So Many Tangled Webs

In which Norm tries to figure out what the hell MADAME WEB is supposed to be doing.

So Many Tangled Webs

The trailer for Tom Hardy’s third Venom movie arrived earlier this week, promising more eccentric action and goo-filled CGI and, possibly, an end to the Marvel-adjacent anti-hero franchise … just as it was finally getting interesting. (I hated the first one, was pleasantly surprised by the second and am now curious to see what a Venom movie looks like when its producer, co-writer and star has absolutely no reason to listen to a single studio note. The trailer left me feeling – hopeful? Is that the right word? – about the series for the first time. It looks like fun.

The Venom trailer drop also reminded me of Sony’s very silly concept of a Marvel-adjacent universe, one that also contains Jared Leto’s Morbius and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Kraven the Hunter, members of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery – along with Venom – to which Sony owns the rights because Sam Raimi’s Spidey films predate the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It is not, and never shall be, Morbin' Time.

The Morbius movie was the hottest of garbage; the Kraven movie has bounced around Sony’s release schedule for a while but looks to be dropping on Labor Day weekend, historically the window where studios dump the movies in which they have little to no confidence. But it’s directed by J.C. Chandor, the maker of A Most Violent Year and All Is Lost, so … who knows?

It turns out Sony also owns the character of Cassandra Webb, an elderly, physically infirm woman with powerful psychic abilities who’s been knocking around the Spider-Man comics for forty years or so. So naturally, Sony decided this would be a perfect big-screen vehicle for Dakota Johnson.

Dakota Johnson does not play the canonical version of Madame Web, who as far as I can determine originated as a joke between writer Denny O’Neil and artist John Romita Jr. about certain older women being described as “spinsters”. Cassandra Webb was a mutant, for one thing, and even the Marvel-adjacent movies don’t throw that word around lightly. This Cassie is a very different creation, a 30-year-old paramedic in post-9/11 New York who starts to experience visions of the future after a near-death experience on the job, and eventually realizes she can change those visions through her actions.

Also it just so happens that there’s this spidery guy swinging around Manhattan hunting three young women whom he believes will someday also be spidery people, somehow, and be responsible for his death.

Oh, and I almost forgot: Cassie works with her best pal Ben Parker (Adam Scott), whose sister-in-law Mary (Emma Roberts) is getting ready to give birth to a son whose name is never mentioned because … I honestly don’t know. Either it’s director S.J. Clarkson’s idea of a cheeky joke, or Sony’s movies aren’t even allowed to drop the name “Peter Parker” now. And the fact that Madame Web never figures out a way to communicate the answer is just one of its many, many problems.

The spidery guy? That’s Ezekiel Sims, another comic-book heavy, here played by a very obviously overdubbed Tahar Rahim as a suave, sexy industrialist with spider powers remarkably similar to the ones you’d get from being bitten by a radioactive spider. (As we see in the film’s prologue, he obtained this non-radioactive but still very special arachnid by killing Cassie’s mother and the rest of her research team in the Amazon thirty years earlier.)

Sims’ powers also let him see his future, and it’s one he’s desperate to change – to the point of employing high-tech surveillance (and Zosia Mamet as his Gal In The Chair) to find those young women I mentioned, and kill them before his vision comes to pass. Sims’ scheme isn’t especially original, but since Minority Report would have come out the year before this movie takes place I think that’s supposed to be another cheeky joke.

The kids he’s chasing – Julia Cornwall, Anya Corazon and Mattie Franklin, played by Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced and Celeste O’Connor – are just kids at this point, having not yet achieved their comic-book destinies of becoming various spider-powered women. So this is an origin story for Cassie, a prequel to all the Spider-Man movies and a prequel to whatever spinoffs the Spider-Teens might get, and that’s a lot. The only way to make this movie work, it seems, is to not care at all about any of it, and just throw a lot of Final Destination-style visions at Cassie until she’s roused to action.

I mean, that’s literally all there is to Madame Web: Cassie has visions, Cassie acts to save the people in them and mostly succeeds, which only pisses off Ezekiel Sims – who, by the way, has devised a Spider-Man costume and a mode of web-swinging at least a decade and a half before Pete Who Shall Not Be Named gets bitten by an entirely different spider – and makes him double his efforts to find the girls Cassie has hidden away upstate.

Also Cassie takes a side trip to Peru, to figure out what all this has to do with her pregnant mother researching spiders in the Amazon right before she died, which means she has to leave the girls with Ben and Mary, and Mary will go into labor and have to be rushed to the hospital, putting everyone in harm’s way. You’d think Cassie would have seen that coming, but I guess she’s still new at the vision thing.

A surprising chunk of this movie takes place in a cab, by the way.

I watched Madame Web – which runs two full hours, by the way – trying to keep track of how many plates were spinning and how there’s nothing of substance on any of them. Yes, setting the film in 2003 is a nice way of eliding the whole “Where’s Spider-Man?” of it all, but it also creates a whole other set of problems beyond simple character continuity.

Eventually I just realized this was the Marvel version of Todd Phillips’ Joker – a project that reworks existing comics lore to the point that the comics fans to whom it’s supposed to appeal can’t help but think about all the stuff that no longer makes sense. And just as Joker introducing Bruce Wayne as a boy means that any payoff to the story is literally decades away, Madame Web concerns itself entirely with characters who have no significance in the Spider-Man movies we’ve already seen. Cassie’s concluding visions of her charges growing up into a Spider-Squad while still in their twenties can’t possibly fit into the established narratives, unless the twist is that they raise young You Know Who as their own and teach him the ways of a totally different spider. Which, what? How? Why? And honestly, why again?

The answers are irrelevant, because there is no way a Madame Web sequel will ever happen. Unlike Venom, which made almost a billion dollars despite being an incoherent mess, this movie tanked, and on top of that Dakota Johnson has already done everything in her power to distance herself from the project. I don’t blame her at all; in addition to all of its other failings, the movie has no idea how to use her as its star.

That handful of us who saw the short-lived sitcom Ben & Kate know Johnson has a terrific flair for comic frustration, which you’d think would be a perfect way to play Cassie’s struggle to understand her emerging powers; instead, Clarkson directs her to play every scene with stern resolve. Johnson still manages to sneak in exactly one snappy line reading and a bit of fun business with a meatball at a baby shower, which may be something of a miracle in a movie as overworked in post-production as this clearly was.

I’m probably making Madame Web sound more interesting than it really is. It’s a fascinating test case for how to make a Marvel movie that follows the beats of a standard superhero narrative but literally cannot have actual superheroes in it, given its own premise. This moment?

... who ARE these people?

It’s not even a flash-forward, really. It’s just a vision. It doesn’t give us any idea how or when it might come about, and given what we know about Cassie Webb’s powers there’s no guarantee it’ll happen at all. At this point, it’d be genuinely shocking if it ever does.

Sony’s Madame Web Blu-ray at least looks pretty good, with busy DTS-HD Master Audio sound. (Atmos is reserved for the 4K release, which wasn’t provided to me.) The supplements are fairly generic – a gag reel, a deleted scene, brief featurettes on the casting, the fight scenes and the creation of Cassie’s visions, and two even shorter looks at the character’s comic-book origins and the movie’s various Marvel easter eggs – and feel very much like a series of contractual obligations.

To that end: Madame Web is now officially A Thing That Happened. Everyone got paid, and I’m sure the catering was beyond reproach. But let’s never speak of this again.

Madame Web is now available in 4K, Blu-ray and DVD editions from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Venom: The Last Dance will open theatrically in October, and it has to be better than this. It just, like, has to be.

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