Madame Web is not the kind of bad you think it is

Her web connects them all. But you probably already knew that.
Her web connects them all. But you probably already knew that.

The most famous line from Madame Web doesn’t actually appear in the movie. “He was in the Amazon with my mom when she was researching spiders right before she died,” a clunky, ADR-dubbed expositional sentence that could have used a run through Grammarly, was an invention for the trailer. That trailer, combined with Dakota Johnson’s completely apathetic press tour and the early, rubbernecking critical reviews, confirmed what many had already suspected about this latest Sony-Marvel endeavor: that this movie was trash from the IP conveyor belt.

Madame Web is not a good movie. One could go so far as to say it’s a very bad movie, and bad movies are a dime a dozen. There have already been plenty in 2024 alone, movies that were honestly more disappointing than Madame Web, in part because they usually carried some expectation of decency. Leaving the theater after Madame Web, however, I knew that the critics were right; the movie was objectively bad, in that it was objectively poorly assembled. But it is the confluence of so many different, unique kinds of bad that it adds up to something, if not good, kind of great. In fact, when I look back at the experience of watching it, I, without a hint of irony, loved it.

Madame Web follows the story of Cassandra Webb (Johnson), Peter Parker’s uncle’s clairvoyant coworker who was born in a temple of spider-people in the Amazon where her mother was conducting research. Her gift is apparently activated when she falls off a bridge in Queens as an adult, and she uses it to protect three teenage girls from Ezekiel, a rich, consistently shoeless man who seeks to kill them because he has dreams of them killing him. Cassandra twice accomplishes this by running people over with a car. Sometimes this car is a stolen taxi, that Cassandra snags early in the film and continues to drive unrestrained for the rest of the runtime—even after a multi-day trip to Peru, during which she apparently leaves the stolen car at the airport. These are merely the script issues, and her web connects much more. Technically and visually speaking, Madame Web is also a mess. Ezekiel’s dialogue seems almost entirely dubbed-in after the fact, and rarely does it sync up with the movement of his mouth. In one scene, Cassie drives her stolen taxi under a poorly-rendered billboard for Beyoncé’s Dangerously In Love album, if only to remind us that we’re in 2003.

Some of these technical deficiencies had made it into the press before the movie actually opened, and entering the theater, I was prepared for a Cats-style fiasco. The 2019 Broadway musical adaptation was, like Madame Web, notorious upon the release of its trailer. In Cats, it was the shockingly poor CGI renderings of the titular cats that unsettled. But as a film, once the eye adjusts to the disturbing, uncanny (uncatty?) valley, it becomes boring; you’re left with two-plus hours of maudlin showtunes. Dear Evan Hanson fell victim to a similar fate; sure, Ben Platt looks like a freak in the film, but one freaky-looking actor does not a movie make. If Madame Web had been an otherwise normal superhero flick with an apathetic lead or a poorly-dubbed villain, it would have gotten old quickly. We need the scenes of her rescuing teen girls, then dumping them alone in the woods, then crashing her car through a rural diner to save them again.

But Madame Web is not Cats, at least in the sense that it has what some might call a plot, and my enjoyment of it is largely unironic. And because that plot is so wacky, my next impulse was to slot it into the realm of misunderstood masterpiece, the Razzie winner that gets critically reappraised 25 years later. But Madame Web isn’t Showgirls either. For better or worse, there is no debate that Showgirls is the completed vision of an auteur. In the 2019 documentary You Don’t Nomi, which explores the film’s infamy and cult status, critic Adam Nayman makes the case that while some see Showgirls as a piece of shit and others see a masterpiece, the truth is that Showgirls is a masterpiece of shit. Madame Web is undeniably a piece of shit in myriad ways, there’s no case to be made that it’s a masterpiece—it’s just too incomplete. The moments of greatness are transcendent in the way a great improv scene might be: Despite it all, the pieces, temporarily, fell into place.

Of course, the so-bad-it’s-good spectrum doesn’t simply run from Cats to Showgirls, and there are 100 other movies that could be included alongside them and Madame Web. But what unites these three is camp—a term that has been used to death but is actually relevant here. The simplest (and arguably best) definition of pure camp is failed sincerity—the fact that director S.J. Clarkson seemingly didn’t set out to make a parody of superhero movies separates the naï ve camp of Madame Web from the intentional camp of, say, The People’s Joker. But in both cases there is some kind of queer sensibility; explicit in the case of The People’s Joker, sublimated in Madame Web via the coven of female spider-women and via Dakota Johnson’s whole deal that, at least anecdotally, gay guys on Twitter eat right up.

Camp is an element, but that still isn’t all of what’s at play here. The enjoyment of Madame Web is genuine, but it’s kind of a schadenfreudian enjoyment derived from this specific cultural moment. Were it not for the superhero movie industrial complex, the already-faltering status of Marvel post-Endgame, and the monopolization of movie theaters by Disney—the kind of monopolization that makes it so even Quentin Tarantino can struggle to get his movies on screens—it’s doubtful the reaction to Madame Web would be this strong, or its failure this sweet. Sure, both The Marvels and Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania underperformed, but we largely moved on without the rubbernecking or turning the movies into punchlines.

But Madame Web is a perfect storm, optimized to be a camel-back-breaking straw. It’s not technically in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a Sony movie, so those with a vested interest in the MCU’s success have no problem throwing it totally under the bus. For those of us who are maybe more aligned with the Martin Scorseses of the world, it becomes the thing to point to as proof that we’re right. But whether through a genuinely subversive vision, weaponized incompetence, or just sheer dumb luck, Madame Web is also the most I’ve enjoyed a superhero movie in years. I grew up watching the Adam West-led Batman series with my parents. I like my superhero content cheap and dumb, stuffed with flimsy logic and bad wigs. The final product ends up being a (probably inadvertent) indictment of movies made by corporate committee and an incredible amount of fun. Madame Web is a feature-length 30 Rock cutaway gag.

So where does that leave us? How do we connect an unintentional corporate satire, a slice of naïve camp, a technically disastrous piece of shit, and an illogically fun superhero movie? With a web, of course—one that can connect them all. Madame Web is not on the existing spectrum of bad movies, but it invents a web all its own, one that could only exist at this specific moment in time. It’s a near tragedy that the end of the movie clearly sets up sequels for Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, and Celeste O’Connor’s assorted spider-girls. Not because I wouldn’t gladly watch three more of these movies, but because we couldn’t remake Madame Web if we tried. In fact, trying would actually make it bad.