The Off-Off-Off-Brand Spider-man Universe

Madame Web

Sony is just committed to trying to get their own SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002. universe off the ground. They’re had successful Spider-man movies in the past, but the suits up top always got in the way, taking working franchise and absolutely ruining them with bad ideas (see: Spider-man 3, The Amazing Spider-man 2). You could feel the desperation coming off them, giving the keys to the hero back to Marvel so they could co-make the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Spider-man: Homecoming, praying they could tap into that fanbase. It worked, and for a while Sony got to ride high, making three films with Marvel along with one moderately well received Venom movie. But, outside the animated space, Sony has been struggling to make a good superhero movie since then, with the likes of Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Morbius showing just what a shitshow it really is over at that studio. “We can make anything Spider-man related and fans will watch it!” they seemed to say and, no. No they can’t because no we won’t.

In the latest example of overestimating the kinds of shit that fans will put up with we need look nor further than Sony’s massive bomb: Madame Web. This is another of their “Spidey without Spidey” films, taking a random character (or, really, four characters) from the main Spider-man universe and putting them into their own movie with absolutely no connection to the hero at the center of it all. Spider-man is the central hub, the nexus, the event horizon for his whole universe and yet (due to the contract they have with Marvel, one must assume) they keep trying to make films about his characters without him which, unsurprisingly, rarely work because those characters are only interesting when they’re working with, or against, the web-head himself. Madame Web is no different, even if it does, for half a film, try so very hard to make it all work.

Dakota Johnson (in a don’t give two fucks performance) stars as Cassandra “Cassie” Webb (see, it’s in here name!), a paramedic who was raised as an orphan after her mother died, in childbirth, in the Amazon while chasing spiders. Cassie didn’t really know or care about any of that (despite having a trunk full of her mom’s work from that period of her life), instead growing up to hate her mother for abandoning her (well, okay, there’s two short scenes where she seems bitter about her mother, but it really hardly comes up most of the time). She has a best friend, and work partner, Ben Parker (Adam Scott as, yes, that Ben Parker), and generally stay to herself, not going out or hanging out with people, preferring the company of one stray cat and Turner Classic Movies.

Things take a turn for her, though, when, during a rescue attempt to save a man stuck in an overturned car, Cassie gets stuck in that car as it slides off a bridge. Ben saves her, pulling her from the water after diving off the bridge (clearly making him the hero we actually should be following), but while in the water Cassie had a near-death experience that put her in connection with the web at the center of the universe. She wakes up with powers of premonition and, on a train ride out to a funeral, she suddenly watches the deaths of three girls: Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced), and Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor)... except she doesn’t watch them die. She watches their possible deaths at the hands of Ezekiel Simms (Tahar Rahim). She drags them off the train, helping them escape, and then the four-some goes on the run to escape the man in a dark black Spider suit all to try and save their futures (that only she keeps seeing).

Let’s not make any mistake: Madame Webb is a dreadful, painful, boring movie. This is a film that was clearly interfered with at every step of the development process from writing (four credits authors) to reshoots, or re-edits in post over and over again. Whatever shape the film was supposed to have at the start of production (and we’ll cover that in a sec) that’s not the film we got in the end. Sony spent $100 Mil at least (not even counting possible extra costs of reshoots, as well as advertising) to make one of the worst superhero productions ever (I’d call it the absolute worst but, well, Marvel did make Secret Invasion). The end result would be tragic comic if there was anything even remotely funny about it. This is a movie meant for one thing and one thing only: mockery by Jonah and the Bots over on Mystery Science Theater 3000First aired on the independent TV network KTMA, Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew in popularity when it moved to Comedy Central. Spoofing bad movies, the gang on the show watch the flicks and make jokes about them, entertaining its audience with the same kind of shtick many movies watchers provided on their own (just usually not as funny as the MST3K guys could provide). It became an indelible part of the entertainment landscape from there, and lives on today on Netflix.. Only then would it truly be watchable.

But here’s the thing: I think, deep down, there might have once been a good/ (or at least moderately watchable) superhero film at the core of Madame Web. While the idea of making a Spidey-without-Spidey film is dubious at best, there’s something about the ideas the film has that could have been interesting, and that all comes down to the idea behind bringing in Ezekiel Simms. In the comics Ezekiel is a good guy, a man who gained a connection to the great web and spider-like powers, and who eventually used his power, money, and connections to aid Spidey. Ezekiel in the movie is like an evil version of that, gaining the powers and money but using it all to work against the emerging Spider-heroes, not for them.

This could make for an interesting exploration of the character: who would Peter Parker (although we use a different character in this case, of course) be if he didn’t use his powers to help everyone. If he didn’t have Uncle Ben and Aunt May to guide him. If he killed, and stole, and was villainous because there wasn’t a moral compass. It’s like the tales of SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. going bad, but from the perspective of Spider-man, which makes for an interesting and compelling villain… or it would, if the movie had any clue what it was doing.

The problem the film has is that it’s focused on the least interesting character in the film. Madame Webb, in the comics, is a figure that hangs out in the background, using her powers of premonition to help others figure out what they’re supposed to do. Cassie does that in the film too, and you realize just how boring that is for the hero when all she can do is drag people around and get others to do her work for her. Cassie is the least interesting hero this film could have within it when there are so many other compelling characters hanging around on the periphery, waiting for their stories to begin.

Ezekiel is, of course, one of them. He’s a villain introduced in the early going of the movie where, after Cassie’s mother, Constance Webb (Kerry Bishé, who I loved in Halt and Catch Fire), discovers the magical spider that would eventually give Ezekiel his powers, he kills her and takes it for himself. And then he basically disappears from the film for huge stretches. The few times we do see him, his lines are overdubbed with terrible ADR (post-production audio) and it’s the same repetitive few lines over and over again. He’s obsessed with three girls that he sees in a dream, over and over, who come every night to kill him. He wants to kill them first, and that’s the whole motivation for his story. It’s good motivation, mind you, but considering he’s not a developed character, and has no real part in the movie aside from walking around trying to kill people, he doesn’t really land as a villain.

Then there’s the three girls who are dumb and obnoxious and were clearly written as teenage girl from the perspective of two middle-aged men because, well, those were the guys who wrote the first few drafts of the film. Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless have a string of mediocre movies under their belt, from Dracula Untold to The Last Witch Hunter and, most tellingly, Morbius, and they clearly understood the characters in this film as much as all the ones in their previous efforts. The three teens have a compelling story to tell if they were ever the focus of the movie… but they’re not. They’re a McGuffin, moved around from place to place so the story can continue, but we rarely ever learn anything of value from them and, most tellingly, we never come to view them as heroes.

Hell, the one time we actually see them in their superhero costumes (which, note, the Madame Web trailers made liberal use of to make it seem like it was a respectable superhero film) is in Ezekiel’s dream sequence. It’s the promise of who these characters could eventually be, but they never become it here. “Oh, no, really. Stay tuned for what’s next in the sequel because, well then, you’re really going to enjoy it. We promise.” Audiences didn’t turn up for this one so teasing where these girls could maybe, sort of, one day, possible be seems just a tad presumptuous, Sony.

The only character worth anything is Uncle Ben, but even then the movie doesn’t seem to understand this. As noted, Ben leaps off a bridge, swims to a car, breaks it open (despite the water pressure all around), drags out Cassie, and brings her to shore before giving her CPR and saving her life. He’s a mega-hero in that one act, and then he brushes it off and acts like it’s nothing because he’s a god damned professional paramedic, god damn it! Considering his future connection to Peter Parker (who we have to assume is born in this movie even if the baby isn’t named, because contractual reasons) and his heroic acts in the movie, Ben should have been the central hero here. Adam Scott’s performance as Ben is easy and fun, and every scene that Ben is in is better for the character. He doesn’t get a ton of development, and he doesn’t even really have a plotline, but you can easily see how the movie could have been if it focused more (or completely) on Ben Parker. But no. Of course it wouldn’t do that. We have to look at Cassie Webb, the least interesting character in this film.

I don’t blame Dakota Johnson for this. She says she signed up for a “Marvel Movie”, which she technically got, but her agents didn’t tell her what Marvel movie it was gonna be (you have to assume she gave them a piece of her mind after this fiasco). Her character is as underwritten and tedious as everyone else in the film, and there’s only so much a charismatic actress can do when the character she’s playing is a sucking void in every scene she’s in. Cassie’s life is boring, her actions don’t make a lot of scenes, and the film sends her bouncing left and right all around the place without rhyme or reason simply to try and get the turgid plot through to its conclusion. Johnson isn’t to blame for this, even if she gives one of the most disinterested performances ever. She got a script, the script changed before she even got to film it, and the resulting mess was so awful she just wanted it to be done. Good for her.

Supposedly the original plan for this movie would have seen Spidey someway, somehow, come in (one has to assume pulled through the great web by Cassie) to fight Ezekiel to save the girls. There’s production art showing different versions of Spidey (the Tom Holland version, the Andrew Garfield version) in a climactic fight with Ezekiel, so there were clearly some kind of time travel shenanigans at play, and the whole movie was presumably designed to show how, through his actions, Ezekiel created the very heroes that would be his downfall (Spidey, et al). But contractual obligations being what they are, rumor is that Marvel squashed that, and Sony couldn’t make the film they wanted, and in the end the final version was re-edited to remove all those ideas and make something blander, dumber, and far less interesting. That’s how we got Madame Web.

This isn’t a movie that could have been saved. It was fucked with at every stage of the process, and, likely started off bad with that original script from Sazama and Sharpless. Sony wanted to create something that told “the origin of Spider-man” but, instead, cranked out a $100 Mil boondoggle that told the origin of no one and nothing. No one came to watch this film. No one cared. I don’t often think that movies should be shelved because there’s always something to be learned and gained from even the bad movies. But this is the rare case (unlike Batgirl) where I think keeping this one locked away might have been good for everyone. If it was a choice between releasing Madame Web or taking the tax break, well, Sony, maybe you should have taken the tax break.