Madame Web is in an awkward position because it’s likely that, after 15 years of cultural dominance by the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, we have a pretty well-formed idea of what constitutes a “good” Marvel movie. In particular, it’s gotta cost $200 million or more, and look like it thanks to non-stop CGI and star cameos.
But none of that describes Madame Web, a standalone film from Sony that isn’t a part of the MCU, much like the Venom films, Morbius, and the upcoming Kraven movie. This is not your standard Marvel spectacle–it’s got far more in common with horror films like Friday the 13th and Final Destination. That’s a good thing, and as a result, Madame Web actually has something new and fresh to offer comic book movie audiences.
But it’s only to a point–as these things so often do, Madame Web eventually ends up mired in an ugly, CGI-heavy climax that doesn’t even make any sense for the story, pivoting from something interesting to a subpar version of the Marvel norm. I really enjoyed Madame Web for the first 100 minutes or so, but it went downhill very quickly once our heroes arrived at the final battle.
Madame Web follows Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson), an EMT in New York whose only powers are those of precognition–she can see the future sometimes. This is an intuition thing at first, helping her become Fast & Furious-level good at driving an ambulance. But her powers are fully unlocked when she has a near-death experience on the job, almost drowning before being saved by her partner, Ben (Adam Scott). From there, she starts seeing visions of the future, usually when somebody she knows or will know is about to die. And these visions lead her to save a trio of teen girls who are about to be murdered on a subway train by a bad guy who looks, essentially, like Spider-Man with a dad bod.
This guy isn’t one of the Spider-Men we know, though, but he’s got a connection to Cassie. 30 years before, when Cassie’s mom was pregnant with her, she had been searching the Amazon for a mysterious spider with magnificent healing properties. This Man With Spider-Like Abilities, Zeke Sims, was with Cassie’s mom, looking for the spider for his own purposes and ends up shooting her to get it. The Las Arañas–the local Peruvian spider-folks–try to use one of the powerful spiders to save her, but they only manage to save baby Cassie. And Zeke escapes with his spider.
Ever since, Zeke has been haunted by visions of his own death at the hands of a trio of Spider-Women–these are the three teens that Cassie saves on the subway, and who she has to safeguard even while she works out how to control her own abilities. But Cassie has no superhuman physical abilities at all, and these girls haven’t been bitten by any spiders yet. So they’ll need to survive this evil man-spider using only their wits and Cassie’s premonitions.
That core conceit gives Madame Web the same sort of vibe as a slasher movie–we have multiple scenes where we see Zeke brutally murder the girls, before the film rewinds time and gives Cassie the chance to stop that from happening. It’s a very Final Destination-esque structure, and it gets major bonus points for using the iconography of Spider-Man in this subversive sort of way. When it sticks to that formula, it’s pretty good and something very different from the Marvel norm.
It’s got the feel of a normal movie rather than the assembly line-style CGI nonsense that Marvel Studios likes to put out, with Madame Web actually being shot on location and without slathering CGI over every shot just because they can. Johnson’s Cassie Webb goes pretty hard against the Marvel lead type, convincingly coming off as a regular person who’s bewildered by her circumstances while still being smart enough to work out what’s going on without needing too much prompting.
Cassie’s Spider-Teens, meanwhile, are doing their best to collectively steal every scene they’re in–Isabela Merced, Sydney Sweeney, and Celeste O’Connor have great chemistry with each other, are clearly having a great time, and it would be a shame if we don’t get another story with this group.
But despite all the goodwill I felt going into the film’s climactic showdown between these women and the Man-Spider who’s been stalking them, the final sequence falls incredibly flat because it’s overloaded with CGI and gives Cassie some wild new powers that don’t make sense and don’t really help much anyway. It pivots from being a film that defies the standard Marvel story beats to being one that embraces them, and so the climax feels like a betrayal.
If it had stuck the landing, it would have made it a lot easier to look over Madame Web’s low-key story flaws. For example, we learn almost nothing about Zeke Sims’ life outside his quest for preemptive vengeance. This guy stole a magic spider, got powers from it for reasons that are never hinted at, then doesn’t age for the next 30 years while getting rich by some means–but we don’t get any real details about what else he was doing that whole time.
Also curious is that the present-day part of Madame Web is set in 2003, and Cassie’s partner Ben’s sister gives birth to a kid during this movie. Of course, the natural inclination is to think that’s Ben Parker and the child is Peter, who will go on to become Spider-Man. However, there’s no confirmation one way or the other in the movie. There are no firm connections to other Marvel properties, just these kinds of theoretical ones, and so these things end up being noise–noticeable enough to be distracting, but not serving any purpose for this movie that I could tell.
So Madame Web ends up being mostly a pretty fun and different sort of Marvel experience than we’re used to. But the parts that aren’t fun and different–mainly the climax and ending–are such a huge drag that they nearly end up obscuring the good stuff.