MADAME WEB: More Than a Meme, it’s Girl Power with a Side of Vehicular Spider-Slaughter!

A few months ago Sony’s latest edition to their Spiderverse hit theaters and for those not in the know, while Disney/Marvel owns most of their characters, Spider-Man and his rogues gallery of villains, and some heroes are still the property of Sony (For now). The studio luckily bought the rights back in 1999, when comic book films had devolved into direct-to-video fodder and they kicked off a funny book renaissance with Evil Dead’s Sam Raimi at the helm. His take on the Spider-Man, starring Tobey Maguire still stands to this day as one of the best takes on the character, and is a far cry from where the Sony Spiderverse lives today. While they have crafted two animated masterpieces in the form of the Spiderverse films, their live action output hasn’t been able to reach those same heights the Raimi films once occupied. 

Since I am firmly of the opinion that you can’t have an opinion on a film, unless you sit through it, that led me to Sony’s latest Madame Web. The film just hit Blu-ray and 4K UHD this week and the cast here is what honestly drew me to it. Dakota Johnson, is one of those actors that’s a bit of an enigma; she really throws herself into an eclectic selection of roles and has made some rather bold character choices throughout her career. Her cosigning this is what made me curious, while wide-eyed Euphoria star Sydney Sweeney really locked it in for me. The film was directed by S.J. Clarkson, who not only had episodes of Jessica Jones and Defenders under her accomplished belt, but Succession as well. So you can understand the potential at the core here, along with the pair of writers responsible for Morbius, which is probably where this project might have gone off the rails, for scripting duties that pair, was pitted against the director and fellow female writer Claire Parker. 

The film itself operates almost as a pre-origin-origin story – character-wise, it’s the origin of the circle of friends that would later become this group of crime fighting Spider-Women. Dakota Johnson plays Cassandra Webb, an aloof EMT who after a near death experience can see the bits and pieces of the future, which is thanks to her mom, who was researching spiders just before she died in the Amazon. She was searching for a spider that could grant superhuman healing abilities, and when she found it her colleague Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim) shot the pregnant woman and ran off with it. Luckily a tribe of Spider-Man cosplaying natives, who worshiped the spider found her and attempted to use the spider’s abilities to save her, but were only able to save her newborn daughter. The deal here is everyone who gets bitten gets a different flavor of power, Ezekiel has superstrength and some clairvoyance, while Cassandra has full out uncontrollable visions of possible things to come. 

How this manifests itself into the plot of Madame Web is Ezekiel has a vision of a group of Spider-Women killing him in the future, and to stop that from happening he is hunting them down before they have their powers to save his future life. Now the weird part is Ezekiel is essentially dressed as the player 2 version of Spider-Man in a blacked out suit and by doing so throws into contention the origin of the spider suit; but let’s not dig too deep. This has Cassandra, who thanks to her visions is operating one step ahead of her mother’s killer essentially kidnapping the teenage girls before he can get to them in a rather impressive subway action set piece that really exemplified what this film could be. From there it’s a plot we’ve seen in countless films, but gender-swapped and way less creepy – the omnipresent reluctant savior (Webb here), keeping the naive and beautiful prey from the predator. Instead of this turning into some Stockholm Syndrome love story though, we have a group of women who forge a maternal trauma bond with Cassandra who reluctantly takes them all under her wing. 

That friendship and bond of these women is the awkward heart and ultimate redemption of the film for me. It’s something you can see was very important to S.J. Clarkson, in how the characters all fall into a sort of rhythm in their teamwork, that would pay off in a future film that will never happen. Cassandra, who has zero maternal instincts at the beginning of the film, slowly warms up to the idea of caring for these young girls who are all looking for someone to steer them in the right direction and mentor them, just unlike 99% of these stories it’s not a dude. This story of friendship is constantly smothered however by the superhero nonsense like the fate of fetus Spider-Man and Web’s coworker being Uncle Ben, who met a really swell girl named May. It really muddy’s this film’s intent, but the DNA of that matriarchal thread is still very discernible. 

Johnson carries the majority of the narrative channeling the reluctant hero, as we’ve seen in countless comic book films beforehand. Where it diverges is the maternal thread and her lack of romantic tension with her young charges and her villain thankfully. Her dry wit and deadpan delivery works for me and adds a rather devil may care nuance to her character without some of the more heavy handed MCU character work we are accustomed to. Of all the young Spider recruits Sweeney’s shy bookworm is definitely the clear favorite here of the story. It’s hard to deny she’s the only one capable of matching Johnson’s intensity of character on screen and is definitely playing it straight as well, and for the most part it works in her favor. Tahar Rahim however is the biggest unknown, his take is intense as expected and very villain coded, but there are stretches with expository dialog mismatching his mouth movements with some very painfully present ADR to reroute and update the plot, which was very distracting. 

I have to say where this film undeniably shines aside from the relationship thread is in the execution of its action set pieces, which found some inventive ways to empower its female combatants, who are mostly without powers, we actually don’t see them in their full Spider-gear until a flash forward in the films final moments. That has this story grounded in some sort of realism, and forces the gals to outsmart Ezekiel in some surprising ways with his super strength and spider-like reflexes. Mostly, this has Dakota Johnson who is the only one with a driver’s license stealing various cars, and then using that to hit this Spider-Man. This happens more than once, and it’s hilarious as it is badass to be honest. It also reminded me of Albert Pyun’s Captain America in the process, since Captain America steals a bunch of cars in that film too and it’s oddly amusing as well. The solid action here more than works and is a bit more even than other parts of the film. 

While Madame Webb suffers from uneven performances, plotting and overall narrative cohesion, this is all probably due to obvious studio interference on countless levels. I can however say, like Venom even with its issues, it’s a very entertaining watch. The characters are engaging, the action is good –  the film just feels handicapped by what most non Disney Marvel Superhero films fall victim to and that’s second guessing, what appears to be a clear vision. While these films are normally filmmaking by committee, some are a bit singular in their approach and any wavering in that vision can significantly diminish its effectiveness. I feel like Madame Web was meant to explore this new space in the superhero landscape, how does a team of women, not clad in spandex, but who are about to become superheroes forge that team. But out of fear, more action is added, more lore appropriate characters are added and more vague ties to a bigger universe are crammed in an already complete story causing the chaos we have here.  

The disc comes with the following special features:

  • Future Vision (HD, 7 minutes) – Filming the good Madame’s visions and vision state, replete with cast and filmmaker talking heads and interview clips. Nothing special here. 
  • Casting the Web (HD, 9 minutes) – It might surprise you to learn casting for Madame Web extended beyond the requisite “looks hot”, but not so much further that I buy into the claim that deep thought was put into each role’s ideal actress. More on-set talking heads ensue. 
  • Oracle of the Page (HD, 5 minutes) – An all-too-brief look at the comics that inspired the film. 
  • The Many Threads of Madame Web (HD, 4 minutes) – Easter eggs assemble! 
  • Fight Like a Spider (HD, 6 minutes) – A look at the movie’s action. Ahem, “action”. 
  • Gag Reel (HD, 5 minutes) 
  • Deleted Scene (HD, 1 minute)
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