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MOVIE REVIEW: Crippled by a weak script, ‘Madame Web’ struggles to even be light and fun

Uncover the highs and lows of this comic book adaptation and discover if "Madame Web" manages to weave a captivating narrative or gets entangled in its own complexities.

There’s actually a lot going for ‘Madame Web’ to make it big. It stars Dakota Johnson and Sydney Sweeney, one actress who has a following because of her star-making turn in the divisive but immensely popular ‘Fifty Shades of Gray’ and the other, a rising star from hit television shows like ‘Euphoria’ and ‘White Lotus.’ While it is a comic book movie, it is based off a not so well-known character, which means that the expectations won’t affect the movie as much; the creative team have more leeway to play with the character just a bit. It’s a women-led story, which addresses the growing call for more women-centric stories in all genres. It’s also directed by a prolific film and television director, SJ Clarkson, who has worked on episodes of ‘Jessica Jones’ and ‘Succession.’

Unfortunately, the film tries to spin a complicated web but the script by writing duo Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless and also with Claire Parker and SJ Clarkson fail to bring all of its elements together. ‘Madame Web’ is burdened by a narrative structure that spends most of its time establishing story points and explaining the protagonist’s abilities than actually setting up an intriguing character arc for her. The dialogue is also extremely prosaic and literal; explaining everything that is happening in the most straightforward (thus uninteresting) way. If any of the elements are working towards the possibility of this film being exciting or thrilling, the script somehow undermines any of this by focusing on plot points rather than character building.

The film centers around Cassie Webb, a paramedic, who was orphaned when her mother died in the Amazon jungle while researching spiders (as humorously explained in the trailer). Because of her being orphaned – what she knows is that her mother died during childbirth, though the audience is aware that she was killed by her security detail – Cassie has an aversion to children and motherhood. She seems more comfortable being one of the boys than hanging out with the wives and sisters and mothers of her co-workers. A near-death experience triggers her powers, her ability to see the future, and she ends up saving three young teenagers from being murdered by Ezekiel Sims, the man who killed Cassie’s mother. Cassie must discover her past and reconcile with the truth about her mother so that she can save the three young girls from Sims.

Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor), Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced), and Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney) in Columbia Pictures’ MADAME WEB.

Clarkson takes a frenetic and loud directorial style for ‘Madame Web.’ Set in the year 2003, she infuses her film with older songs closer to that time period – ‘What’s Up’ of 4 Non Blondes, ‘Bitch’ by Meredith Brooks, and ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears – and tries to create urgency by fast cuts and crazy camera work but somehow the film always manages to feel unhurried. Even a scene where Cassie is on the job trying to save the lives of people in a burning building, it lacks urgency or excitement. From the get-go, the film employs these camera tricks and strange edits before any actual real danger or excitement has really kicked in. In the process, the film doesn’t quite achieve the energy it is trying to convey.

And the script is just literal and straightforward. At every turn, most especially in the parts of Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), the dialogue openly explains the character’s thoughts and motivations, which ends up making the film feel like a comic book. It feels like exposition and it spoon-feeds the entire plot of the film as to make sure that people understand what is going on – even though the film isn’t that hard to understand at all.

Dakota Johnson and Sydney Sweeney in Madame Web
Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Because of this, Rahim ends up looking like he’s over-acting as he is trying to add a sense of drama and danger to his character (even though the film hasn’t quite given us any real reason to) while the young teens who are in trouble – Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’ Connor, and Isabela Merced – are doing their best with the most archetypally written teen characters in the genre. On the flipside, Johnson and the usually very interesting Zosia Mamet are doing the bare minimum for these characters, as if they both realised that the words they have to say are quite silly. They are working, for sure, but they aren’t sweating it out either like they usually do.

There is an interesting way that they visualize the way Cassie’s powers work at the start when she first gets the abilities. The jarring way by which time seems to keep repeating. It’s an interesting effect but it quickly loses its appeal after the nth time it happens. Later on, it starts to play with your head because you have no idea if what you are seeing is a vision or the actual scene. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It can really ruin the pacing, but more importantly, it kills any feeling of suspense or thrill for the film. At some point, we stop worrying because we know that Cassie will figure it out and avoid any real danger.

The issues with the script – especially the way it handles a critical point in the second act when Cassie finally explores her mother’s story – really keeps the film from finding any semblance of stability and keeps ‘Madame Web’ from being taken seriously – even as a light, fun comic book movie. It can’t even get into that level because everything is so out in the open in terms of that screenplay.

It’s unfortunate because all the elements are there. But unless it’s the animated Spider-verse franchise or without the backing of Kevin Feige and the MCU, ‘Madame Web’ might just fall in the same pile as ‘Morbius’ and the critically panned ‘Venom’ films.

My Rating:

Madame Web is now showing. Check screening times and buy tickets here.

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Madame Web
Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
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