Tuesday, April 23, 2024

‘Madame Web’ Gets Tangled in Its Own Web

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By modern standards, Madame Web is what you’d call a prequel or an origin story. Though in my day, we just called it a movie. For better or worse, S.J. Clarkson’s debut is more a movie than some of her more popular genre brethren.

Madame Web is fun even as its script by a squadron of writers is comically all thumbs. Chock full of nonsense and baffling character decisions, I never found myself bored. Longtime readers know I have a worryingly high tolerance, nay craving, for unapologetic nonsense, especially when it’s not in the vein of fan service. 

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From left to right: Anya (Isabella Merced), Cassie (Dakota Johnson), Julia (Sydney Sweeney), and Mattie (Celeste O’Connor) wander the streets of “New York”

Clarkson’s Madame Web is hardly the trash-terpeice it has been heralded as. Oh, it’s not good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also not horrible either. Refreshingly, it’s also not ashamed of what it is or content to have the visual aesthetic of pig slop.

It was so lovely to see a comic book movie not made with Volume technology, with low-fi stakes that don’t include the end of the world/universe/the fate of multiple galaxies. With a budget of only 80 million dollars, Madame Web looks better than the average blockbuster at twice the cost. It begs the question: is creating sweatshop conditions for VFX workers to create visual slop really worth it? 

Madame Web harkens back to when superhero movies were technically bad but had kooky cornball sensibilities. Before they became all self-serious, they filmed radio plays. They didn’t feel the need to spend half their runtime pointing out how silly everything is and name-dropping better movies. Instead, it operates as a low-stakes B-movie.

Remarkably, there are very few superhero shenanigans in Madame Web. Clarkson has made what feels almost like a lazy stroll through a barely formed universe, more interested in watching a sisterhood form along with a burgeoning sense of purpose. Much like Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the theatrical cut, Madame Web is a cinematic Klein bottle. Much of what’s good about it feeds into what’s wrong and vice versa. 

To start with, a screenplay this bare, with enough writers to fill an infield with one left over, is never a good sign. Clarkson tries her best, along with her cameraman Mauro Fiore, to keep the visuals interesting and far from rote. While appropriately thin on plot, the script doesn’t seem to have enough story either.

Fiore and Clarkson relish using red and blues for Cassie’s (Dakota Johnson) wardrobe. I found it delightful, but it also feeds into the other problem of Madame Web, which is the simmering insistence on trying to make some room for Peter Parker.

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Ben Parker (Adam Scott) shares fortunes with his best bud, Cassie.

Adam Scott plays Ben Parker, Cassie’s co-worker. A fellow EMT, he has a pregnant wife, Mary (Emma Roberts), whose son is named-take a big fat guess. Because the movie hilariously never tells you and goes out of its way to deliberately not tell you, even as characters lead up to saying the kid’s name.

Scott and Johnson have a good rapport. The two share an uncanny ability to milk an awkward pause for comedic gold that Clarkson and team of writers don’t allow much room for. But when we are given these moments, such as a child giving them a painting thanking them for saving his mother’s life and the duo having no idea who or what he’s talking about, a glimmer of the possibilities of a dark comedic underbelly is revealed.

The primary thrust of Madame Web involves the devious Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), haunted by his own murder in the future by three spider ladies. So now he must spend his present hunting these three girls down before they have gained their superpowers. Yes, all the promos you’ve seen of Sydney Sweeney, Isabella Merced, and Celeste O’Connor in superhero spandex are misleading. They don the tights but only briefly and in visions of the future.

Instead, Madame Web becomes a superpowered Adventures in Babysitting as Cassie lugs the three teenagers around New York or Boston playing NYC, trying to keep them safe. How and why they are all connected, the writers do a decent job of handling and getting out of the way before merrily skipping along.

Cassie kidnaps the three teenagers after almost drowning and being gifted the ability to see the future. The drowning didn’t give her the powers; that would be silly. She got them from the Spidermen, an indigenous group of crimefighters from the Peruvian Amazon who acted as OBGYNs for her mother after Ezekial shot her because he was after the spider’s powers. They couldn’t save her mother, so they gave her the power of second sight, but it was only activated when she drowned, presumably because she was born in a pool.

At times, Madame Web is so ungainly in its story logic that I cackled with demented glee. At one point, Cassie dumps the three teens alone in the woods. Before she leaves, she tells them, “Don’t do dumb stuff.” Somehow, she doesn’t realize that the prime mover of teens doing dumb stuff is being left alone in the woods without any adult supervision.

The hapless trio of Sweeney, Merced, and O’Connor are forced to play a range of stereotypes, while Johnson is forced to sift through the script’s attempt at exposition. Madame Web is such a throwback that it even attempts to make Sweeney, a buxom blonde bombshell, look frumpish and nerdy by, wait for it, putting glasses on her. Glasses, by the way, that she takes on and off, at random, and at times seems not even to be wearing them at all.

Her Julia is a shy conservative dweeb dressed in a Catholic School Girl outfit topped off with knee-high stockings sure to kick off a fetish group somewhere. Sweeny’ ’s Julia is a blonde-headed step-child as her step-family seems to despise her for reasons that are never made clear.

Merced’s Anya is a science whiz, but right now, she’s more concerned with dodging Immigration services. Her father’s been deported, so she’s living alone and doesn’t need anyone—no points for guessing who her new family becomes by the end.

O’Connor’s Mattie is the victim of absentee parenting. Street-smart, and brash, her cocky swagger belies a wealth of insecurities. Throw in some low-key flirting with Juia, “You’re cute when you’re angry,” and it feels as if Mattie might be, at the very least, bi-sexual.

Part of the double-edged charm of Madame Web is how it feels like it doesn’t care that much about Ezikel while also caring about Ezekiel. He’s the narrative’s driving force, but the scattershot and overburdened script give Rahim nothing to play with. As a villain, he’s inept and a void of charisma.

It doesn’t help that poor Rahim has much of his lines dubbed over and, for much of the film, seems to be by himself, acting against nothing and no one. His best scene involves him in bed with an NSA agent as he tells her about how the vision of his death haunts him.

But as a plot device, he’s perfect. Madame Web is more about sisterhood and Cassie’s awkward turtle loner learning to accept being accepted. Johnson is a deadpan performer at the best of times, but in Madame Web, she reaches new levels of laconic chill. Her Larry David-esque bruskness and refusal to acknowledge social cues are part of her charm, bringing an almost satirical edge to Madame Web.

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Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim) is doing his best.

Madame Web was a hoot. It has an “easy-breezy Martin Scorsese” charm about it, borrowing a quote from another Sydney Sweeny movie still playing in theaters. Cassie steals a taxi and drives it around for the rest of the movie with zero problems, constantly abandoning Julia, Anya, and Mattie while the movie simmers with a glib bemusement towards its own existence. I was hopelessly charmed by it all. 

Plus, it has a delightfully hostile relationship with a product the filmmakers have been forced to sponsor that gave me life. At a party, Scott’s Ben gives Johnson’s Cassie a Pepsi, and her refusal to drink it is hypnotic because while she won’t drink it, she won’t put it down either. Not to mention, there’s a warehouse that’s constantly regarded as a death trap that plays a central role in the film, which is later revealed to be a Pepsi warehouse or factory. As a lifelong Coke man myself, I Cackled. With. Glee.

Fiore’s camera isn’t afraid of keeping things interesting, either. I enjoyed how they displayed Cassie’s powers, giving Madame Web a tactile comic-book feel that far too many of the films in the genre have been lacking of late. The action scenes are scant, ranging from “What is going on here?” to me hooting and hollering in praise of its defiant stupidity. 

Clarkson has made a movie in a genre steeped in fanservice and has boldly made a movie for no one. It’s beautiful. I love that the three main heroes aren’t even heroes yet. The movie is merely Johnson’s Cassie learning her powers and shepherding the girls from one location to the next, awkwardly dropping inane bits of dialogue. Everyone, once in a while, there’ll be some winners, such as when the girls pout about the definition of being kidnapped versus saved.

Madame Web has the potential to be a camp classic. And while I wish Sweeny, Merced, and O’Connor had more to do, I nonetheless enjoyed what they could drill out of the shallow material. But then there’s Johnson, the unlikely star of a genre that seems uneasy with women like her: flippant, witty, deadpan, with a hint of a notion she could quickly destroy you if she got bored. Clarkson’s film is a bit of a misfire, but it’s my kind of misfire.

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

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