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​Tangled Up in ‘Madame Web’

Cinema | February 26th, 2024

By Greg Carlson

gregcarlson1@gmail.com

In a short piece published recently in The New York Times, author Callie Holtermann summarizes the responses to director S.J. Clarkson’s “Madame Web,” attempting to make some sense of the many sticky strands of social media hot-takes, as well as fan and critical backlash to the latest installment in the SSU – Sony’s Spider-Man Universe. Like the existential dread and loneliness captured in Dan Walsh’s webcomic “Garfield Minus Garfield,” the SSU’s live action features, including “Venom,” “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” “Morbius,” the upcoming third “Venom” episode and “Kraven the Hunter,” the absence of Marvel’s flagship hero from the movies that would otherwise demand his presence is a study in windmill-tilting.

Holtermann’s concise analysis lays out the details and ponders the big questions: Is “Madame Web” so bad it’s good? Could the movie really become a future cult classic fueled by quotable lines of dialogue? How responsible is star Dakota Johnson, who made “ambivalent” comments during the press junket, for the success or failure of the film? How much should the well-documented misogyny of the male-dominated troll community/feedback loop be taken into consideration (especially if their vitriol will erode opportunities for women to direct these films in the future)? Are we descending another rung on the “superhero movie fatigue” ladder?

The movie itself is hardly the worst big-screen superhero tale. Johnson’s Cassandra “Cassie” Webb is based on the precognitive clairvoyant created for the comics by Denny O’Neill and John Romita Jr. in 1980. Director Clarkson, one of a quartet of credited screenwriters, juggles action sequences with standard origin story beats that link Cassie’s harrowing encounters with Ezekiel Sims (a completely forgettable and strangely somnambulant Tahar Rahim) to, among other things, the birth of baby Peter Parker. Along the way, Cassie protects a trio of young women threatened by Sims, who has foreseen his own future defeat at their hands.

Not soon enough, the climax of “Madame Web” will revolve around the villain being dispatched by the massive Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City, putting the finishing touches on a ridiculous series of product placements that give Kendall Jenner’s tone-deaf and instantly condemned (and quickly canceled) “Live for Now” spot some competition for worst Pepsi advertising. Whether or not “death by Pepsi” contributed to Johnson’s refusal to watch herself in “Madame Web” as a form of self-care, her gift for withering comic jabs is evident on the screen and off. David Ehrlich observed that the star has a “rare gift for weaponizing social discomfort into sandpaper-dry comedy” when facing down the inanity and monotony of the thankless press interview.

Cassie Webb’s ability to see brief glimpses of possible futures (just far enough ahead for her to make choices that branch off into better outcomes) fits hand-in-glove with the multiverse ethos. But restless science fiction fans will immediately conjure visions of far superior applications of the general premise. I could not stop thinking about the jaw-droppingly brilliant and thoroughly joyous 2020 Japanese feature “Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes.” Junta Yamaguchi’s debut feature, from a screenplay by Makoto Ueda, does in 71 minutes what “Madame Web” fails to accomplish in 116: engage the brain and the heart on an unpredictable thrill ride. But that’s not enough to stop me from watching “Madame Web” again.  

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