Dir: SJ Clarkson. US. 2024. 116mins
Dakota Johnson brings an appealingly grounded sense of humour to Madame Web, a somewhat spirited superhero origin story that mostly plays as the first chapter of a saga that does not inspire enthusiasm for subsequent instalments. Making her feature debut, television director SJ Clarkson crafts some solid action scenes in this tale of a New York paramedic who is suddenly blessed and cursed with the ability to see the future. Anyone who has closely followed comic-book cinema for the last two decades will also be able to anticipate the twists and turns the story will take.
Expect lacklustre reviews and lukewarm returns
Sony releases Madame Web in the UK and US on February 14, with early tracking suggesting the film will not reverse the recent downward commercial trend of superhero films. (The studio’s most recent Marvel production, Morbius, grossed only $167 million worldwide, while Disney’s female-driven comic-book picture from last year, The Marvels, collected a paltry $206 million.) Johnson’s connection to the Fifty Shades Of Grey franchise may add marquee value, but this Marvel project lacks the name-brand recognition of the company’s more famous characters. (Madame Web is connected to the Spider-Man universe, although the Webslinger does not make an appearance.) Expect lacklustre reviews and lukewarm returns.
Set in Manhattan in 2003, the film stars Johnson as Cassie Web, a paramedic who is good at her job despite a general discomfort around . (The cause may very well be traced to her single mother dying during childbirth, sending Cassie into foster care.) After nearly drowning, Cassie is brought back to life and is shocked to discover that she can now suddenly (although unpredictably) see future events — including the fact that a murderous stranger named Ezekiel (Tahar Rahim) wants to kill three seemingly ordinary young women named Julia (Sydney Sweeney), Anya (Isabela Merced) and Mattie (Celeste O’Connor).
One of Madame Web’s advantages is that it does not require the viewer to possess knowledge of any outside comic-book properties in order to follow the plot. (That said, those familiar with Spider-Man will recognise the importance of a few of this film’s supporting players.) Bolstered by Johan Soderqvist’s booming, boisterous score, the picture does its best to capitalise on Cassie’s mysterious power, offering fun time loops as she plays out a scenario, realises what will go wrong, and then corrects her actions as she prepares for the actual encounter. Cassie does not have incredible strength or speed, but Madame Web makes the case that the ability to review your mistakes before they happen is a special gift.
Often, when second-tier superheroes get standalone films the resulting picture tends to be self-deprecating or irreverent, acknowledging the fact that the character is not as compelling as, say, Spider-Man. Madame Web is not overly joke-y, but Johnson does give Cassie an ironic detachment, which alleviates the story’s strained gravitas. It also helps that, although Cassie is only in her early 30s, she finds herself exasperated by the immaturity of these teens she is determined to protect. Sweeney, Merced and O’Connor are delightfully bratty, and their annoying-kid-sister rapport with Johnson provides some of the picture’s intermittent laughs.
As we will learn, Ezekiel has the same power as Cassie, although he also possesses the qualities of a spider – including climbing walls and killing his adversaries with a toxin. His desire to eliminate Julia, Anya and Mattie is tied to a concern he has what they will do in the future, and Rahim exudes a snarling menace. Unfortunately, his monotone line readings are frequently unintentionally hilarious, and the Cesar-winning actor feels ill at ease in such an underwritten villain role.
Clarkson, who directed episodes of the Marvel series Jessica Jones and The Defenders, focuses on the relationship between the women, who learn they have more in common than expected. (In addition, Cassie finally has to care others, an unoriginal but effective character arc thanks to Johnson’s empathetic performance.) The filmmaker works with a relatively modest budget to devise a few choice fight sequences that are elevated by Cassie’s growing understanding of her powers. She cannot see the future on command, but as she becomes more comfortable with her abilities — and discovers the reason why she acquired these powers — the more she can channel them.
But those diversions fail to distract from yet another origin story meant to open the door to a larger narrative universe. No matter how likeable Cassie and her friends are, they are powerless in the face of a plot that goes through the motions, revealing ‘shocking’ twists her past and building to an overblown finale. Madame Web argues that no one’s future is written, but it is very easy to see exactly where this film is going.
Production company: di Bonaventura Pictures
Worldwide distribution: Sony Pictures
Producer: Lorenzo di Bonaventura
Screenplay: Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless and Claire Parker & SJ Clarkson, story by Kerem Sanga and Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless, based on the Marvel Comics
Cinematography: Mauro Fiore
Production design: Ethan Tobman