Madame Web

As you can see in my reviews of VENOM and MORBIUS (I didn’t write about VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE for some reason, but it’s probly the best one), I sort of have a soft spot for the In Association with Marvel Comics Universe, the last vestige of the era when the movie rights to different Marvel characters were sold to different studios. I definitely don’t consider these to be among the better comic book movies, but there’s something charmingly out of fashion about them that I get a kick out of. They seem magically transported from another time when super heroes were still kind of niche and many of the movie adaptations were trying to make them palatable for normal people, but the people in charge were clueless business assholes who didn’t know what normal people were like anyway, so they ended up making them accidentally weird. The VENOMs are the best merely because they’re a chance for one of my favorite actors to get a paycheck for being a big goof, but all of them have a similar late ‘90s/early 2000s kind of attitude that now seems kind of novel.

What I’ve come to realize is that I tend to go to movies with a mentality of “show me what you got, movie” while some people go to them with more of a “listen up you dirty sonofabitch, you can’t slip one past me.” So I’m gonna be listing a bunch of stupid things in this movie because those were the things that made it fun for me, while others will cite those exact same things as proof that this movie is terrible. We’re really not that far off, I’ve just learned how to get a chuckle from some silly shit instead of get mad at it. If it’s the right type of silly shit.

MADAME WEB is part of Sony’s ongoing project to milk the Spider-Man rights by making their own movie projects about the associated characters not in the MCU movies. I get it with Venom since he was such a popular character like 30 years ago, bu honestly I’d never heard of Madame Web or her three younger spider-associates introduced in this movie. And one funny part is that it’s about a villain trying to stop them from getting powers in the future, so we only see their super hero forms in little visions of the future. It’s the set up for a movie they probly won’t even pretend they’re working on.

The story begins in 1973, in the Peruvian Amazon, where a pregnant scientist (Kerry Bishé, RED STATE, ARGO, GRAND PIANO) is searching for a rare spider she believes has huge medicinal potential. When she finds it, a guy she hired to protect her, Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), shoots her and steals the spider for his own purposes. Things are confusing but something happens where the lady is taken to a cave for a spider ritual. She doesn’t make it, but her baby does.

The rest takes place 30 years later when the baby has grown into antisocial New York City ambulance driver Cassandra “Cassie” Webb (Dakota Johnson, NEED FOR SPEED, SUSPIRIA). Of the Marvel movies released in the actual 2003, this is closer to DAREDEVIL than X2 or HULK. It doesn’t have Evanescence on the soundtrack, but it has The Cranberries on the end credits. I believe it’s the Yeah Yeah Yeahs rocking out when they introduce Cassie crazily swerving the ambulance through traffic, terrifying her paramedic best friend (holy shit that’s Uncle) Ben Parker (Adam Scott, HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE). In 2003 cinematic language, the song says “Hey, check out all this girl power we got going on here!”

She definitely sees herself as cool. She wears a long red leather jacket, jeans and Doc Martens, she talks to cats about “us strays have to stick together,” she sometimes enters her apartment through the fire exit, she hates kids (from babies to teens), is miserable with all the mommies at a baby shower for Ben’s sister-in-law Mary (Emma Roberts, SCREAM 4) (yes, Spider-Man is born during this movie) and kills the vibe of one of the games by being cornered into explaining that her mother died during childbirth. “But it’s okay! I’m perfectly healthy!” When shit gets dangerous later she has no problem jacking a taxi (and removing the license plates) and later an ambulance. And when she saves a guy from a car crash but falls off a bridge, drowns and has to be revived, she swears it’s no big deal. That’s how cool she is. Except the way she brushes it off is saying she wants to go home and watch “Idol.” Not even the full name, she abbreviates it to Idol. I don’t think she’s joking so I’m afraid my verdict is that she’s actually as square as the ladies she hates at the baby shower, she just dresses cooler.

A positive thing about this story is that her powers and experiences aren’t in any way a rehash of Spider-Man’s. She doesn’t web sling or climb walls – there’s even a joke (not timed well enough to work for me) about her suddenly deciding to test out of she can crawl up her apartment wall. And it’s explicitly pointed out that she’s not a fighter – she’s forced to scrap a little, but most of the movie is about predicting when the bad guy is coming and running or driving away.

She can do that because her near death experience unlocked strange abilities tied to her ritualistic birth. Underwater she has a hallucination that points to future events, and she starts experiencing what seems like little loops where events happen more than once. It doesn’t help her save a beloved fire department colleague (Mike Epps, NEXT FRIDAY), but watching the Alistair Sim version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL helps her figure out that she actually can prevent the catastrophes she sees in these visions. (It’s a little like the Nicolas Cage movie NEXT, though the rules aren’t spelled out as clearly.)

Now she’s having visions of Ezekiel Sims, having no idea it’s the guy who killed her mother. Ironically, she has to stop him from doing something she sees him doing in her visions, that he’s doing because he’s trying to stop something he saw in his own visions. Since the Amazon he’s become ridiculously rich, has gained wall-climbing and poisoning-with-a-touch powers, and has nightly dreams of three young women with spider-powers and costumes knocking him out of his window. So he’s obsessed with finding them and murdering them before they get their powers.

One day when taking a train trip, Cassie starts seeing images of Ezekiel attacking three different passengers, teenage girls who don’t know each other yet – Anya Corazon (Isabel Merced, TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO), Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor, FREAKY, GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE) and Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney, THE WARD, THE MARTIAL ARTS KID). She convinces them to exit the train, they get attacked by Ezekiel in a black Spider-Man costume, take off in her car, and she’s reported as having abducted them. Though she keeps finding ways out of it, she becomes invested in protecting them, and by the end has a cool aunt sort of relationship with them. Until then, though, she’s unfriendly, and initially drops them off in some woods, tells them to wait for her, and doesn’t come back until well after dark! Funny shit.

They’re a corny Hollywood idea of teens with attitude. Mattie is introduced skateboarding, which shows she’s a rebel (even though skateboarding is not a crime) and also sets up a part at the end where she slides down a roof on a piece of metal as if it’s a skate or surf board. (I believe Robin did something like that in BATMAN & ROBIN.)

Julia is the shy nerd. She says she knows taekwondo, but they laugh at her, and it never comes up later. Anya and Mattie are wearing outfits with their bellybuttons exposed, and they tie Julia’s shirt up for her to help impress some boys at the 5 Star Diner (basically a Denny’s). There’s not very much to make them specific to 2003, except that only one has a cell phone and they get up on the table at the diner to dance to Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”

Famously, many of the male super heroes are shaped by the deaths of their parents. All of the future spider-ladies here have absent or inattentive parents – deported, on a business trip, step-family doesn’t like me. Cassie has the dead mother (no mention of father) and I think it’s a novel twist that instead of thinking of her mother as an angel, Cassie is pissed at hers. That changes at the climax when she learns new information (in the tradition of Dr. Michael Morbius, her mom was stubbornly trying to cure an incurable disease when all this happened). Then she gets to hug her mother in a mystical cave vision. Spoiler.

Okay, here’s one thing we learn in this one that I never would’ve guessed while watching any Spider-Man movie: Spider-Man’s web-slinging costume is preceded by a mystical tribe of spider-people called Las Arañas who swing through the trees helping people in the Peruvian Amazon. They look like Spider-Man because they have (I think) red body paint covered in woven roots that resemble the web design on his suit. They also age really well – a member named Santiago (José Maria Yazpík, Narcos) has been waiting for Cassie to grow up and return seeking answers, and he looks great.

It’s been a while, so I didn’t recognize the actor playing Ezekiel, Tahar Rahim, as the main guy in A PROPHET. He was also the cop in INSIDE. He’s pretty good here as the villainous “Ceiling Guy” (as they call him after first seeing him crawling on the train station ceiling). I don’t really understand the Ceiling Guy persona – apparently no one else can see him when he wears the suit? But I wish he didn’t because he doesn’t look as sleek or pose as comic booky as Spider-Man, so he kinda looks like a guy with the wrong body type doing his best to play Spidey in a fan film.

He’s much more fun out of costume. He has an amazing penthouse apartment overlooking NYC, which seems to only consist of a bed (where he fucks and then kills an NSA agent [Jill Hennessy, DEAD RINGERS, ROBOCOP 3, EXIT WOUNDS] to get her phone password and the laminated security badge she for some reason brought to the opera where he picked her up), a spider terrarium, a column covered in vines, and a computer desk with 12 screens where his lackey Amaria (Zosia Mamet, “Bedouin Woman,” SPARTAN) uses stolen tech to track the ladies through security systems. We never see this character away from the computer.

The other thing about Ezekiel, never explained, is that walks through the city wearing nice suits and vests and stuff, but with bare feet. I just looked it up and I think in the comics he goes barefoot to stick to walls. But I approve him doing it just to freak people out.

The opening credits should say In Association with Marvel and Pepsi. I noticed a very long shot of her holding a Pepsi can, and then a major scene happens at a fireworks warehouse that still has vintage Pepsi-Cola signage on top, and then the finale ends up being a fight on top of that building, with the Pepsi sign actings as the Silvercup sign in HIGHLANDER.

Next time, baby!

The story does occasionally drag, but I don’t think it’s the torturous experience many are claiming. That it has this visions-of-the-future gimmick, no crime-fighting element, and a simple goal of survival instead of some world conquering scheme makes it feel a little distinct from other comic book movies (even if most of them are better). It’s actually kind of interesting that it’s so transparently trying to cash in on the super hero popularity of several years ago but refusing to actually do most of the things you expect in those. Since I didn’t know the character it wasn’t until the last scene that I realized “oh, this was all leading up to her turning into something vaguely like the comic book character” – when she’s in a wheelchair, blind, wearing outrageous sunglasses, and acting as den mother to the three teens (who, it only occurs to me now, never actually get their powers during the movie, so I’m not sure how it happens).

I gotta admit that although this is not one of those movies where I think “it’s too bad this was a huge failure, the sequel could’ve been interesting,” I do want to see her in those crazy sunglasses again. I wish they’d put her in VENOM 3. But judging from the complete lack of VENOM references here I’m guessing they don’t want to associate their precious boy with this lady. (I left before the credits were over and heard the SIFF Downtown staff laughing about the fact that no one had stayed to see if there was anything after them.)

The director is TV veteran S.J. Clarkson (Doctors, EastEnders, Banshee, Jessica Jones). I didn’t notice anything distinctive about her style, except that she enjoys showing how much cracked windows look like spider webs. The screenplay is credited to Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless (THE LAST WITCH HUNTER, GODS OF EGYPT, POWER RANGERS, MORBIUS – yeah, this is a cousin to those) and Claire Parker (executive producer of Life on Mars) & Clarkson, story by Kerem Sanga (THE VIOLENT HEART) and Sazama & Sharpless. If it sounds like goofy fun to you, you might enjoy it. If it doesn’t, move along.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 19th, 2024 at 7:02 am and is filed under Reviews, Comic strips/Super heroes. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

16 Responses to “Madame Web”

  1. In the days leading up to its release I saw so many people on social media being really hyped for it and it confused the shit out of me. Were they being ironic? Were they paid studio plants? Was there something about the movie that I’ve been missing and there was a chance that this was gonna be great? Life on the internet was so much easier 15 years ago.

  2. “They seem magically transported from another time when super heroes were still kind of niche and many of the movie adaptations were trying to make them palatable for normal people, but the people in charge were clueless business assholes who didn’t know what normal people were like anyway, so they ended up making them accidentally weird.”

    This perspective and the humor and self-awareness with which it is communciated is what makes Vern Vern. And I love it! Thanks for being you, Vern, and for keeping at it.

  3. CJ: They were definitely being ironic. The internet became obsessed with this one clunky line of exposition from the trailer and tried to turn it into an “It’s Morbin’ Time!” situation. The line is bad but not, like, exceptionally so. Most of the time when the internet gets real excited about something, it’s like when a bunch of kids at a sleepover can’t stop laughing about some inexplicable inside joke that’s only funny because they all drank too much soda and now they’re up three hours past their bedtime.

  4. I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t comment. However, a point is brought up I would like to highlight

    I tend to go to movies with a mentality of “show me what you got, movie” while some people go to them with more of a “listen up you dirty sonofabitch, you can’t slip one past me.”

    I’d like to add the latter philosophy confounds the shit out me.

    If you sit down not willing to meet the thing in front of you at least halfway, why the fuck did you spend $15 to sit there to begin with? To feel superior? If so — while it’s your money and you can do whatever you want with it — you can usually feel superior by taking public transportation which costs about $2.50. It’s usually just as loud, takes just as long, and gives much better value for your dollar. Just sayin’

  5. @Majestyk, I would argue that the line of dialogue you speak of in the trailer (which is NOT in the movie :( ) is because it fits SO MUCH exposition within only a few syllables. It’s the most delicious type of bad writing, because it’s meant to give you literally everything you need both of the film’s mythology but also what the protagonist and the antagonist might want. While the line doesn’t surface in the film, there are SO MANY other instances in the movie of characters telling each other far more than they should.

    “This reminds me of when I grew up in Boston!”
    “The day of my death grows near.”
    “I spent a lot of money to get you this technology and you’re not using it the way I want!”
    There is a LOT of that.

    This movie was MAGICALLY terrible. I feel like I climbed the deepest mountain and swan the highest sea for a movie like this. Extra special credit to Dakota Johnson, who seems to preface all her lines with this look that says, “Good Lord, this is stupid.”

    What I don’t get is the ending, which, you know, spoilers… The whole reason you make a movie like this is to help set the table for several future installments of ALL types. It doesn’t have to be Madame Web 2, it doesn’t have to be within the Sony world, it doesn’t even have to connect the the eventual Spider-Man movies within the Tom Holland world. But… What were they trying to do here?

    First of all, Vern mentions it, but, IS this Peter Parker being born in this movie’s 2003? They are so weirdly afraid of saying his name. Who’s to say that Mary Parker, brother of Ben, doesn’t give birth to Bort Parker or something? In the current MCU, they establish that Peter Parker is very specifically 17-18, and if you factor the Blip into it, the years match up. But you’d think someone would have seen Parker in the Spiderman getup, they would have said, hey, doesn’t he look like that weird serial killer who was jumping around NYC in 2003?

    (Which, btw, Sims walks around NYC a lot wandering around in his suit, and he’s a swarthy bearded dude in NYC two years after 9/11 – the NYPD would have been all over this dude).

    So, anyway, Cassie, the future Madame Web, ends this movie in the great tradition of How Did This Person Not Get Arrested? She steals a taxi AND an ambulance, I’m pretty sure she assaults some cops and she definitely kidnaps those girls. And in the end she… Adopts them? She’s an EMT in an apartment in NYC, and at the end she’s crippled and blind and suddenly her apartment is bigger and can accommodate four women? She has a new skyline, which helps her how? She is BLIND.

    I found it hilarious that Sims kept talking about how he was stressed that his death was getting closer and closer. Hadn’t he pretty elaborately established that these women were going to kill him in ten years? So there’s a ten year period during which this psychic is going to live with these three superheroines and explicitly walk them through how they become superheroines? Or is she just going to lie to them for those years until they become costumed heroes?

    The timeline Madame Web was seeing involved the three heroines killing Ezekiel Sims in 2013 (we have no idea if this is or is not flat out murder, btw), but the end of this movie eliminated that. Still, can we assume that in Tom Holland’s Peter Parker’s NYC (aka the MCU), right after the Battle of New York or whatever, there are apparently three female spider-centric ladies slinging around the city and apparently killing “bad guys”? Surely Aunt May would have said something about this, right?

    A lot can be said about this movie, but on that one specific level – how in the hell was this supposed to set up future adventures??

  6. Glaive, haven’t seen the movie (yet?) but if I had to guess, maybe they can’t use Peter Parker’s name because of the whole convoluted legal rights situation?

  7. Which, btw, Sims walks around NYC a lot wandering around in his suit, and he’s a swarthy bearded dude in NYC two years after 9/11 – the NYPD would have been all over this dude

    Yeah, I remember when they stormed that Afghani restaurant on St. Marks, and and all my Muslim friends were being dragged into black vans every time the ventured outside of their apartments. Bay Ridge past 67th was a ghost town! Everyone was in internment camps! To be honest, with an estimated 100,000 Arab speaking people in the city, the cops must have been exhausted being all over them.

  8. Jojo, I get what you’re saying but its my mistake. I meant to convey that Sims is going around assaulting people, beating up cops and climbing walls while trying to kill teenage girls. But in doing all this, he seems to walk around relatively hassle free. I didn’t mean to convey that the cops would bust him up while he was just hanging out at the local bodega.

  9. It sounds like one of those Terminator wannabes where an angel or an alien or a time traveler or something has to protect a really important kid/girl/person from an evil something that wants to kill them so they can’t fulfill a prophecy of one sort or another. Which is fine, but you’d think it would be “I have to protect baby Spider-Man from this villain who wants to stop Spider-Man: No Way Home from happening.” I guess they didn’t like the optics of a woman fighting on behalf of a boy-child? It just seems weird for the villain’s plot to be “I must keep this grand, important destiny from being fulfilled… oh, hey baby Spider-Man, what’s up?”

  10. Actually Kaplan, I didn’t really put my finger on it until you wrote that, but that’s one of those things that people will claim is not how you’re supposed to do a movie but that I think is refreshing about it. It’s *not* about her trying to protect some important destiny. It’s simply that she has visions of these people on the train being harmed and is like “ah, fuck, I need to warn them.” She reluctantly gets dragged into the whole thing and by the end I suppose we’re supposed to know they have an important destiny. But it’s not something any of them care about during the movie. They just don’t want to get killed.

  11. I meant to convey that Sims is going around assaulting people, beating up cops and climbing walls while trying to kill teenage girls. But in doing all this, he seems to walk around relatively hassle free. I didn’t mean to convey that the cops would bust him up while he was just hanging out at the local bodega.

    Oh, I see.
    I mean, I understand those kind of things did happen in hick towns around that time, but to quote the owner of the aforementioned Afghani place when I asked if any idiots had been giving him grief (I had lunch there a couple days after 9/11):

    “You kidding? This is New York”

  12. The “Spider-Man without Spider-Man” universe is such an odd duck. DC has been doing “Batman without Batman” media for years, but it never feels as disconnected as this. The oldest one I can think of is Birds of Prey, which takes place in a Gotham without Batman. But he WAS there at some point, and his daughter is the main character, so its still tied strongly to the mythos even if they didn’t want to “devalue” Batman by actually having him appear in their cheap-ass WB show. AND they generally kept this stuff on TV, the whole thing was about saving Batman and other major characters for big theatrical movies. It was baffling seeing Sony spending $$ (if not the usual $$$ for superhero movies) on Spider-man-free theatrical movies about characters who are defined by their relationship with Spider-Man (Venom) or C-listers like Morbius.

    But THIS movie, holy crap. Madame Web is like a Z-list character, AND they blew their wad throwing in a bunch of other Spider-characters who some people actually care about! It sounds like the whole thing plays out like a TV pilot or season of TV that sets up all the characters just to get to their starting position for a series/season 2 that will never happen. Except it doesn’t even really set them up, does it? I figured based on the trailers that the Spider-ladies would only go full superhero in the visions or right before the credits roll. But apparently the characters are never even informed about their superhero futures, let alone establish their powers/costumes from the visions? Was this script written by AI, cuz that sounds like the plot equivalent of the weird vestigial fingers you see in AI art. Like, its TRYING to imitate superhero formula, but its putting it together wrong and missing what parts are supposed to be important.

  13. I wish the studio had fully committed to the early 2000s concept and released a terrible movie tie-in game as part of the film’s promotional campaign.

    I would’ve bought that shit on Day One.

  14. Ha, that would be great. And a music video.

  15. I thought this was a not very good film. The direction and script were fairly paceless and the character work was weak. But I did enjoy it in a terrible film way, and for watching good actors deal with some awful dialogue. It was sort of a remake of The Fury without DePalma and his skill-set with taking crazy situations and angles and making them resonate. Here it was much more like well that happened. It was sort of a Highlander sequel from 3 onwards where things kinda happen and there’s explanations but the film is best viewed late at night when you’re half asleep. At least for me it was. In other words I enjoyed it for all its flaws.

  16. I saw it last week and thought it was not good. But Vern, you are correct in saying that it is not the worst superhero film of all time like many critics are saying. Or maybe it’s just the social media tornado that amplifies that viewpoint? Anyhow, it was entertaining at times and I liked Dakota Johnson’s portrayal of someone who doesn’t really care about any of plot of the entire movie. :)

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