Sony Pictures and the owner of the Spider-Man property, Avi Arad, never fail to impress me. This is the same studio that took a chance and gave the world the best iteration of the mythos of the Wall Crawler in the form of the Spider-Verse movies. But it feels as if the studio believes in the concept of cosmic balance. For every Spider-Verse film, there are two Venom movies and one Morbius movie. It is a testament to Madame Web’s quality that the balance has become completely and unfavourably skewed.

“Madame Web,” directed by SJ Clarkson, written by Clarkson and co-writer Claire Parker, as well as the screenwriting duo of the cinematic bouillabaisse that had been Morbius, the important question is not how that duo would be entrusted with a separate property in this cobbled-up Frankenstein monster of a franchise after the Morbius debacle. The important question is: how could a Madame Web movie be greenlit in the first place?

In the comics, Madame Web is an obscure character, a blind septuagenarian woman who can see the future, sits on a throne and is responsible for looking after the web of life—a multiversal concept tying all different iterations within the larger Spider-Verse. She is also, like most soothsayers and oracles, able to see the future, vague in her visions, and quite irritating—somewhat of a thorn for Spider-Man. To say that Sony is scraping the bottom of the barrel to finally make movies about characters within the larger Spider-Man mythos seems oddly desperate. It is almost as if Sony is trying hard to make sure they retain the rights to the franchise when in reality the reason is mostly financial. Having resigned themselves to sharing their flagship character with the much more successful Marvel Studios, Sony feels like a studio intent on creating period pieces, hearkening back to the times when the superhero genre was in its infancy. Studios would be throwing all stupid ideas at the wall, hoping that something sticks, and with no regard for the source material.

“Madame Web,” however, comes at a time when the genre is clearly in the doldrums. Marvel Studios needs a creative pivot, the DC Universe is gearing up for a relaunch, and the only movies successful in the genre are the ones working against the grain. It is baffling that the critically and commercially successful Spider-Verse films come from the same studio. It is even more baffling that Madame Web is designed so that it looks, feels, and sounds like a movie from 2003. A throwback piece of the early 2000s, and not in a good way, where nu-metal reigned supreme, where MTV music video directors were given the reigns of studio films, where dizzying camera work and laughable CGI would be enough to tide over the superhero fans of that era.

But if your movie truly is named “Madame Web,” did it need to have a screenplay as dense and as connected randomly via disparate strands, like a web? It’s not even worth mentioning that reshoots of this movie had been undertaken such that all the references to the 1990s would be removed and the film updated to the early 2000s. It all feels like so much wasted effort, especially considering that the script is stubbornly refusing to make any sort of coherence or even sense. The visions Cassandra Webb witnesses come forth on the screen and jolt back to reality with the effect of a concussion.

On paper, it sounds like a fascinatingly tactile idea to depict such an unfamiliar sensation; on screen, it just feels incoherent. On paper, the concept of a man with powers going after three women who might get powers resembling those of a certain webcrawler and would be responsible for killing him but would be finally stopped by a clairvoyant feels like a fascinating, albeit shoehorned, mishmash of Terminator and Minority Report set in the Spider-Man landscape. On paper, the idea of contextualizing the powers obtained by Peter Parker in the comics as more totemic and much more dependent on fate is not new. J. Michael Straczynski, in his landmark and divisive run on Spider-Man (in the early 2000s), introduced that concept, including the character of Ezekiel Sims (played in the movie by Tahar Rahim).

But the movie appropriates Peruvian culture and introduces a tribe called the Los Aranas, with the tribesmen wearing clothes made of vines and having powers and agility resembling those of Spider-Man. Ezekiel Sims, shooting a researcher named Constance Webb to obtain a spider whose venom gives him these powers, feels simultaneously goofy and also exceedingly tone-deaf. It might have given cause for outrage, but the movie is so incompetent that it’s hard to care. It’s hard to care when all the dialogues spoken by the antagonist of the film are overlaid by ADR, with Rahim’s voice resembling more Tommy Wiseau, both in cadence and in repetition of delivery. Arguably the worst performance by a thespian known for giving powerhouse-starring acts in A Prophet and films by Asghar Farhadi.

It is harder to care when you understand that even actors like Dakota Johnson look so bored and detached from the film that they resemble boxers who have already thrown the towel even before entering the ring. The only reason these actors seem to be monotonously delivering their lines is because their contracts are airtight. But amidst moments of sheer disinterest, what stands out are those moments where it feels like the director and some of the cast are trying. Isabella Merced and Celeste O’Connor as Arana and Mattie try hard to give their characters some form of personality, while Clarkson, in some moments, tries to let the camera remain still and let scenes play out. The scene where Webb and the three young women ultimately bond due to Webb teaching them how to do CPR feels awkward because they try hard to be naturalistic in a movie that is not trying to be anything beyond a throwback. You couple that with dizzying camerawork to compensate for dynamism in the web-slinging of Ezekiel (wearing a black Spider-Man suit without the Spider logo), which in the hands of a better director would have been a fantastic visceral spectacle. In the hands of Clarkson, those scenes feel choppy and messy, like the movie itself.

For people who are ultimately going to the theatre to watch this movie for the three superheroines in their spider suits to kick some butt and use their powers, they would be disappointed. The scenes of the actresses in their suits take up barely three minutes of the runtime. Madame Web, at its core, is a chase movie with laughably low stakes. The only saving grace of the film is its 100-minute runtime and the fact that it has no post-credits. At the very least, you can choose to leave the theatre as soon as the credits roll. However, that would rob you of the bragging rights of having seen the worst superhero movie ever made.


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