Moving Pictures
Feb 15, 2024, 06:27AM

Dakota Tangled

Madame Web may be bad, but at least it's unintentionally hilarious.

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Can Madame Web possibly be as bad as its trailer make it look? It is. But at least it’s unintentionally hilarious, and not a completely joyless slog like Morbius, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, or just about all of the DC superhero movies of the past three years.

This latest film from Sony’s wing of Marvel movies is disjointed and ugly, plagued by an action filmmaking style that’s nausea-inducing, atrocious dialogue, and a villain with no presence and unclear motivations. Madame Web is a relatively minor character from the comics, indicating that the three different studios that make multiple superhero movies each year are starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel. But the worst thing about Madame Web is the way it’s shot. During the action scenes, the camera pans and swings all over the place, in a way that makes spatial continuity and coherent storytelling a secondary concern. It just looks cheap.

As for the final action scene, it’s not only nonsensical, but is meant to resemble the finale of Sam Raimi’s 2004 Spider-man 2, even set in a nearby part of Queens. The comparison isn’t favorable.

The film begins 30 years before the main action with the heroine’s mother (Kerry Bishe) in the Peruvian jungle, seeking a rare spider while nine months pregnant. After she’s double-crossed by her guide Ezekiel (Tahar Rahim), she dies but her baby is born, and that baby grows up to be the heroine, Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson.)

She’s a New York City paramedic who lives alone and remains affected by her foster-care past, seemingly having her partner (Adam Scott) as her only real friend. But after she nearly drowns, Cassie suddenly gains the ability to see a few seconds into the future, and sometimes double back and fix mistakes.

Meanwhile, the evil fixer remains around, haunted by a recurring nightmare that three girls in superhero costumes (Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O'Connor, and Isabela Merced) are out to kill him. (He’s also got Zosia Mamet around as his computer existence, who has access to Clearview AI-style computer surveillance software that I’m sure didn’t exist 21 years ago.)

The film is set in 2003 for no apparent reason, although I assume it’s because they wanted to use a particular Britney Spears song and that’s when it came out. One prevalent theory states that it was originally set in the 1990s, with the year pushed back a few years by reshoots and ADR. As for emerging A-lister Sweeney, she dresses similarly to “Baby One More Time”-era Britney, complete with schoolgirl outfit, in a couple of scenes, while playing almost a decade younger than her real age.

The storytelling is convoluted when it comes to the different spiders, what powers they convey, and how they’re activated by submersion in water. Why does the villain have what looks like an evil version of Spider-man’s powers, when the heroine is so different? Don’t get me started on the scene in which Cassie teaches the three girls CPR, for no reason other than that they’ll have to use it at a crucial moment later.

Speaking of Spidey, he doesn’t exist here, but the dialogue is peppered with a couple of dozen not-so-subtle references to Spider-man and the Spider-man canon, most of which draw groans.

Madame Web was directed by S.J. Clarkson, best known as a director of British TV shows; she also directed that Game of Thrones prequel pilot with Naomi Watts that ended up not going forward. The film was written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, men responsible for some of the worst movies of recent years (Morbius, Dracula Untold), with Clarkson and Claire Parker also credited.

Dakota Johnson is a talented actress, and when she hosts Saturday Night Live, she’s very funny. But she’s chosen movie projects poorly, and lacks the ability to hide her contempt for the material when she’s interviewed about such projects. The world’s worst film analysts are going to conclude from this that there’s no interest in female-driven superhero movies and I imagine they’re going to decide that they hate Dakota Johnson, too. That’s not the problem here—the film doesn’t fit into any of the “woke” tropes, aside from women being the stars—it’s more that Madame Web has no good reason to exist.


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