I’ve been saying for years that Sony’s attempts at a shared Spider-Man cinematic universe without Spider-Man was a blatantly stupid idea doomed to fail. I’ve said repeatedly that if Sony keeps on churning out Spider-Man-adjacent films in perpetuity without regard for quality, profit, or anything other than keeping hold of the rights out of pure spite, they’ll go the way of 20th Century Fox before them. Well, it looks like the bill has finally come due.

Madame Web is a flop. It’s already been written off as a critical and commercial bomb of even greater proportions than Morbius before it. But at least Jared Leto is a heel. That’s why we keep him around and its why he gets the acting gigs he does, he’s so much fun to hate. With the debatable exception of Ezra Miller, Jared Leto is the most eminently punchable man the world has seen since Richard Spencer.

But it’s no fun to hate on Dakota Johnson. Who wants to make fun of Sydney Sweeney or Isabela Merced? Nobody knows or understands or cares enough about the title character or the film’s premise to make fun of it. There’s no humor or schadenfreude to be found in the wreckage, it’s just sad.

So where do you go if you’re Sony? What do you do when you’ve bet the farm on a superhero shared universe that took years to build and will continue to collapse for the next few years to come?

They still have Ghostbusters, but there’s a problem: Nostalgia. Ghostbusters: Afterlife was consistently dinged for leaning too heavily on callbacks and legacy cast members, and the promos make it clear Ghostbusters: Frozen Kingdom is tripling down. When a franchise is so heavily dependent on a 40-year-old movie and its cast — most of whom are dead or dying at this point — how much longer can it be sustainable?

I’ve said in the past that Sony would be better off selling their film division entirely and going back to electronics. Trouble is, their PlayStation division is in dire financial straits. Even so, news broke today (the weekend after Madame Web opened, fancy that timing) that Sony would handle manufacturing and distribution for Disney’s DVDs, Blu-Rays, and other physical media. Kind of reminds me how Paramount is trying to shunt their streaming operations onto Comcast. I’ll be interested to see how antitrust regulators deal with this kind of business co-op, especially if it becomes more commonplace, but I digress.

Getting back to movies, it’s not all bad for Sony. Anyone But You had surprising long-term gains, and Thanksgiving (2023) made money as well. That’s not even getting started on their potentially lucrative first-look deal with Netflix. (“Cobra Kai” certainly worked out well for both parties.) We’ve all been saying for years that Hollywood needs to make more mid-tier films, and Sony is ideally placed to do just that. But no, they’re apparently going ahead with four interconnected Beatles biopics. Which was also announced today, just after Madame Web crashed and burned. Further adding to the impression that this is a big-money splash play borne of desperation from a studio with nothing left to lose.

With all of that said, I still wanted to give Madame Web a post-mortem. After all, remember when The Marvels got unfairly dragged through the mud? I gave that female-driven superhero movie a fair shake, and I wanted to give Madame Web that same courtesy. And if it turned out to be awful, I wanted to try and comb through the wreckage, break down what didn’t work, and maybe find something worth salvaging.

Sorry to disappoint you all, dear readers, but it turns out I was not equal to the task.

The first six minutes alone are filled with more bullshit than I could sufficiently recount here. The plot is filled with so many holes, they teleported a woman from New York to freaking Peru while she’s wanted by the police. Every line of dialogue is either forced exposition, threadbare cliche, or both. The actors don’t even try selling any of the wretched dialogue because nobody in the cast looks like they want to be there. The action scenes and premonitions are crammed with half-baked CGI and 360-degree camera rolls to the point where it’s physically painful to look at. Even the goddamn sound design is out of whack because there’s too much ADR for the sound mixing to keep up with!

On a technical level, the movie is fundamentally broken. But what about the story and characters? Well, the plot and premise are incomprehensibly bad for a multitude of reasons, but the reasons all come down to two root causes.

First up is the villain, name of Ezekiel Sims. He’s supposedly played by Tamar Rahim, but I could swear it looks and sounds like every single one of his lines was either dubbed or ADR’d. I might add that his lackey (Amaria, played by Zosia Mamet) is doing all the legwork of tracking down our main characters through computer magic with no apparent motivation for doing so and no character development whatsoever, so the villain is just kinda there.

Another crucial factor is that Ezekiel routinely brushes off our protagonist (Cassie Webb, played by Johnson), so he never takes our title hero or her precognitive visions into consideration. Which means that every time our hero gets directly involved, the bad guy gets his ass kicked with barely any difficulty. Never once does the antagonist come off as any kind of plausible threat, which is kind of a big fucking problem.

But what about the villain’s motivation? What about his big evil plan? Well, Ezekiel first steals the magic spider back in 1970 because he apparently had it rough coming up and he figures the world owes him. And now in 2005, he’s out to kill three teenage girls (Julia, Anya, and Mattie, respectively played by Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, and Celeste O’Connor) because they’ll someday grow up to be the superheroes that’ll kill him. So now he’s out to kill them before they become a threat. Because he’s defending “everything he ever built”, whatever the hell that is.

The villain’s big plot is a self-fulfilling prophecy. He literally manufactures his own downfall for no reason whatsoever. And somebody with a WGA membership got contracted and paid to write this shit.

Oh, and by the way, the film makes a huge deal about how the film is set in 2003. Why would anyone set the movie in the mid-’00s? Well, we’ve got Adam Scott on hand playing a character named Ben, Emma Roberts of all people plays his sister-in-law named Mary, Mary’s unseen husband is named Richard, Mary is visibly pregnant and ready to burst through most of the runtime, OH COME ON WHAT THE FUCK!!!

Moving on, let’s talk about the second root cause of all the major problems here: It’s freaking tone-deaf. Yes, I get that our three teenage girls are vapid and oblivious, that’s all well and good. Yes, I get that Cassie is supposed to be a socially awkward loner. Yes, I get that her visions of the future are supposed to be disorienting mindfucks.

The big problem here is that the characters act stupidly and they’re never sympathetic. The characters are awkward but never endearing. The action scenes and premonitions are disorienting, but they never look cool. I know it’s a difficult task for a filmmaker to portray a situation that’s cringe-inducing for the characters without being cringe-inducing for the audience, but it’s like these filmmakers don’t even try.

And it’s not like these are terrible actors. I’ve got nothing against Dakota Johnson. I’ve got nothing against Sydney Sweeney or Celeste O’Connor. I’ve been an outspoken Isabela Merced fan for years. Hell, I’ll even give director S.J. Clarkson the benefit of the doubt — it’s her feature film debut after a long and respectable run directing for many fine TV shows. But the source material and the godawful script are working against them here.

Case in point: Our teenage girls are on the run, and they narrowly escaped from a man who is clearly trying to kill them. And the minute Cassie turns her back, they go out to a diner, show their faces in public, flirt with a few strange boys, and literally table-dance to Britney Spears’ “Toxic”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again as many times as I have to: If a character goes out of their way to make their own problems for no reason whatsoever, when anyone with a bare minimum of common sense would know it’s a bad idea with no potential upside, that’s all my sympathy shot to hell forever. I don’t even care if you die at that point, you were literally asking for it.

Is it the worst superhero film ever made? Ever seen Pumaman? Until you have, don’t even bother asking that question.

Is the film as bad as Morbius? No, it’s worse. Say what you will about Morbius, but at least it was coherent. At least I could see and understand what was happening and the plot made more sense. And sure, it was stupid how the villain switched names in mid-production, leading to all sorts of ridiculous continuity glitches, but that’s still better than half a movie getting slapped together with ADR in post. That said, at least Madame Web didn’t have any half-assed attempts at an MCU crossover, at least the Sony execs learned that lesson the hard way.

No, I’d say Madame Web has more in common with The Flash. Yes, Sony spent a reported $80 million while DC/WB blew maybe three times that much. True, Madame Web didn’t have to deal with anything as problematic as Ezra Miller. Granted, we didn’t have Sony executives making laughable public statements about how Madame Web was the greatest industry-dominating superhero movie ever made. And sure, Madame Web didn’t have the disadvantage of coming out in the shadow of an upcoming rebooted universe to make this one obsolete before it even came out.

All of that aside, Madame Web and The Flash both share three crucial similarities.

  1. Both movies never should’ve been made. With Madame Web even more than The Flash, everyone should’ve known before cameras started rolling that this movie was destined to fail.
  2. Both movies were positioned as soft reboots of their respective megafranchises, with their namesake characters positioned as the anchors of new continuities spanning multiple films.
  3. Nobody cared about Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom after The Flash, and nobody will care about Venom 3 or Kraven the Hunter after Madame Web. These two movies are the nadirs, the death rattles, the points of no return for their respective megafranchises. Maybe even for their respective studios.

Yet for all of that, I can’t find it in me to hate on Madame Web to the extent that I hate The Flash. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that Barry Allen is a cornerstone DC superhero long since deserving of a stellar blockbuster franchise, and WB/DC spent several years promising all that and the freshly rebooted DC Cinematic Universe we all wanted. Nobody expected any of that from Madame Web. Nobody wanted a movie about Madame Web. Nobody wanted a rebooted Spider-Adjacent Cinematic Universe — hell, nobody ever wanted a Spider-Man-Without-Spider-Man Cinematic Universe to begin with!

More than anything else, I feel sorry for everyone in the cast and crew of Madame Web. By all appearances, they’re likeable and talented people who got dealt the worst possible hand and tried to do something different with it. Alas, the end result is a superhero movie that tries to be a psychological thriller as assembled by a cast and crew who doesn’t know anything about how to make either one.

This is technically a movie in the same way that a bowl full of chalk and castor oil is technically food. Let Morbius and The Flash be the textbook examples of everything that’s wrong with Hollywood blockbuster cinema today and forget all about this one. Don’t watch it for any reason, don’t even try to hate-watch it or watch it to make fun of it, you won’t get anything out of it. Let’s all please just do everyone a favor and forget this movie ever happened.

Except you, Sony. Seriously, I know you’ve got a couple other films in the pipeline and we’re all looking forward to Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, but you’re fucking done. Cash in your chips, sell whatever’s left of the rights back to Marvel, and move on already.

For more Movie Curiosities, check out my blog. I’m also on Facebook and BlueSky.

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