S. J. Clarkson’s flaccidly conceived Madame Web presents itself as a superhero origin movie but unfolds nothing like one. In taking on a stalk-and-chase structure, where the big baddie (Tahir Rahim) does his best impression of Robert Patrick’s T-1000, the film hopes to inject a narrative wrinkle into an otherwise familiar tale. But in the process, it unearths a newfound low for the genre. Its attempts at gravity ring hollower than its blatant product placement. At its best, Madame Web unfolds as a trashy, big-budgeted slasher flick cobbled together from the weakest elements of other movies—lacking any and all ambition to forge an identity outside of them.
As a result, its more lighthearted moments recall the canned laughter of a cheap network sitcom, while its melodrama becomes as trite as any soap opera. What makes matters worse is that it takes itself far too seriously. Madame Web reeks of a film that’s in dire need of a cogent vision, often sacrificing its odder, more enticing moments for mass appeal. What remains is an experience that lacks a pulse and a soul across each of its 116 minutes.
The screenplay, co-penned by Clarkson, follows Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson), an orphaned New York City paramedic. After an accident, she develops clairvoyant abilities that allow her to peer into the future. After she foresees a grizzly fate for three young women —Julia (Sydney Sweeney), Mattie (Celeste O’Connor), and Anya (Isabela Merced)— she takes it upon herself to save them from their spider-powered assailant, Ezekial (Rahim). She confronts a hidden past that sets her on a path she could have never predicted.
Madame Web banks on the surface-level nostalgia of its early 2000s setting to help set it apart from its contemporaries. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes an arbitrary detail that actively pulls viewers out of its story. It trumpets Britney Spear’s “Toxic” while its characters embody Gen Zers who somehow have time traveled back to 2003—often speaking in quippy colloquialisms popularized by social media.
It’s an inconsistency indicative of a film grasping for straws, mightily struggling to cultivate a personality out of worn-down cliches while it runs the gamut of superhero tropes. Madame Web’s glaring plot holes only detach us from its rapidly sputtering tale, making us believe that a quick, two-day trip to Peru was possible in a post-9/11 America. By the time Cassandra taps into her true powers, we’ve already lost the ability to emotionally invest.
The sloppy storytelling is propped up by even shoddier filmmaking. Clarkson and her cinematographer Mauro Fiore seem unable to decide on a visual throughline, rapidly shifting between styles at random, stifling any chance of a memorable set piece through its piecemeal construction. In one breath, it’s defined by quick zooming, docu-style camerawork while the next is abound with over-polished and flatly lit slow-motion.
In attempting to be everything, Madame Web manifests as a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas that fail to become much of anything. Where Sam Raimi’s Spiderman Trilogy leaned into its eccentricity, Clarkson’s take on fellow spider-hero feels markedly afraid to do the same, never fully leaning into its stalker framework. Resulting in unintended laughs when Rahim’s nemesis enters the frame to the tune of a high-pitched jump scare.
It also doesn’t help that the characters populating the screen are just as lifelessly constructed. The three teenagers, each with their share of familial trauma, often bleed into one another, morphing into one amorphous, caricatured whole that garners more eye-rolls than earned emotion. Johnson’s feigned gasps and protracted, blank stares only serve to heighten how underdeveloped her character truly is. Rahim’s supervillain, whose commitment to altering his fate amounts to little more than a steady stream of exaggerated scowls.
Madame Web’s utter lack of originality is a testament to how corporatized and soulless it feels. In attempting to tap into the framework of “stalker” films, Clarkson’s misfire retains none of the style, palpability, and sense of risk that makes them so memorable. Madame Web is the cinematic embodiment of the term “Superhero Fatigue,” emblematic of the tired, overwrought films superheroes are increasingly occupying. We can only hope it serves as a warning to the right people—a dire indicator of where superhero cinema is heading if greater storytelling chances aren’t embraced.
Madame Web releases in theatres on February 14, 2023.
Madame Web’s utter lack of originality is a testament to how corporatized and soulless it feels. In attempting to tap into the framework of “stalker” films, Clarkson’s misfire retains none of the style, palpability, and sense of risk that makes them so memorable.