MOVIES

A Campy Good Time Tangled In A Tired Franchise Web

After a prologue introducing villain Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim, having the time of his life hamming it up in an underwritten role), who was in the Amazon researching spiders with Cassandra Webb’s mother right before she died, we flash forward to 2003, where we get to meet Dakota Johnson’s anti-social paramedic. Following a near-death experience after she plunges into the Hudson River trying to save a man trapped in a car, her perception of time begins to shift. She frequently witnesses premonitions of pivotal moments before they take place. When on the subway, she has the most vivid one yet, as three teenage strangers (Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor, and Isabela Merced) are torn limb from limb by a man in a spider suit. This is Ezekiel, who has been experiencing his own premonitions every night, witnessing his death at the hands of these three girls who don’t yet know each other, let alone know they’re going to become a super-team — Cassandra steps in to save them, and suddenly, they’re on the run.

In interviews promoting the film, S.J. Clarkson has tended to describe it as a “psychological thriller,” more stripped-down than the typical comic book movie due to the relatively grounded nature of clairvoyance as a superpower. When “Madame Web” fully leans into this, it proves more arresting than anticipated, each subsequent set piece built around one of these premonitions more ambitious and hallucinatory than the last. The aforementioned subway sequence is best at placing us within a warped headspace, weaponizing the familiarity that comes with the incessant repetition of events to create a nightmare that only continues to fracture and fold back in on itself.

When utilized in a more conventional fight scene, such as a diner brawl scored to Britney’s “Toxic” — some points deducted here for the fact that the song was released a year later than the film is set, in 2004 — there are earnest thrills built around the way Cassandra refines plans of action that didn’t work out the first time, like a more grounded take on “Edge of Tomorrow” or “Source Code.” Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t seem to acknowledge that these moments are the obvious highlights, and so we trudge into a third act that avoids utilizing this unique power in favor of a cliched, thrill-free showdown at an abandoned Pepsi factory, a hilarious climax considering the surely record-breaking amounts of Pepsi product placement in the two hours preceding it.

Before I pivot into outlining the film’s numerous missteps, I do need to make one thing clear: “Madame Web” is significantly better than “Morbius” for the crucial reason that, while it is often as howlingly bad, it is at least entertaining to watch. “Morbius” had to be transformed into a meme to obtain a certain kitsch factor absent from the snooze of a movie itself, whereas “Madame Web” is endearingly stupid at face value, which may be why the critical knives feel sharper this time. I’m of the belief that a fun-bad movie is of higher artistic worth than a boring-bad movie, so despite everything I’m going to say about it now, do know that it is practically “Citizen Kane” when placed next to Jared Leto’s anti-hero outing.

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