Madame Web Review: A Love Letter to the Golden Age of Bad Cape Films

The funny thing about watching audiences cool off from big-budget comic book adaptations in recent years is that if you lived through the very early years, it almost feels like things are going back to the way they used to be. After Marvel tentpoles dominated the box office for years, it was easy to forget how brazen and unserious these types of projects usually were, outside of the handful that put the genre on the map.

But before the rise of the MCU, Bad Comic Book Movies™ – projects that didn’t take themselves or their source material all that seriously – tended to be the rule rather than the exception. And while they may not have been great, they were the kind of films that audiences knew how to have fun with.

Only since multiverses have become the new thing in Hollywood have studios started to feel comfortable even acknowledging (and capitalizing on people’s nostalgia for) those halcyon days when Spider-Man’s web was organic. But unlike some other recent Sony’s Spider-Man features that focus more on bringing back specific characters and actors from previous franchises, those of director SJ Clarkson Mrs. Web is much more interested in revisiting a specific moment in comic book film history – one defined by questionable costumes, baffling plots, and a palpable sense of shame on screen.

It’s set in a curious part of Sony’s larger Spider-verse films, where it’s still 2003 and Spider-Man himself doesn’t exist. Mrs. Web tells the story of Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson), an acerbic paramedic whose life one day takes a series of strange turns when she dies (briefly) while saving a man’s life. As an adult orphan whose mother died in the Amazon while researching spiders, Cassandra struggles to emotionally connect with anyone who isn’t her co-worker Ben Parker (Adam Scott), or the stray cat who regularly wanders into her New York City walk.

But after a routine emergency response results in Cassie plummeting to her death, she awakens to find herself imbued with an ill-defined set of predictive powers. Although she has no idea what to make of her alarming visions, it soon becomes clear that they all lead her to a trio of young girls.

Disorienting exposition dumps in a film’s opening act are almost always a warning sign, but the way Mrs. Web clumsily juxtaposes a flashback to Cassandra’s past with glimpses of her suspects’ futures, making it almost feel like the filmmakers are trying to keep you from understanding what’s going on. While his motivations are unclear, it’s simple enough to understand Mrs. WebIn the first few minutes, perpetually barefoot Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim) sets out to kill three masked women wearing spider-themed superhero costumes. It is obvious Mrs. Web wants you to wonder who Sims’ targets are, and why they don’t just use their powers to stop him.

But instead of revealing their identities, the film dumps Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor), and Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced) into Cassandra’s lap about half an hour later, at a time when there is already too many other things happening.

Sony’s plan to build an entire cinematic universe on the Spider-Man IP alone has always felt a bit questionable, but in Mrs. Web‘s younger leads, you can almost see what the plan is like could be work. Like Cassandra, the girls are all orphans (at least emotionally) and need someone to guide them through the madness of being a teenager.

You can also see how the girls’ thinly developed personality traits could one day make them an interesting team of Spider-Women, and how Mrs. WebIt’s basically a story about Cassandra taking on her role as a mentor to a fun new generation of heroes. But as timely as that narrative intention is, the film doesn’t really make its characters feel like real players in a coherent story, and the girls are ultimately pushed into the background — first because they’re introduced as misfits. -focus on extras on the periphery of Cassandra’s story, and later when she takes the girls under her wing to protect them from Sims by… dumping them in the woods.

Among the hectic set pieces in which the camera lens never seems to be able to decide where to focus and how Mrs. Web‘s script bounces briskly between scenes, it’s clear the filmmakers are trying to make you feel some of the deep discombobulation that Cassandra herself experiences. Even if the execution is more than a little off, it’s a clever idea, and it’s to the film’s credit that Cassandra’s visions of being murdered by a fake Spider-Man are distinctly disturbing. But as much time as Mrs. Web spends on telling us that Cassandra is terrified for her and the girls’ lives, you’d be hard-pressed to get that impression from Johnson’s deadpan performance and the way she portrays her character as someone who approaches most situations with a distinct sense of apathy.

When you look Mrs. Web as a modern comic book movie – made with the knowledge of how much money these things can make – it’s hard to understand many of the choices made. But the film makes a lot more sense if you consider it not only as a film set in 2003, but also as a film that tries to evoke the atmosphere of comic book films from that era. The signs are pretty much there from the jump, but it’s when Mis-Teeq’s “Scandalous” is added during an action sequence that it becomes shockingly clear how much Mrs. Web has in common with the 2004 Cat lady starring Halle Berry, both films feeling like doomed failures from the start.

Instead of all previous ones from Sony Spider-Man spin-off films, in the confusing way Mrs. Web By reworking the origins of Julia, Mattie, and Anya, the film feels much more like something from the era that gave us the first film. Daredevil to film Fantastic four: Rise of the silver surfer. People now look back on that point in superhero movie history fondly, because enough time has passed for those movies to evolve into cult classics. But the simple truth is that for a long time, big budget cape projects have missed as often as they achieved, and with Mrs. Web technically a sequel Morbius and a precursor thereof Kraven the Hunterit’s fair to say that Sony has definitely returned to those days.

Mrs. Web Also stars Mike Epps, Emma Roberts and Zosia Mamet. The film is in theaters now.

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