'Madame Web' review: A tangled web of campy silliness


Are you sure this isn't the set for the 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' sequel? — Photos: Handout

Madame Web
Director: S. J. Clarkson
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O'Connor, Isabela Merced, Tahar Rahim, Mike Epps, Emma Roberts, Adam Scott.

Once upon a time, comic book movies used to be camp, riding the line of silliness and sincerity that would suit the cinematic adaptation of a slim illustrated volume about superheroes and their exploits. But over 20 years ago, the superhero industrial complex rejected camp, becoming dark and gritty, then sarcastic and flip, then cycling back to wholesomely earnest again for a time.

However, in these days of waning superhero enthusiasm, fatigue setting in, it seems there’s an opening for comic book movies to be stupid – stupidly fun – again, especially if Madame Web can tell their fortunes.To get a little pretentious about the latest ultra silly Sony Marvel movie, Susan Sontag, you would have loved Madame Web. Or maybe she would have found it offensive. Either way, it perfectly fits the rubric she lays out in her famed essay Notes on 'Camp', because, to borrow the phrase, Madame Web is a comic book movie “in quotation marks.”

It is also the purest form of camp in that it is unintentionally so; certainly director and co-writer S.J. Clarkson, the director of dozens of television episodes, including the Marvel series Jessica Jones and The Defenders, didn’t intend for Madame Web to be as silly as it is.

Alright, Spider-girls, make sure you stick close to me... OK, maybe not THAT close.Alright, Spider-girls, make sure you stick close to me... OK, maybe not THAT close.

The writers, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, who wrote the last baffling Sony Marvel movie, Morbius, which was meme’d into infamy last spring, are also responsible for the film’s campiness, in that the dialogue on display here is laughably cumbersome and unnatural.

But the most important element of the camp on display in Madame Web is the madame herself, Dakota Johnson, who has a preternatural ability to apply the aforementioned “quotation marks” to a line reading with the combination of her guileless blue eyes and a smirk on her lips, a skill she deploys to viral fame during almost every press appearance.

It is a performance akin to Michelle Williams in Venom (yet another silly fun Sony Marvel flick) in which the actress is in on the joke, but she is also taking her role very seriously.

I may eat math for breakfast, but I'd like some proper food for lunch please.I may eat math for breakfast, but I'd like some proper food for lunch please.

Is Madame Web a good movie? No. Is it hilariously delightful? Often yes. The film follows an obscure Marvel character who has the ability to see the future because she was bit by a poisonous spider in utero while her mom was researching spiders in the Amazon.

The year is 2003, for some reason probably having to do with the age of a future Peter Parker, the other kid famously bit by a spider. Johnson plays Cassie Web, a FDNY paramedic in Queens, whose main personality trait is “mean to children.”

They pin her social awkwardness on the fact that she grew up in foster care, after being born in a mystical grotto in Peru while her mother Constance (Kerry Bishé) died in childbirth.

Constance was, of course, researching spiders in the Amazon as one does, before her security guard, Ezekiel (Tahar Rahim) turns on her, shooting the team of researchers and stealing the spider and its magical peptides. Heavily pregnant Constance is rescued by a team of indigenous Peruvian “spider men” known as “Arañas,” but they can only save baby Cassie.

Is there a reason that all we seem to do is sit on rocks in this jungle?Is there a reason that all we seem to do is sit on rocks in this jungle?

Ezekiel hoards the spider peptides for himself, and 30 years later, he’s now a sort of cursed dark Spider-Man, tormented by nightmares of being killed by a trio of spunky Spider-women. He attempts to track down these future assassins using surveillance tech pilfered from the NSA, which is piloted, hilariously, by Zosia Mamet of Girls.

Cassie is also having her own terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week. First, she plummets into a river while saving a passenger from a car wreck, triggering a hallucinatory near-death experience.

Then she starts having terrifying visions and harrowing deja vu, which leads to her inadvertently abducting three teenage girls from a Metro-North train in order to save them from dark Spider-Man. To evade Ezekiel, she’ll have to harness the previously unknown powers of her spider peptide-enhanced mind.

I know it doesn't look like it, but we really are in a superhero movie.I know it doesn't look like it, but we really are in a superhero movie.

As Cassie, Johnson is so compellingly weird that you can’t take your eyes off of her. She delivers every clunker of a line with her full chest and a twinkle in her eye. The three other gals – Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor and Isabela Merced – well, they were clearly cast for their potential future stand-alone film, which has to be DOA at this point. They’re all a bit awkward and forced, and none are working on the galaxy-brain levels of Johnson.

Sontag wrote that to talk about camp is to betray it, and it’s impossible to accurately describe the bad-good charms of Madame Web, an appreciation of which requires the kind of sensibility that celebrates the unnatural, the artificial, the exaggeratedly “off.” Johnson gets it, and for those who also do, it’s kind of a thrill to get tangled in her web. – Katie Walsh/Tribune News Service

4 10


Is this a good movie? No. Is it hilariously delightful? Often yes.

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Marvel Comics , Madame Web , Dakota Johnson


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