Madame Web Review: Sony's Latest Live-Action Spider-Verse Experiment Doesn’t Know Why It Exists Either

Madame Web feels like it could have been an interesting prequel to a movie we’ll likely never see.

Dakota Johnson in Madame Web
(Image: © Sony Pictures)

The most successful movies in the Spider-Man franchise in recent years have been the ones that have an excess of Spider-Man. Spider-Man: No Way Home features three wallcrawlers. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse has more versions of the classic Marvel character than one can count. 

Madame Web

Isabela Merced, Dakota Johnson, and Celeste O'Connor in Madame Web

(Image credit: Sony / Marvel)

Release Date: February 14, 2024
Directed By: S.J. Clarkson
Written By: Matt Shazama, Burk Sharpless, Clair Parker, and S.J. Clarkson
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, Celeste O’Connor, and Tahar Rahim
Rating: PG-13 for violence/action and language
Runtime: 116 minutes

And then there are the films of Sony's Spider-Man Universe.

The eponymous studio sharing custody of the wall-crawling hero but unable to use him in their own projects, Sony has continued to churn out Spidey-adjacent movies with zero Spider-Man. I’m not saying that more Spider-Men is always better, but none is clearly not the way to go, and director S.J. Clarkson's Madame Web is the latest proof of that.

In the film, Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson) grew up in foster care, as her mother died in childbirth while researching spiders in the Amazon (the actual memed line is nowhere in the final cut, if you're curious). Her life as an EMT seems to be going well enough. She has few attachments to people and doesn’t appear to want them. But then a near-death experience on the job triggers something in her, causing her to seemingly relive moments in her life more than once for no apparent reason.

When one of these memory flashes seems to indicate that three teen girls in close proximity (Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, and Celeste O’Connor) are in danger from a man with seemingly superhuman powers (Tahar Rahim), Cassandra, having previously had her own Spider-Man-like "great power, great responsibility" moment, ultimately acts against her better judgment and gets involved. Now, the four women must figure out how to work together to survive, while Cassandra tries to understand just what is happening to her.

Dakota Johnson leads a theoretically interesting cast of characters that unfortunately we never get to know.

Madame Web feels like a throwback to an earlier era of superhero movies but not in a good way. It's so focused on its plot that it forgets to tell a story. Every scene seems to exist to exposit on a character's motivations, give us a character revelation, or provide a setup for something that clearly will need to be paid off later. As a result, none of the dialogue or the protagonists feel natural.

Madame Web is a movie very focused on the future. The villain is doing what he is doing because he also has the ability to see the future and is trying to prevent a particular destiny from coming to pass because the three young girls will apparently become powerful spider-people in their own right one day. In retrospect, the future he sees looks like a far more interesting movie than the one that we get. Superhero movies may have become a seemingly never-ending franchise, but Madame Web feels like a feature-length trailer for something else Sony hopes to make – though I can’t imagine we’ll ever see it.

It's not that Madame Web has nothing of value, but what it has it doesn't exploit properly. Cassandra Webb forgoes familial attachments due to her upbringing without a mother, and her three new hangers-on are also orphans of varying degrees. That's a potentially interesting dynamic that the movie only gives lip service to in the story. The three teens come from different backgrounds and they don't get along initially. That's conflict the movie could have used, but any issues between the characters largely get resolved off-screen while we're watching other things. The movie isn't about them, after all.

All the characters are paper thin. The villain's motives, while explained in the most basic sense, are never explored beyond the surface level. Dakota Johnson's character has an arc in the sense that she starts in one place and ends up in another, but the intermediate steps of that progression are missing. 

The lack of character development or agency for the three girls makes them little more than props. I'm not using their character names because I don't remember them and because they're ultimately irrelevant to the movie. Dakota Johnson could be protecting a bag of money rather than human beings and the story wouldn't change much.

Madame Web’s action sequences are borderline incomprehensible.

The problem with the lack of development is that there are a handful of moments that feel like they could have been quite good in a movie that gave these characters room to breathe. Unfortunately, the attempts at emotional moments don't land because the characters don't mean enough for them to be impactful. Madame Web is a superhero movie lacking heroics.

A superhero movie needs some solid action, but that's another place where Madame Web falters. The sequences are edited so frantically that they become impossible to follow. By the time your eye starts to adjust to the last shot, the next shot is already here. The rapid-fire delivery may be intentionally meant to disorient, but it feels like the intent is to make sure the audience never gets a good enough look at the visual effects. The end result is still that the movie is giving you a headache and you have no idea what just happened.

Madame Web is so focused on its characters’ future that it forgets to tell a compelling story now.

Madame Web is the latest attempt by Sony to create a live-action Spider-verse with a collection of the web-slingers rogue's gallery of allies and enemies, but without actually having Spider-Man involved in the story in any way...  though in this case, that's not entirely true. Without getting into spoilers, there is a connection between Madame Web and Spider-Man, but it's done in a way that is both unnecessary and such a ham-fisted way to crowbar in the character that it's groan-worthy. It would have been fine as a fun little easter egg, but the story refuses to let the Spider-Man-related subplot go, and it just gets exhausting.

If Madame Web were a worse movie, it would probably be at least silly fun. If it were a better movie, even just slightly, it would likely have qualities worth celebrating. Instead, it falls somewhere in the middle, neither trashy fun nor exciting cinema. It's just another corner of the Spider-Verse, and one I can't imagine anybody will be excited to visit again.

Dirk Libbey
Content Producer/Theme Park Beat

CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian, Dirk began writing for CinemaBlend as a freelancer in 2015 before joining the site full-time in 2018. He has previously held positions as a Staff Writer and Games Editor, but has more recently transformed his true passion into his job as the head of the site's Theme Park section. He has previously done freelance work for various gaming and technology sites. Prior to starting his second career as a writer he worked for 12 years in sales for various companies within the consumer electronics industry. He has a degree in political science from the University of California, Davis.  Is an armchair Imagineer, Epcot Stan, Future Club 33 Member.