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‘Madame Web’ is a perfect storm of bad

To repeat what may be the coldest take of the week, “Madame Web” is indeed quite terrible. From its incomprehensible script and editing to its horrific performances from otherwise good actors, the Spider-Man offshoot is just as bad as people say it is. What could have been a submersive and captivating concept is reduced to pure nonsense in Sony’s attempt to start a new franchise with the Marvel properties it has managed to keep out of Disney’s hands.

Of its three credited screenwriters, two of them are the geniuses behind the notorious flop “Morbius,” and it shows. The dialogue seemingly can’t decide if the audience is stupid or clairvoyant, flip-flopping between clunky exposition dumping of the basic plot and skimming past high-concept lore that really requires an explanation but never gets one.

As far as the unintelligible plot elements and badly written dialogue go, there are far too many examples to pick just one. Everything about the protagonist, Cassandra Webb, played by Dakota Johnson, is unclear. 

What are her powers? Well, she can see into the future, but after visiting a Peruvian tribal chief, she can also astral project? 

What are her personality traits? She’s portrayed as a socially awkward loner in some scenes, but in others, she’s snarky and very socially aware. 

Overall, Cassandra’s character is unexplained and inconsistent in every way; we don’t even know her despite spending the entire movie with her.

The villain, Ezekiel Sims, played by Tahar Rahim, is even more egregiously written. I used to think the worst quality a supervillain could have is being unmemorable, but “Madame Web” makes me think it is having confusing or nonexistent motivations and being impossible to take seriously. 

In the opening scene, Ezekiel betrays the research team Cassandra’s mother was working with before her death. He steals the spider that can apparently cure diseases because he grew up poor? He has one line about how no one helped his starving family, but that’s the only explanation we get. 

How the spider actually works and what gives the user powers is also never explained. But because Ezekiel used this magic spider for nefarious or selfish reasons, he gets cursed with knowing how he dies, which is apparently via murder by Spider-Man-esque girls. While this does give us his motivations for wanting to kill the supporting cast, it still doesn’t explain why he needed that spider in the first place. 

This villain is badly written, and every technical property applied to him is poorly executed. Every line of dialogue he has is never in sync with his mouth movements. Not. One. Single. Line. All of his dialogue in the film appears to be automated dialogue replacement, or ADR. Filmmakers typically use ADR if the audio in a scene is unusable, and the actor has to rerecord their lines in a studio to use in the final cut. 

Although most of the film is an editing horror cycle, a few sequences had excellent editing. These were typically scenes where Cassandra experiences a vision from the future. The editing makes it clear exactly where reality ends and the vision begins and gives us several signifiers that let us know the vision has ended. These simple but well-executed editing tricks are used so well in more complicated scenes, but the editing in what should be basic shot-reverse shot scenes is abysmal.

The performances from Johnson, Rahim and Sydney Sweeney were also mediocre. Johnson mostly seems incredibly bored, as if she doesn’t want to be there, while Rahim lacks intimidation even though his character kills people. He comes across as annoyed and semi-delusional, though the framing wants you to find him creepy and calculated. Poor Sweeney is dressed like an anime waifu and acts accordingly to not-so-great effect.

That said, the film has a few redeeming qualities. The chemistry between the supporting cast of the teenage girls (Sweeney, Isabela Merced, Celeste O’Connor) was believable and fun to watch. Their dynamic with Johnson was also mostly well executed. Johnson also had nice chemistry with Adam Scott, who is always a delight. The concepts presented have inklings of promise from time to time, gently reminding the audience that this really could’ve been a better movie had the studio not Frankensteined everything together the way it did.

Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times called it “one of the worst comic book movies (he’s) ever seen.” Kyle Smith of The Wall Street Journal said the film “collapses so pathetically that studio executives might as well have dialed 911 to rescue it.” 

Additionally, moviegoers have seemed to pick up on Johnson’s apparent lack of interest in the film. During her press junkets, she admitted to BuzzFeed UK that she hadn’t seen “Madame Web,” and she told Entertainment Weekly that, while on set, she wondered “if this is going to be good at all.” Johnson is known for her nonchalant demeanor, so if she doesn’t actually hate this movie, the world will never know.

While “Madame Web” may be one of the biggest superhero movie flops in recent years, it’s not as bad as “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” Both are equally incompetent, but “Madame Web” is far less frustrating. It’s doubtful that it will become the camp classic some say it will be (that honor will likely go to its predecessor, “Morbius”), but it will certainly cement itself in superhero fatigue discourse for years to come.


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