At this point in the superhero canon, it’s becoming harder to find projects that feel thoughtful and genuine. Projects that don’t feel like they’re the by-product of an exec’s great idea for a cash grab. Unfortunately, we’ll have to keep the search going, as Sony’s “Madame Web” does not fill the quota for a superhero film with heart and soul. Not only is the latest addition to the Marvel canon lacking a true emotional core, it’s devoid of many key elements that make a movie successful in the translation from the screen to the audience’s psyche.
Directed by S.J. Clarkson, “Madame Web” follows the story of Cassie (Dakota Johnson), a young paramedic living in New York City who finds herself at the heart of a wild goose chase when she has a futuristic vision in which three high school girls (Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, and Celeste O’Connor) are all killed by a mysterious man (Tahar Rahim) who moves like a spider. Along the way, she has to come to terms with who she is and what she can do by unlocking the missing pieces of her fractured familial history.
It’s an interesting enough premise, even if you divorce the film from its comic book origins, but bland direction and awkward dialogue overtake the film and add a sheen of mediocrity to the entire thing. Plus, there are crucial flaws with the protagonist, ones that are harder to work around than others. As a character, Cassie is deeply unremarkable. Her origin story is just as flat and boring as she is—and at moments, the film’s cringe dialogue makes the genesis of her powers downright laughable. There’s really nothing in this film that shows us why we should care about her, let alone her ascent into her true heroic form. Not in the moves she makes along the way, nor her general character as we meet her in the beginning of the film. That’s not to say that a movie’s protagonist can’t be ordinary, but regardless of that fact, there’s always something to latch onto. With Johnson’s leading lady, there’s literally nothing to attach your web of interest to.
Johnson is aggressively fine. She does give a few solid comic relief moments but is otherwise so bland that even her signature sarcasm can’t bring color to the role. The three teens—Julia (Sweeney), Anya (Merced), and Mattie (O’Connor)— are a fun little trio and are certainly giving more to the performance than the script gave to them. They end up being underused and infantilized a bit, but I guess you have to start somewhere. No matter how the film short-changes these characters, I’d ultimately rather have watched two hours of that clan getting Charlie’s Angels-esque missions from Johnson, who serves as the group’s Splinter from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Presumably, we’ll get more stories in this style if “Madame Web” does well, but the fact that audiences had to suffer through a mediocre franchise opening to get it is frustrating to say the least.
The film’s villain is, like in any Marvel movie, a crucial part in keeping the audience immersed in the stakes. But with Rahim’s Ezekiel Sims, that concept is completely dead in the water. Rahim is utterly toothless as the central bad guy, boring and cheesy in equal measure. OK, some of that is owed to the less-than-stellar dialogue, but unlike the women of the film, there aren’t really any moments where Rahim’s performance is overcoming the textual obstacles of the movie. Having a lukewarm villain just doesn’t fly in a superhero movie anymore, and this ends up as one of several areas where “Madame Web” flounders.
As far as the film’s effects and editing go, the intention seems to be to create a sense of disorder in an effort to put the audience in Cassie’s shoes. She’s figuring out so many things at once throughout the film, so the movie in turn puts the audience to task in the same way the vision sequences are all cut and edited together. It’s a smart notion that, unfortunately, needs to be paired with effects that are truly immersive and visceral, ones that don’t come off computerized and impossible. Sadly, these do.
The CGI and visual effects the film employs are tacky, choppy, and obvious, particularly when Cassie is tapping into her powers. But none of the movie’s framing choices are particularly good.
This film is an attempt to find some sort of kinship—at worst in the story, and at best at the box office—with other “Spider-Man” films. There’s even a bastardized version of the iconic responsibility quote strategically placed in there to hammer the point home. But at the end of the day, the only things these two franchises have in common is spiders. And that alone isn’t going to hook the same folks who pledged their allegiance to Peter Parker all those years ago.
“Madame Web” opens exclusively in theaters on Feb. 14.
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