‘Madame Web’ Is the Right Kind of Ridiculous

Beth Dubber

Reminiscing in an interview about being on set for the trainwreck that was Blade: Trinity, Patton Oswalt once joked that he’s “in this business for two reasons: the money and the anecdotes…I either want to do the best films or the fucking worst films. I don’t want to do the ‘eh’ film." I thought of that quote during the entirety of Madame Web, a thoroughly nonsensical movie that I had a great time watching, in accordance with what we’ll call Patton’s Theorem: if it’s not going to be good, it better be spectacularly bad.

Look, this whole Sony-Spider-Man project—wherein they have access to every character that isn’t Spidey—was doomed from the start. A series of films centering characters, most of them villains, who were designed to be supplementary was never going to work, and always read like a thirsty bid to cash some IP checks that the studio wouldn't have to split with Kevin Feige. Their existence feels so forced and frustrating—who wants to see Venom without Spider-Man?

But while 2018's Venom didn't offer much of a compelling answer to that question, it was, at the very least, delightfully bizarre. I never need to see it again, but in the moment, boy did I enjoy Tom Hardy climbing into a lobster tank. The alternative is a film like Morbius, which outside of Matt Smith dancing, is— okay, confession: I haven’t actually seen Morbius, but the so-bad-it's-bad consensus was pretty clear on that one.

Madame Web splits the difference. Dakota Johnson doesn’t quite seem like she was in on the joke, Hardy-style, but regardless, her whole Dakota-Johnson-Over-It aura plays. If you go into this movie ready to laugh at it—but sometimes, to its credit, also with it—then it really works. And don't wait for it to hit streaming: This is a film properly enjoyed in a theater full of people who are waiting with bated breath to hear “He was in the Amazon with my mom when she was researching spiders right before she died.”

The internet’s fascination with that line, a graceless, un-winking exposition dump, explains the overall temperature heading into Madame Web on release week: just how hilariously awkward and bumbling is this movie, about a C-list Spidey-verse character featuring a cast of actors who clearly aren’t thrilled to be here, going to be?

It’s true: the line isn’t in the actual film as is, but the overall sentiment it created when the trailer dropped is bountiful—and it’s a much more exciting watch because of it. We’re in a period of superhero drought where the films are just kind of blandly bad, with drab CGI, predictable jokey humor, boring villains, and an even more boring setup for the next film on the conveyor belt.

Madame Web, on the other hand barely even bothers with CGI. As a loner orphan with abandonment issues, Johnson’s Cassandra Webb is a constant source of comedy in her awkward interactions with everyone around her, especially once the story forces her to be the steward of three equally lonely teenage girls. The villain is played by Tahar Rahim, who makes some of the most fascinating, po-faced line reading choices I’ve ever seen in a film; he is also, despite being ostentatiously wealthy and dressed in a three-piece suit, often barefoot. There’s no post-credits scene, but since it’s out there that Adam Scott is portraying one Ben Parker, you don’t need to work hard to imagine all the delightfully cringey nods to his future as a Very Influential Uncle in practically every scene.

This is a movie set in 2003, and it feels like a comic book movie that would’ve been released in 2003—before cinematic universes created a uniform, ultimately flavorless language, before placating fanboys with uber-faithful adaptations was a chief concern, before it seemed like these films were being made by people who actually knew the source material. The film doesn’t bother to really explain the whys and hows of Cassandra’s powers getting activated, or to even clearly define them. She can see into the future, that’s all you need to know. Rahim’s aforementioned baddie also has prophetic dreams, wherein he's killed by three girls (Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor, Isabela Merced) with spider-themed costumes and powers.

Although Rahim's character seems to be eternal and immortal, he’s on a mission to find his future murderers and kill them first, with the help of Girls’ Zosia Mamet as his own personal Chloe O’Brian. (No joke: a key plot point is the early-aughts development of the NSA’s facial recognition software). Cassandra bumbles around, seeing 30 seconds or five days into the future with no rhyme or reason, until she incidentally intervenes in the plot to kill these three girls and becomes their unwitting protector. This involves leaving them in the woods well past nightfall with instructions to not do anything stupid.

There’s a version of this film that could’ve been great, of course, one that played up the slasher vibes whenever the girls are targeted, or created a visual language that communicated more clearly when Cassandra was having a vision and when we were watching events actually play out, or at the very least worked some mystery and tension into the paper-thin plot instead of dropping the villain’s motivation in Act 1.

Alas, these are pipe dreams. But if you go into this expecting Tubi vibes instead of MCU factory-sheen, it will work, I promise. By the film’s last two or three scenes, Dakota has fully checked out, but in everything that comes before I found myself fascinated with trying to figure out how much of the joke she was in on. But whether intentional or not, the laughs are plenty. The girls' banter is actually fun (it is truly Sydney Sweeney Season), and the runtime is just short enough to not overstay its welcome.

We’re in the downslope of the comic-book-movie era; the greats will be fewer and farther in between now. But it’s a dreadful watch when one of these aims for gravitas and falls flat; Madame Web is delightfully silly, with future cult-classic energy. The flaws and bizarre choices are the most entertaining thing about it—as soon as it hits digital and is available to be clipped mercilessly by savvy tweeters, prepare to have your timeline inundated with many spiritual cousins of the “researching spiders” line. Which, really, was the best-case scenario.

Originally Appeared on GQ