see in a theater. The visual effects are, at times, laughably poor in quality. Most puzzling, though, is the cinematography, which is sometimes genuinely inventive and interesting, but otherwise an absolute mess of flat lighting, awkward angles, and completely uninteresting compositions that look straight out of cinematography 101. The filmmakers seem so fundamentally uninterested in any sort of visual ambition or commitment to an aesthetic, the entire film looks like a two-hour car commercial.

“Madame Web” seems like a film that was either given up halfway through development, or ripped to shreds and rearranged in post-production. It’s an embarrassing, technically sloppy, incoherent mess with zero personality and even deeply unlikable characters. Bizarre performances from its star and villain put the final nails in the coffin, and on the heels of numerous recent flops, it all suggests that “Madame Web” may be yet another sounding of the death knell for the superhero phenomenon. Until they start making these movies actual movies again, and start putting even a modicum of care and love into their creation, I’d predict that this is going to keep happening again and again. Slashing budgets and substituting charismatic cultural figures, like Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, for out-of-place actors, such as Jared Leto (Morbius) and now Johnson, is never going to be a substitute for the epic scale of superhero movies past.

Contact Holden Lay at [email protected].

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