Is ‘Madame Web’ a Good Bad Movie or an Irredeemable Bad Movie?

Sony’s latest Spiderverse flop is a debacle, but is Webbin’ time worth it for the LOLs?

Getty Images/Columbia Pictures/Ringer illustration

Spoiler warning

On Valentine’s Day, Sony Pictures released its latest superhero movie set in the Spiderverse: Madame Web.

Directed by S.J. Clarkson and starring Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor, Isabela Merced, and Tahar Rahim, Madame Web is set in New York City in 2003, before Spider-Man became the city’s protector. After nearly drowning, paramedic Cassandra Webb (Johnson) gains the ability to see into her immediate future. Her fate soon becomes entangled with those of three teenagers—Julia Cornwall (Sweeney), Mattie Franklin (O’Connor), and Anya Corazon (Merced)—who will each grow up to become Spider-Woman one day. For reasons unknown, the three Spider-Women will eventually kill Ezekiel Sims (Rahim), who is a bit of a Spider-Man himself. (This is apparently a morally OK thing to do because Sims is a bad guy, but it doesn’t sit too well with him.)

Sims was in the Amazon with Cassie’s mom when she was researching spiders right before she died (a viral line from the trailer that didn’t make the movie), and he now has clairvoyant, recurring dreams of his eventual murder. He decides to take matters into his own hands and kill the three girls before they can grow up to become Spider-Women. Tasked with the responsibility of protecting these three strangers who are destined for greatness, Webb has to quickly master her new abilities in order to save Cornwall, Franklin, and Corazon.

The finer details of just about every one of those plot points is unclear. Madame Web is a messy movie whose best quality is Johnson’s iconic press run. But is it just terrible enough to qualify as a Good Bad Movie? To investigate that question and many more, I recruited my colleague Kellen Becoats to help me try to make sense of the chaos that is Madame Web. —Daniel Chin

Daniel Chin: Kellen, I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t know what to make of Madame Web. I was deeply confused after seeing Morbius in 2022, but Sony’s latest Spiderverse film makes so many choices that I can’t begin to comprehend. Madame Web currently holds a 14 percent critics score (which is somehow below the score that Morbius received) and a 55 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as a C+ CinemaScore from audiences. And yet those low ratings don’t seem to capture just how bad and how absurd this movie really is.

To start our discussion, I want to ask you about your general first impressions of Madame Web, but also about the intention behind it. While the consensus that this is another superhero film flop seems indisputable, I can’t help but wonder whether there isn’t something purposeful going on here, given its sheer absurdity—especially considering the sometimes absurd high jinks of Johnson (whom our colleague Jodi Walker has described as “the queen of calmly delivered chaos”), who plays the film’s clairvoyant titular protagonist.

Do you think Madame Web is just another bad movie that Sony mishandled? Is this a case of a film that’s so bad that it’s unintentionally funny enough to join the ranks of Good Bad Movies? Or did Sony know exactly what it was doing when it produced this ridiculous project?

Kellen Becoats: First of all, I want to make it clear that I am in no way talented enough to be a screenwriter, producer, or director of anything. Making movies is hard. Then again, making a movie this bad isn’t easy, either. It’s wild that if this thing’s critics score were a person’s age, they wouldn’t be old enough to buy cigarettes. How is Madame Web somehow worse than the trailers made it out to be?

My general first impressions are basically summed up in this Billy Madison clip that I sent you after I left the theater. I feel like the makers of Madame Web stole my time—but not my money, shouts to AMC Stubs List—as I experienced two hours of bad CGI, actors who seemed like they had never met each other, and more uncomfortable laughter than genuine excitement from my fellow spectators.

The thing with this Spiderverse is that some of these movies seem to know that they’re silly and lean in to let everyone in on the joke (Venom), whereas some take themselves too seriously and end up being so bad that they gain a cult following but still flop. (Hell, sometimes the same movie dupes Sony into letting it flop twice.)

My biggest problem with Madame Web is that it doesn’t take either of those tacks. There is not a single person in this movie who’s having fun. It seems like Johnson tried her best in about 60 percent of her scenes before the writing and Spiderverse of it all made her too uninterested to continue. I’m not even sure why the supporting actors are here, other than as set dressing. Almost every character is so one-dimensional; it seems like the writers put tropes on a dartboard and just went nuts, and stars like Johnson, Sweeney, and Adam Scott all look as if they’d rather be anywhere but on set. I definitely don’t think Sony intentionally set out to make this movie as ridiculous as it is, but we got a stinker anyway.

Chin: I can feel the sheer disgust you have for this film, and I don’t disagree with you. Speaking of Scott, one element of this movie that I was particularly surprised by is just how much the story involved his character, Ben Parker, and his family—namely his sister, Mary, who’s played by Emma Roberts (which was another surprise in and of itself).

For the uninitiated, Ben Parker is the uncle of Peter Parker, who in this version of 2003 is many years away from becoming Spider-Man. This is some pretty groundbreaking stuff; Madame Web not only gives us our very first chance to see a young version of poor Uncle Ben, but also gives him an unprecedented opportunity to make it to the end of a movie without meeting a tragic demise. (Apart from the tragedy of being associated with Madame Web.)

It almost seems as if this movie is set primarily in 2003 to include the soon-to-be-uncle Ben and make the birth of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man a major plot point—which happens when Madame Web’s teenage Spider-Women help the Parkers get to the hospital after Mary goes into labor. While there isn’t much to connect this movie to the Holland Spider-Man films, it’s the only timeline that sort of makes sense. Peter’s name is deliberately omitted from the film, even during Mary’s baby shower (which features a game in which the guests try to guess the name of the baby), but Madame Web includes enough nods to the future Spider-Man that it seemed one step away from firing up Danny Elfman’s theme music as baby Peter finally came out of the womb.

How did you feel about Madame Web’s connections to the rest of the Spiderverse? Did you stand and cheer when you heard the line “When you take on the responsibility, great power will come”?

Becoats: The only moment in this movie that made me stand and cheer was when I realized there wasn’t a post-credits scene and I got to go home. The connections to the Spiderverse are certainly interesting, and I wish they had been expounded on instead of just hinted at. We got five superpowered (or, I suppose, destined-to-be superpowered) Spider-People in this movie, but we didn’t get a good explanation of the origins of their abilities. We can presume that Ezekiel used the extremely rare spider he stole from the Amazon to gain his powers, but we don’t even really know the extent of them. Cassie can astral project herself to be in multiple places at once (and selectively see the future), but her refinement of that ability is essentially yada yada’d. And the teenage Spider-Women have powers only in visions of the future, so maybe Sony is setting up a sequel. (Please lord, if there’s ever a sequel to Madame Web, send that shit straight to Disney+.)

All of which is to say that the connections to the other Sony movies seem dubious at best. Are we suddenly going to see an aged-up Madame Web and her Spider-Women in Venom 3 (more on that movie later) as potential allies of or foils to Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock? As you said, I truly can’t fathom why the creators would make such a big deal of the Ben Parker character unless they were trying to backdoor Peter into this franchise, but it all just feels wildly convoluted. We already have vampires, alien goo–human hybrids, and folks with spider-powers running around this franchise. Why are we stuffing it with MORE LORE?

I think my biggest problems with Madame Web are that almost nothing in the movie is ever truly explained, most of the characters don’t get backstories, and the audience is just supposed to, like, vibe? You’re introducing a bevy of new characters to a franchise, not treating us to a chill night at a jazz bar. Vibes are not enough! I happily took an edible and tried to turn my brain off during this movie, but Madame Web made my brain do all the heavy lifting and then kind of shrugged its shoulders at the end and was like, “This movie is whatever you want it to be.” That just wasn’t enough for me. The last movie that made me this actively desperate for someone to explain its purpose was Don’t Worry Darling, which was also preceded by a cursed press tour. When you’re getting compared to the Did-Harry-Styles-Just-Blow-Up-His-Acting-Career? movie, you’re not in a good place.

So where do you see Sony’s Spiderverse heading from here? Two more entries are slated for release this year: Kraven the Hunter in August and Venom 3 in November. Do you think Sony can rescue this universe, or are we doomed to keep watching mind-meltingly shitty Marvel movies for the remainder of the year?

Chin: You raise some good questions, Kellen, and I wish I knew what Sony is trying to do with the Spiderverse beyond its terrific animated franchise centered on Miles Morales. But when Kraven the Hunter comes out, I imagine we’ll once again be left with more questions than answers.

Based on the trailer alone, Kraven the Hunter could rank right up there with Morbius and Madame Web in terms of absurdity: We have Russell Crowe putting on yet another indiscernible, vaguely eastern European accent, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Kraven biting off some guy’s nose, and a young Kraven gaining superhero powers from a lion’s blood dropping into an open wound.

Screenshot via Sony Pictures Entertainment

In the early days of its theatrical run, Madame Web is getting dominated by Paramount’s Bob Marley: One Love biopic, which probably doesn’t bode well for its box office aspirations. Meanwhile, Morbius tanked both critically and financially. I can’t say I have high expectations for Kraven to do any better, which leaves Sony’s hopes hanging on Venom 3, whose predecessors were financial successes despite mixed reviews. As you mentioned, the Venom franchise hits the live-action sweet spot for Sony thanks to how much it leans into its own silliness, but I wonder how much mileage the studio will be able to get out of it beyond an inevitable crossover with Spider-Man himself.

Without an actual Spider-Man movie on the schedule, the state of Sony’s live-action Marvel enterprises is looking pretty bleak, but I guess you never know what will happen—at least, not without a little help from a Peruvian spider. As our very own Cassandra Webb once said, “You know the best thing about the future? It hasn’t happened yet.”

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