Review: God-awful is too weak a word to describe everything that's wrong with 'Madame Web'

The Spider-Man spinoff stars Dakota Johnson as the titular main character.

February 16, 2024, 4:15 AM

God-awful is too weak a word to describe everything that's wrong with "Madame Web," the fourth spinoff in the Sony Spider-Man Universe.

Produced in association with Marvel, "Madame Web" follows in the critically mauled wake of "Venom," "Venom: Let There Be Carnage" and "Morbius," the last of which qualified as the worst of the bunch. Until now.

Is "Madame Web" bad enough to put a final nail in the coffin of increasingly feeble superhero epics? The jury is still out. But it is second to none in the dark art of boring you breathless.

This image released by Sony Pictures shows, from left, Isabela Merced, Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney and Celeste O'Connor in a scene from "Madame Web."
Columbia Pictures/Sony via AP

The usually frisky Dakota Johnson is stuck in this 2003-era origin story about the soon-to-be Madame Web, aka Manhattan paramedic Cassie Webb, now struggling with her newfound power to see the future. As a clairvoyant, how could she not predict the disaster ahead?

Cassie is not alone in her identity crisis. There are other potential super divas gearing up, including "Euphoria" breakout Sydney Sweeney as nerdy white girl Julia, Isabela Merced as Latina mathlete Anya, and Celeste O'Connor as Black skateboarder Mattie. Flash-forwards show them in various stages of Spidey cosplay doing lame things it took four screenwriters to concoct.

Basically, they're dodging the villainous Ezekiel Sims (a strangely bland Tahar Rahim), who holes up in a penthouse making mischief with a nutso techie (Zosia Mamet). For background, the film opens with a spider research trip to the Amazon in which Ezekiel kills Cassie's pregnant mom (Kerry Bishé). But don't worry: spider venom saves the infant Cassie.

Huh? My sentiments exactly.

Meanwhile, Ezekiel is haunted by visions of these future spider girls who are keen to take him out. He insists they must die. Cassie has other ideas, which she carries out with the help of fellow paramedic Ben Parker (a barely used Adam Scott) whose pregnant sister-in-law is Mary Parker (Emma Roberts). Any relation to Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man? One guess.

The tangled plot resists deciphering as it forces a connection between characters that defines implausible. The actors are stuck with unplayable roles. Johnson's sexy deadpan and aura of mystery can work wonders in such films as "Cha Cha Real Smooth," "A Bigger Splash" and "The Lost Daughter." But Cassie is a nothingburger part that would stymie even a young Meryl Streep.

This image released by Sony Pictures shows Dakota Johnson in a scene from "Madame Web."
Columbia Pictures/Sony via AP

Who's to blame for choking the life out of "Madame Web"? The obvious suspect would be the director. But British firebrand S.J. Clarkson, a gifted TV director ("Succession," "Orange Is the New Black," "Dexter"), is reduced in her misfire of a feature debut to keeping the actors from tripping over the truly atrocious dialogue. Better luck next time.

The real culprit here is the greed manifested by studio suits who keep hawking cheap knockoffs. "Madame Web" feels like a random collection of half-baked ideas thrown into the air and allowed to land, with the cynical assumption that we'll buy any lazy hack-work that is Spider-Man adjacent. Kill me now.

And there's no end in sight. You should know that the SSU has two future installments — "Kraven the Hunter" and "Venom 3" — ready to go in this year alone. That is definitely more like a threat than a promise.

"Madame Web" comes in at under two hours, and that's the best thing I can say about it. Even the thought of a sequel would be cruel and unusual punishment.