Monday, June 3, 2024

Superhero Fatigue Watch: Madame Web (2024)

Watched:  06/03/2024
Format:  Netflix
Viewing:  First
Director:  SJ Clarkson

The best part of Madame Web (2024) is that Dakota Johnson never looks like she wants to be here, either.

Let me start with:  this movie was insanely hard to finish.  It took me two days and hours and hours, during which I paused the movie, picked up my phone and then had to rewind the movie because I realized I'd stopped watching it in favor of seeing what was up on social media, etc...  It is boring and tedious and unlikable on almost every level.  I wouldn't even do it as a fun bad-movie watch party, because it's over-arching feature is that it's dull af.

I almost gave up, but, no, pals, your faithful blogger perseveres.

Madame Web, as a comics character, is maybe the least likely of heroes to get a full movie, and I remember being confused about it when I saw they were making the movie.  I'm familiar with her as an older woman confined to a life support system who is also blind.  Not a lot of room for dynamic action.  And I don't think she's anyone's favorite. She's the definition of supporting character/ exposition-meister.

What does one say about one of the most panned movies in recent memory?  What does one say about a movie you personally think is one of the most inexcusably bad movies you've ever seen?

Were it pre-2002, okay.  I get it.  Most super hero stuff of the era was made with a shrug and a hope for a toy line to really make some profit.  Were it now and made by some people with a rented camera making a cheap superhero movie to drop on Amazon, sure.  But this is Sony.  In 2024.  With at least B-level talent in front of the camera.

Madame Web was the latest in the insane plan of Sony Pictures to flex their now decades-long Spider-Man license by turning the supporting characters of Spider-Man comics into their own universe.  

Look, Sony has a tiger by the tail.  They have the rights to Spider-Man and his ancillary characters, and they need to keep making movies in order to keep those rights.  That they don't know what they're doing and have proven it again and again is no deterrent.  Maybe making matters worse, Sony has made money!  They just don't seem to know why.  

Up to date, we've had two Venom films - which had a $850 and $560 million box office, and Morbius, which was about $167 million.  And maybe other ones, but I don't care.  (late edit:  Jamie is quite cross I didn't mention the Spider-Verse movies, and fair enough.  I was trying to talk about the live action stuff, so I'll acknowledge the Spider-Verse and excellence thereof and move on without getting into why I am separating these concerns).

But, my guess is that Madame Web was intended to fill the Tom Holland-shaped void in Sony's wallet and they would make a sort of Spider-Avengers out of minor characters, creating a franchise that would team these young women, time-shifting them all to exist *prior* to Spider-Man instead of existing in his wake.  Which is... a thing one can do if one wants to create a mountain of unnecessary problems.  

Look, so, so many bad choices were made with this movie.  The writing is so weird and clunky and flat and manages to incorporate Spider-Man's literal birth while also making Spider-Man guilty of accidental cultural appropriation.  

Madame Web manages to create the four least appealing possible characters to ever kick off a franchise.  Like, it is incredible how unlikable everyone is in this movie, not least of which is our titular Madame Web, or Cassandra "Cassie" Webb, played by Fifty Shades star Dakota Johnson (more on nepo babies later).

The hallmark of this film is that it's a superhero movie that forgot to include action or superheroes.  Mostly it's just three bratty teenagers and a sad-girl fleeing a badly ADR'd villain.  Only Cassie has powers, which she can't control, and no one is so much as a gymnast out of the three dead-weight teens.  Our action scenes are limited to people driving away.

Our story:  1973!  Deep in the jungles of Peru - which are apparently very accessible and park-like, Madame Web's mom is 9 months pregnant and fucking about looking for a spider.  She finds it, only to have her guide murder her research team and herself so he can get ahold of a single spider (but doesn't say why he wants the spider, we have to guess).  A tribe of "Spider People" leap down from the trees and fail to save Cassie's mom, while also seeing to it that Cassie is born in an unsanitary cave, and then, off-screen... somehow get her into the foster system in the US.  Where her father is?  NEVER BROUGHT UP.  

Look, there's probably no less than ten major plot holes in the first five minutes of this movie, but that is the kind of movie it is.  It either doesn't care about whether anything makes sense (just that it happens so story can happen) or the filmmakers think "it's a comic book movie, so we can do whatever".  This is the same lazy feeling one got watching all superhero media up until maybe 2002's Spider-Man, so, in a way, this is an amazing bit of synchronicity as the movie takes place in 2003.  Why 2003?  Someone's personal taste in bops.

In 2003, Cassie is now an ambulance driver/ EMT working with Adam Scott, playing a young, doomed Uncle Ben.  An accident occurs, and it seems to trigger SUPER DEJA VU in Cassie, which is somehow.... Spider-related.  Functionally, it allows Cassie to see into the future in small bursts, which is an editing and viewing nightmare.  

It is bad.  Maybe once or twice they could have just shown it to throw the audience off, but after that - it's just annoying.  Which is a weird choice for a superhero movie.  It's like if every time Spider-Man walked up walls, he also made the sound of your alarm clock from high school.  

BTW - I'm realizing now, it's possible Cassie's power is an amped up version of Peter's Spidey-Sense, but if the movie wanted for us to make that connection, they absolutely did not.  And I kind of think they didn't mean for it to be that.  Like, it didn't occur to them, either.  Many, many things did not occur to the team behind this movie, so why give them credit here?

Cassie, here at least age 30, spends the first 2/3rds of the movie weirdly obsessed with her mom, whom she never met and never knew.  We're to believe she was never adopted as an infant, and was kicked around the foster care system for her entire life, which raises more questions than it answers and seems like the smart thing to do was just say "well, actually, I was raised by my aunt, but it was hard" or something.  

Somewhere past the 50% done mark, she exclaims "my mom didn't hate me?" and I was left with my jaw hanging open.  Lady, why on earth did you think your mom dying before you were born meant she hated you?  Maybe she made some bad choices (and I'll argue, even with the explanation, her choices were dumb af) but there's no motivation for this shit.  

But that's this movie all over.  Even minor things.  Ben invites her over for a cookout, and despite the fact all of her friends are dudes, she is told to participate in a baby shower for Peter Parker's mom (played by Emma Roberts).  Like - this scene does not need to be in the movie *at all*, and why she came to a baby shower for a stranger is puzzling, and why didn't she just stay outside with her actual friends?  Like... why?

Our villain and his plan:  

Loosely based on JMS's circa 2003-era Spidey-era run, there's the character Ezekiel.  Our villain can also see the future, and has visions of three Spider-Girls kicking his ass and tossing him out a window to his death.  This was not his deal at all in the comics, but ok.  

Apparently Ezekiel has a black and red Spider-Man suit, and he doesn't mind showing up late to the opera.  He seduces a sexy NSA agent, and then murders her?  after getting her codes for the new NSA facial recognition system that Ezekiel says "can see every camera in the world".

Look, if I've had one TV and movie bug-a-boo the past 30 years of my life, it's that IT people routinely "hack into systems" to see what their CCTV systems see.  But CCTV stands for Closed-Circuit Television.  As in, the circuit is closed.  This is not being sent anywhere.  In 2003, 99% of places were recording locally to grainy VHS using systems installed in probably 1995 and using 640x480 resolution.  So while we were talking about all this in 2003, you need to have easily compressed, live-streaming video, and this is the era of RealPlayer, for the most part.  You *could* stream live, but most people didn't, because why would you?  And there certainly wasn't a "cloud" where the video was just going.  

But, yeah, our villain is going to tap into security cameras to find the three young women before they can be a threat.  He's Minority Reporting them.  He's going to murder them.

So, no powers yet.  Just...  high schoolers.

He could (a) befriend them instead, and see if the visions change or (b) avoid them or (c) come up with literally any other plan.  Especially one that involves a gun.

By the way, they never say why he stole the spider to begin with, but we can guess he knew it would give him powers.  I guess.  But there had to have been at least five other ways he could have accomplished his goal - like just taking the spider and running away.

Despite being Spider-Man, Ezekiel likes to move *slowly*.  He also wants to get all three girls in one place instead of, you know, just tracking them to see if he can sort out WHY they want to kill him.  When he could just walk up to them on the street and apparently tap them on the head and they'd die.  He has "poison touch".  But, no, he chases them around like a big fucking moron.  Following them into a curiously unlocked fireworks factory where he is then blown up and killed by Pepsi Co.  I wish I was making any of this up.

By the way, *something* was up with this actor.  They repeatedly cut from him while he's speaking, which means he's mostly ADR'd.  And either the actor's voice was unintelligible, annoying or they needed to keep changing his dialog, but didn't want to reshoot the movie.  Once you notice it, which starts with his first scene, you can't unsee it.  I counted at least three scenes where he was speaking and it didn't match his mouth at all - two of which he wasn't speaking at all when you heard him.  But mostly they cut away.

To give you an idea of what we're working with, the three teens are:  good girl who will be beautiful without glasses (Sydney Sweeney), sullen Hispanic (Isabella Merced), and Rich-Poochie (Celeste O'Connor).  Collectively, their job is to shout lines at our hero as she tries to help, and then to dance on tables in a Denny's (as one does) while laying low.  You will literally be rooting for the villain to succeed.

Look, minus the Vanessa Williams/ Arnie movie Eraser, I'm just not a fan of the "a person is the MacGuffin" type of story where our hero has to lug someone around and keep them from getting murdered storyline.   And Eraser only gets a pass because making sure Vanessa Williams endures should be a national priority.

But, yeah, the movie is basically Cassie running around trying to save these kids who seem to have the self-preservation instincts of your average toddler with a fork and an electrical socket.  Meanwhile, Cassie is occasionally seeing either three seconds into the future or existing in fuzzy movie space or Peru, where she goes to and comes back in, like, 12 hours.

It's hard to explain how flat, clunky and unmotivated the dialog and characters are - but trust me.  It's a wonder to behold.    

Our villain is teamed with Zosia Mamet, who is apparently super good at using facial recognition technology despite having never seen it before.  She's the Guy in the Chair for the villain, which seems like a really stupid and deadly place to be.  But if she weren't there, our guy's ADR voice over artist would have no one to talk to and we'd have no idea what was going on with him, other than his CLEARLY STATED GOALS which he tells the NSA worker between porking and murdering.*

My feeling is that director SJ Clarkson, who had never handled a feature before and is a journeyman prestige TV director, had never watched any superhero movies (she's also credited as a writer).  I think a lot of anonymous, corporate-type folks got involved with this movie who had no business getting involved, and when that happens, it's never good.  Even Dakota Johnson has immediately gone on record about the production being a mess while on tour promoting the movie.  

The funny thing is, the movie has a closing maybe 45 seconds where they show you Madame Web and her friends all looking out over the city in their frankly pretty cool costumes, and I was left wondering "hey, why didn't they make that movie?"  Like, why did we futz about with this mess instead of doing the ol' "let's form a super group" thing?  

The movie features Dakota Johnson, daughter to Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith (which meant something in the 80's and 90's).  Zosia Mamet, daughter of renowned writer/ director David Mamet, Emma Roberts - related to Julia and Eric Roberts - so, yeah, Hollywood do be like that some times.

If I can be a little crass, I don't know what the future of this group was going to be, but titling yourself Madame when in charge of three young women who work for you and live in your space...  is definitely a choice.  And that is absolutely how the movie ends.  So.  Yeah.  Bunch of folks in leather gear going to work at night under the watchful eye of their Madame.

*what I didn't get was why he murdered her at all.  It seems like the NSA would probably have a protocol to change passwords for their murdered agents.  Why not just make her do what Mamet was doing?  But this is kind of par-for-the-course for this movie.


Simon MacDonald said...

Whelp, this sounds just as terrible as I thought it would be when I first heard about it. Thank you for your service. I'm not even going to hate watch this one.

The League said...

sadly, it's too boring for a hate watch. Maybe if you're under the weather and don't care if you drift in and our of sleep while a movie is on. That's this movie's sweet spot.

Simon MacDonald said...

Gawd help me but I couldn't sleep the other night so I put this movie on not caring if I did drift off during the film. It's so bad.

The part that really broke me was when the 3 girls walked away from the campfire without putting it out. There were visible flames behind them as they left. I assume that fire went unchecked and destroyed a large amount of the forest.

One might think that "not thinking" was on point for teenagers but the one thing they did establish by that point of the movie was that Julia was a good two shoes and Anya was super smart. I can't see both of them ignoring an open fire.

I mean, many other stupid things happened in the movie but that is what really broke me.

The League said...

you know, I'm glad you brought that up, because that bugged the living shit out of me. And you're right - it's indicative of what is going on with this movie! Can't even have a cutaway to someone kicking dirt over the fire as they leave. They gotta just walk out of frame, because no one on this set knows how fire works. ay carumba.

Well, I'm proud of you for making it through. Hopefully, somehow, it means Dakota Johnson gets a nickel or something.