‘Madame Web’ Weaves Itself Into a Tangled Mess With a Better Dakota Johnson

Just like a bug infestation, superhero movies can’t be stamped out. “Madame Web” is the latest attempt by a major studio to assure us that this genre is alive and well. Surely, there are still a few good movies left to be culled from the endless cosmology of comic books. This one has some lively directing and sensible casting entrapped in the webbing of an oddly stripped script. Director S.J. Clarkson is making her feature debut and genuinely tries to focus on a psychological angle, while trying to deliver what Sony wants, namely a costumed action fest linked to the “Spider-Man” franchise. The final result feels like a stretched out prologue with Dakota Johnson putting in effort to prove she wants to be in it.

Many reviewers tend to compare a movie like this to ‘90s superhero duds, but here is another example of how that style carries on. It opens in a steamy jungle where researcher Constance (Kerry Bishé) is bitten by a mysterious spider and encounters slinging people known as the Araña (Spanish for spider). Constance dies but it turns out she was pregnant. In 2003 her grown daughter, Cassandra “Cassie” Webb (Johnson), now works as a New York City paramedic. She’s been an orphan who likes the idea of staying single and not having children. She is also starting to get plagued by sudden visions into the near and distant future. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the very rich Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim) beds society women he meets at the opera but is rattled by nightmares of three girls in spider costumes who kill him. He soon tracks them down to the same subway train. They are Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor) and Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced). Luckily, Cassie happens to cross paths with them in time to help them fend off Ezekiel.

It is a chaotic time in film when it comes to length. MCU movies are famously stretched out, yet “Madame Web” at 1 hour and 57 minutes feels like a lot of answers or essential plot points were cut out. How are Ezekiel’s three targets all conveniently on the same train? Why do they need to cross paths with Cassie randomly before she uses clairvoyance to find them anyway? Why does Ezekiel have a master hacker, Amaria (Zosia Mamet), who disappears half-way through the movie? Factory products of this sort are hard to blame on one sole person. The screenplay by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, who also penned 2022’s infamously bad “Morbius,” is another take on a spiderverse character. Reportedly, this was meant to be a ‘90s nostalgia trip but for some reason was pushed into the early aughts, which accounts for the Cranberries needle drops combined with shots of billboards for Beyoncé’s “Dangerously in Love” album. 

But there are some intriguing efforts present from the director. S.J. Clarkson tries to avoid depending too much on big CGI effects or overcooked action scenes. “I was engaged by the idea of clairvoyance and how cinematically that can be seen,” Clarkson recently told Entertainment Voice. “I was captivated by the idea of someone who uses their mind. That felt like an opportunity to do something different and lean into psychological storytelling. These stories tend to be about people overcoming something.” Some of the better scenes are the ones where Cassie attends a friend’s baby shower and is rudely interrupted by visions into the future, or moments where she nearly avoids a car wreck thanks to her gift. As the movie continues the inventiveness of the premise fights with the gimmick becoming a kind of inner trailer for what we assume is a sequel. For example, a lot of ads have shown Julia, Mattie and Anya in spider hero costumes forming a new team, but that’s not part of this movie. It’s just Cassie’s vision into what these girls will turn into in the future, meaning the future movie we’re expected to anticipate.

Then there is Dakota Johnson, already outshining the movie with her recent media appearances discussing the project with open irony. She’s a gifted actor who has brought sincerity to schlock before as in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Her approach to “Madame Web” is to bask in the absurdity and look very committed when discussing how her mom was bitten by a magic spider in the Amazon, or looking annoyed when babysitting her rowdy high schooler companions. She looks as if she’s in on the joke with us when she appears in the final scenes, decked in a wheelchair and dark shades, fully transformed into the title character. Her final grin seems to say, “I’m a famous actor hired to play a Marvel character, why not?” Everyone else is on autopilot, including Sydney Sweeney, who gets turned into a shy, nerdy schoolgirl twin of her “Euphoria” character. Tahar Rahim is beyond generic as the villain who looks like those business majors who spend every evening or crack of dawn at the gym, speeding off in a sports car to change into a costume similar to Spider-Man’s, except he’s evil. His grand finale is appropriately bland. It really just takes a falling neon sign to take out this kind of jerk.

It’s easy to see in “Madame Web” potential in a director who can do strong thrillers or noirs moving forward and Johnson for a later shot at true costumed, popcorn glory. This is not a wreck on the scale of something like “Cats” or “Morbius.” Instead, it’s a movie that just doesn’t know what to do with the story. If Sony and Marvel simply focus on making a good film, as opposed to obsessively setting up new franchise chains, then we can have fun escapism that at least makes sense. “Madame Web” tries to stay grounded while being absurd, showcasing actors doing the best they can with a genre that is quickly gathering cobwebs and needs some decent sweeping before starting again.

Madame Web” releases Feb. 14 in theaters nationwide.