Madame Web (2024)

Does whatever a madame can

Remember last year when half of y’all decided that Moonfall was a lovably dopey and charming throwback blockbuster? You were wrong, and it was bad, but I was accused of being a killjoy for pointing it out. The tables have now turned with Madame Web. You can’t stop picking on this dumb-dumb little movie. It reminds me of a pre-MCU superhero movie when geeks like us were desperate for comic book cinema, not drowning in it, and many of the morsels we got were aggressively bad (Silver Surfer-ass flicks), but we still hate-liked them anyways. Madame Web is maybe not quite so bad as the worst dregs, though it gets close from time to time. It’s also not so-bad-it’s-good (which I would counter is then in fact “good”). But it did not make me actively angry. I even smiled a few times while watching it. During some moments in the first half, several f those smiles were unironic, even! (And also several were ironic.)

If a movie must be bad, it could take some lessons from Madame Web. First, find a perfect captain for your sinking ship. In sports, we call this a “tank commander,” and Jordan Poole has put on a clinic for the Washington Wizards this season. For Madame Web, the laurels go to Dakota Johnson playing the titular madame (n.b. she is not and does not get married). Johnson has done wonders during the PR campaign for this film, not veiling even a little bit her disdain for the process and the outcome, but also not giving enough of a shit to be angry, just kinda haphazardly disinterested.

But even in the film itself, it’s hard to imagine someone better suited to deliver the words of a crassly artless screenplay as it self-destructs than Johnson. Her voice is the audio equivalent of resting bitch face, and it makes her delivery of both serious plot material and awkward asides feel like she is making fun of the movie (and the audience). She has a dry, kooky energy that is so wrong for comic book movies it becomes eminently watchable. And against all odds, she has actual chemistry when exchanging lines with several other cast members. She is grotesquely miscast, and miscast Dakota Johnson might be my favorite Dakota Johnson. (See 2022’s Persuasion.)

Even beyond Johnson, Madame Web packs in a lot of curveball charm into the cast, which keeps it fascinating and watchable, if still slightly broken. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) most of the cast have absolutely no idea what they’re doing here, and so every scene is just a bizarre clash of tones and tenors. Director S.J. Clarkson displays no ability or inclination to get them on the same page. Sydney Sweeney acts like she’s in a porn parody without the porn. Isabela Merced is constantly waiting for the camera to start rolling. Tahar Rahim, a respected French actor who plays the villain, is howling and mugging nonstop like he’s playing a mad scientist on a soap opera. Zosia Mamet, quirky standout from Girls, playing a cyber geek? Emma Roberts for two scenes? Why the hell not!

Other than Johnson, it’s Adam Scott who fares best, which should be a surprise to no one. This is the man who starred in Piranha 3D. He is good at understanding assignments. He is good, period. He, like Johnson, somehow always finds chemistry with the cast surrounding him, even in trainwrecks, so when he and Johnson are together, the movie is actually legitimately enjoyable. My new dream project is Joe Swanberg directing Scott and Johnson as coworkers who have unresolved romantic chemistry, ad libbing the entire film like Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde in Drinking Buddies. It’s just a damn shame that Scott basically vanishes after the film’s midway point.

Here’s where I confess I drafted most of the above text of this review in between the two sittings in which I watched this film, meaning I had only seen the first two acts of Madame Web. And that final act… oof. It contains significantly less weirdo Dakota Johnson charm, and significantly more of the film being edited into ribbons, propped up by wooden ADR, clearly taking whatever semblance of a coherent origin story blockbuster might (or might not) have existed during filming, and disemboweling it with horrid post-production. The Spider-Girls don’t even get costumed or powered except in one very brief dream sequence! Come on!

The ending is the limpest wet noodle, truly an embarrassment. It features some of the most brazen product placement of recent memory via Pepsi. The climactic action is centered on two sets: a car crash and a fireworks factory; no, I am not making that up; and no, it could not be more poetic. It offers no sense of space or energy or anything other than watching a screensaver for twenty minutes. The denouement is somehow even worse: As Cassie Webb becomes Madame Web in the final scene, the cast awkwardly stares at each at each other with a faint look that conveys “I have a hunch this has flown off the rails, and it also might be ableist.”

Halfway through the movie, I was all prepped to end this review with a coy “so, it’s basically as good as Trainspotting… ho ho!” But I sadly can’t even muster that much enthusiasm. Maybe it’s not so much better Moonfall than I wanted it to be. But, damn it, I still feel some fondness: for the film, for Dakota Johnson, for its fascinating cast, and for its third-rate loser charm.

Is It Good?

Not Good (2/8)

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5 replies on “Madame Web (2024)”

I hope that you’ll understand what I mean when one says that, in a Comic Book movie, Ms. Dakota Johnson should NOT be playing the younger version of a classic Obi-Wan type, she should be playing a completely normal person trying to get through this lunacy with SOMETHING intact: may she someday get that chance to ‘Pull a Ripley’.

(That’s Ellen Ripley circa ALIEN or ALIENS, not THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY).

HA. Dakota Johnson as an Alien-type hero is something I’d love to see. I can just imagine her slightly condescending tone as she scolds the other people on the ship.

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