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Madame Web review: the worst movie of 2024 so far

4 women stand on a city street in Madame Web.
Madame Web review: the worst movie of 2024 so far
“Madame Web is the kind of bad you don’t see that often in the modern age of machine-tooled, quality-controlled superhero franchises.”
Pros
  • Premise is almost nifty
  • Sometimes it's so bad, it's funny...sometimes
Cons
  • Clunky dialogue, badly delivered
  • Messy, uninspired action
  • Shameless Spidey Easter eggs

At no point throughout Madame Web does Dakota Johnson say the magic words you came to hear her say — that internet-infamous line reading that launched a thousand memes and promised that, before long, it would be Morbin time yet again. That’s the bad news for connoisseurs of bad dialogue, the Rifftrax crowd. The good news is that nearly every line of dialogue in this remarkably crummy comic-book movie is about on the level of “He was in the Amazon with my mom when she was researching spiders just before she died.”

If there’s a convincing way to utter such clunky exposition (the handiwork of four screenwriters, somehow), Johnson never finds it. Maybe she isn’t trying to. The star, who’s locked down Valentine’s Day the way Will Smith used to be the King of July 4th, is no stranger to delivering howlers — not with three E. L. James adaptations on her resume. But as Cassandra “Cassie” Webb, a paramedic beset by visions of impending calamity, Johnson evinces a commitment that seems to waver from scene to scene, even shot to shot. When she tells a gaggle of teens, “You’re gonna die if you stay here,” it’s with a flat indifference that makes the T-800 sound emotionally invested. But then, how much effort should she expend on this material? Half-assed is above and beyond.

A woman stands next to a river in Madame Web.
Sony

Like its heroine, Madame Web often seems torn between time periods. On the one hand, it recalls the era in which it’s set, the early 2000s — an age when superhero cinema often amounted to deeply lousy, gimcrack non-events like Daredevil, The Punisher, and Catwoman. On the other hand, it’s a movie that could only have been made in present-day Hollywood, convinced, quite falsely, that anything Marvel-related — no matter how back-issue obscure — is a foolproof recipe for box office success. In terms of name recognition, the title character of Madame Web makes Morbius look as widely known as the friendly neighborhood superhero whose comic introduced them both.

A 1970s prologue set, you guessed it, in the Amazon explains the source of Cassie’s clairvoyance — it comes from those spiders her pregnant mom (Kerry Bishé) was researching — while establishing the film’s penchant for B-movie hokiness, gobbledygook, and cut-rate spectacle. In the present day, Cassie’s flickers of foresight put her on the warpath of the man who killed her mother, a kind of “evil Spider-Man” with premonitory visions of his own. The villain, played by Tahar Rahim, is after a trio of teenage girls who he dreams will off him years later, after they’ve become conspicuously spider-themed superheroes.

A masked man stands in a subway in Madame Web.
Sony

Cassie ends up babysitting this nest of future crime fighters, which includes snarky rich-kid skateboarder Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor), nerdy Julia Cornwell (Anyone But You star Sydney Sweeney, whose glasses are doing most of the nerding for her), and the trait-deprived Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced). There’s not a solid personality among the three, who speak in generic movie-teenager snark sprinkled with tidbits from their characters’ Wikipedia pages. The villain’s visions tell us what comic fans will already know: all three are destined to become some version of Spider-Woman (complete with costumes that look too cheap even for the CW). Not that anyone ever calls them that, nor is there any hint of how they’ll acquire superpowers. Guess they have to save something for the sequel that will probably not get made.

There’s a germ of a fun idea in Madame Web: In rough outline, the plot is basically The Terminator by way of Minority Report, with a little of the shuddery omens of a Final Destination movie. But for that pastiche to work, we’d need a more intimidating bad guy, not this ineffectual arachnid-themed placeholder; so believably menacing in A Prophet, Rahim delivers an awkward, petulant performance, wrestling with his dire dialogue when the rubbery CGI avatar of him isn’t being blasted aside by automobiles no fewer than three times. And the film’s chase narrative has no momentum. It screeches to a halt every time Cassie leaves her band of adolescent charges to go drum up more pertinent exposition, including an origin-story field trip to South America that looks as quick and easy as a bus ride across town to run an errand.

Dakota Johnson looks at someone in Madame Web.
Sony Pictures

The special effects in Madame Web are anything but, and the action stretches the definition of “directed.” S. J. Clarkson, a filmmaker who’s worked entirely in British television before now, captures the skirmishes in disorienting close-ups and cuts them into ribbons. It takes a particular unfitness for the job to set a close-quarters showdown to the skittery snake-charmer pulse of Toxic (a song that didn’t hit the radio until the year after this film is set, but never mind) and get not a drop of cool out of the sequence. Meanwhile, the big finale on the side of a building is borderline incoherent; it’s enough to make you long for the muddy but comparably legible imagery cinematographer Mauro Fiore lent the final minutes of the last actual Spider-Man movie.

Speaking of Spidey, he’s nowhere to be found in Madame Web, though that doesn’t stop the movie from shooting shamelessly thin strands of gossamer in his direction. We get Adam Scott, touchingly pretending he’s in a real movie, as a significantly named coworker of Cassie’s; a pregnant relative whose coyly unnamed baby “keeps leaping around in there;” and an immortally remixed line of superhero wisdom, “Once you take on the responsibility, great power will come.” Dancing around Easter eggs is a particularly pathetic attempt to make the events here seem like a vital chapter in some larger Spider-Verse. All it really does is underscore the Peter Parker-shaped void at the center of Sony’s parallel franchise, an alternate Marvel Cinematic Universe headlined by variably renowned B-listers and adapted from leftover intellectual property.

MADAME WEB – Official Trailer (HD)

Madame Web is the kind of bad you don’t see that often in the modern age of machine-tooled, quality-controlled superhero fare. What interest it holds is nearly scientific — the fascination of discovering a rare, endangered species in the wild. Just don’t confuse its clumsiness of conception or execution, the failures shouldered by all involved (including a movie star perversely disinterested in the nonsense she’s making), for any kind of secret virtue. More than Morbius or those fitfully entertaining Venom movies, Madame Web is less than the sum of the memes it inspired. And there’s bigger fun to be had laughing at a line in its trailer than there is in blowing two hours waiting for Johnson to say it.

Madame Web is now playing in theaters everywhere. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, visit his Authory page.

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A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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