Monday 26 February 2024

Madame Web | review by Stephen Theaker

Madame Web has been given a lot of stick for being a bad superhero film, which in my view is a complete misunderstanding of what it is. It’s not a superhero film at all, it’s a comedy horror thriller that takes place in a superhero universe. Comics readers are very used to this kind of thing, but it seems to have baffled some filmgoers. Imagine a Final Destination film, but where nearly all the heroine’s psychic visions are of the same disaster: an evil Spider-Man type called Ezekiel murdering everyone he gets his hands on, in one location after another. Admittedly, he is the film’s weakest link (the animation of his movements looks clumsy, and it sounds as if his dialogue has been dubbed by someone else), but, overall, like Morbius, the film is very far from being the complete disaster that some would have you think.

In the comics, Madame Web is an elderly psychic who gets involved with Spider-Man from time to time. In this film, set in 2003, Dakoka Johnson plays Cassandra Webb, a 30-year-old paramedic who grew up in the care system after her mother died. She doesn’t know how it happened, but we know and by the end of the film she’ll know too that her mum was hunting for a super-spider in the Amazon jungle. Her bodyguard shot her, took the spider, and let it bite him, granting him powers quite similar to Spider-Man’s, but without the webbing or the sparkling wit. Ever since, he’s been plagued by visions of three costumed spider-women causing his death, so he’s determined to track them down and kill them first. He has sketch artists draw them and then romances his way into an NSA database to track them down in the present day, before they get their own spider-powers.

He comes for the three teenage girls – Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced), Mattie Frankli (Celeste O’Connor) and Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney, fresh from success in Anyone But You) – when they all happen to be at a New York train station at the same time. Fortunately for them, Cassandra Webb happens to be there too, and has started to get the hang of her powers. When she has a vision of the three girls being brutally murdered, she gets them off the train and the chase begins. She doesn’t want to look after them, but they are lonely and vulnerable and she simply can’t turn away from her duty. Her colleague Ben Parker (Adam Scott, as good as ever) does what he can to help, but his brother’s wife is pregnant and the baby is due. He’s looking forward to being an uncle: all the fun and none of the responsibility, he thinks, which gets a wry smile from Cassandra and the audience. Some have suggested that there is an error in timing here, since Tom Holland’s MCU Peter Parker was born in 2001, but I took this to be the first appearance of a brand new Spider-Man, specific to the Sony Spider-Verse. We will see!

Previous Sony-Verse films Morbius and Venom, and by the look of it the upcoming Kraven the Hunter, have suffered from the absence of those characters’ natural antagonist: Spider-Man. So they are given their own lesser villains to fight instead, and so instead of super-villain films, they become anti-hero films, which I think is much less interesting. That wasn’t as much of a problem in this film, since it isn’t trying to be a super-hero film, and Madame Web isn’t a super-villain in the comics anyway. Nor is Ezekiel, which may be why he doesn’t really work here, though the scenes of him killing the girls are well done, and reasonably scary, especially for younger viewers. But he could be anything in this film – a vampire, a demon, a killer robot, etc – and the film would have been essentially the same. Although the three teenage girls are shown briefly in action in Ezekiel’s visions, that all lies in the future. In this film they are just three Sarah Connors.

I suppose the question is why I liked it, when everyone else (including Mrs Theaker) seems to have hated it. In her SNL monologue, Dakota Johnson said that this was as if AI had created your boyfriend’s favourite film, and, at the risk of sounding like Barry Norman in his loucher moments, maybe there’s some truth in that. The film’s four female stars certainly won’t dent its appeal to heterosexual male viewers. That’s why we go to the cinema, after all, to stare at people we find it interesting to look at on a gigantic screen. Sometimes that’s Paul Giamatti in an overcoat smoking a pipe, sometimes it’s Sydney Sweeney in a very big pair of glasses. But I don’t think it’s just that.

For one thing, Dakota Johnson is rather great in it. She brings the sort of amusing, abrasive sourness to the lead role that would normally be delegated to a supporting character, for example during her reluctant visit to a baby shower. Her character uses her skills in some fun ways, and, like a Final Destination film, I did care whether our heroes survived or not. I found all the bits involving the Parker family rather sweet, especially seeing Uncle Ben as a younger man and a best friend. I won’t pretend it’s a classic – I never considered giving it more than three stars – and it’s certainly not a film like Argylle, where a lot of people who watch it in a few years will be amazed by how much they love it, but I certainly enjoyed it much more than the previous Sony-Verse films. Stephen Theaker ***

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