Advertisement

Madame Web is beyond abysmal – it’s the most entertaining superhero film in ages

Newlyweb: Dakota Johnson as Cassie in the terrible ‘Madame Web' (Sony)
Newlyweb: Dakota Johnson as Cassie in the terrible ‘Madame Web' (Sony)

It was inevitable that Madame Web would tank. Dakota Johnson as the eponymous psychic, a peripheral character who occasionally pops up in the Spider-Man comic books? It’s not exactly Marvel’s A-list. Throw in the bizarre, sarcastic press tour and a trailer that was openly mocked on social media, and it’s clear they were always going to have a hard time selling this one.

And sure enough, the reviews for Madame Web have been damning. The Independent’s Clarisse Loughrey gave it one star, describing the film as “desperate” and “embarrassed of itself”, and likening it to a “pained shrug”. The Guardian likewise awarded it one star, branding it “as dumb and schlocky as the worst of the genre”. It’s true: those looking for a cudgel with which to thrash Madame Web needn’t look far. The whole film, in fact, is made up of cudgels, stacked up into something that only technically qualifies as a story. The acting is awful, with every line tossed off in a kind of disinterested monotone that’s more befitting a Twitch stream than a life-or-death struggle. The dialogue is terrible, the plot machinations inexplicable. A subplot involving Spider-Man’s “Uncle Ben” – young and buckish here, played by Parks and Recreation’s Adam Scott – implicitly situates the film within Tom Holland’s Marvel chronology, only without uttering the words “Spider-Man” or “Peter Parker”, which would have impinged on some unacquired copyright. It’s a shambles. And yet, perversely, it’s the most entertaining superhero film we’ve had in an age.

There’s a phrase you hear a lot when it comes to movies: the idea of a film being “so bad it’s good”. The phrase itself can be applied to everything from micro-budget schlock by industry outsiders (Tommy Wiseau’s The Room; the oeuvre of Neil Breen) to big, miscalculated blockbusters (Catwoman; Street Fighter). It may be mean-spirited, but it’s hardly a niche fixation – as evidenced by the repertory screenings some of these “worst of all time” endeavours regularly receive. Madame Web is a prime candidate for this kind of ironic appropriation, being both disarmingly daft on a line-by-line basis, as well as baffling and inept in a wider structural sense.

It’s not just that Johnson reads her lines poorly, or unconvincingly: she seems to be uninterested in even sustaining the basic professional illusion of effort. The whole thing makes for a fascinating spectacle beneath the surface. Each scene seems to prompt a hundred questions about the creative decision making: Who signed off on this script? What direction was possibly provided to yield these line readings? What was going through their minds while filming it? Madame Web is so thoroughgoingly bad at suspending disbelief that there is no possibility of immersion; our minds are given course to wonder, to speculate about these myriad mysteries of its making. And could that not be the magic of cinema?

Over the course of the 2010s, it seemed as if superhero films were growing more assured in their ability to walk the line of basic filmmaking competence: the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in particular, was able to push out dozens of films that followed the same structural formula. Gone were the days of disasters like 2004’s Catwoman – but to what end? Madame Web is a giddily welcome reminder that there are still depths left unplumbed, that studio quality control has not yet consigned the genre to a kind of functional mediocrity. The film is part of a run of Spider-Man-adjacent spin-offs produced by Sony, after the two popular Tom Hardy Venom movies, and Jared Leto’s little-seen Morbius. Each of these three films had, to some extent, attempted to court the ironic dross-seeking audience, but managed to fall either side of the wonder-crud window – Hardy was a little too good, too compelling, while Leto, playing the “living vampire”, was dreadful in a charmless and insufferable way.

The final set-piece of Madame Web sees Ma’am Web lead a trio of young proteges (Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, and Celeste O’Connor) through a disused firework factory, in an attempt to lay a trap for the film’s villain Ezekiel (Tahar Rahim). Ezekiel, who wears an outfit that looks like an off-brand Spider-Man, is never given a master plan, or even a day job – but boy, does he want to get those girls. In order to best their foe, Madame Web throws torches into box after box of fireworks, and the whole building explodes into a cacophony of whizzing pyrotechnics.

Spider hunter: Dakota Johnson in ‘Madame Web’ (Sony)
Spider hunter: Dakota Johnson in ‘Madame Web’ (Sony)

It’s chaos, and a fittingly stupid way to end a film that seems to have no plan of its own. Sometimes, though, that’s all you need. If Madame Web were any better made, it would be a complete drag. But explosions like this one – you can’t look away.

‘Madame Web’ is in cinemas now