Madame Web might be the most shameless superhero movie of all time. Far from just the cash-in that it seemed like a few years ago when this movie headlined by an F-tier superhero was first announced, Sony’s latest Marvel offshoot is a two-hour post-credits scene, made only intermittently tolerable by Dakota Johnson’s underappreciated knack for comedy.

[Ed. note: This review contains light setup spoilers for Madame Web.]

Madame Web, as it turns out, is actually a woman named Cassie Web (Johnson). We discover in the movie’s 1970s-set opening that Cassie’s mom researched spiders in the Amazon while pregnant with Cassie. After a predictable betrayal, Cassie’s mom ends up at death’s door when a tribe of spider-people (yes, there are spider-people in the Amazon rainforest) save her baby’s life using special venom from a rare super-spider. The movie then cuts forward to 2003, when Cassie is a paramedic in New York City, working with her best friend Ben Parker (Adam Scott). Yes, that Ben.

After literally dying one day during a call to save someone from a traffic accident, Cassie suddenly gains the power to see an indeterminate length of time into the future. Eventually, this power leads her to save the lives of three girls, Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced), and Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor), from a strange man that she foresees trying to kill them.

Isabela Merced, Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor, and Dakota Johnson stand in front of a subway station in Madame Web

Image: Sony Pictures

Cassie’s flashes forward in time are the most complicated part of Madame Web, and surprisingly, its most fun moments, too. While they’re often filmed in confusing ways, edited together too quickly for viewers to really track, and lacking a consistent enough visual language to be clearly legible, they’re saved almost entirely by Johnson, who reacts to these brief breaks from the fourth dimension with quixotic looks and genuinely hilarious sarcasm. Despite her press-tour uncertainty about the movie, she is far and away the brightest spot in Madame Web — at least when she isn’t buried under its wooden dialogue.

There are also flashes of promise from the trio of young women Cassie’s trying to save, but the movie somehow manages to squander the group’s remarkable collective charisma. Merced was surprisingly fun as live-action Dora the Explorer, O’Connor is one of the best parts of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and Sweeney is a full-on movie star. But Madame Web doesn’t seem to have any interest in any of them, never cutting to get their reactions to anything, and rarely giving their jokes enough time to breathe or to let the audience laugh.

For all the wasted potential of Madame Web’s heroes, the movie’s biggest issue is its villain, Ezekiel Sims, played by Tahar Rahim in an astoundingly awful performance from an otherwise gifted actor. Ezekiel seems to have Spider-Man powers, which he gained by murdering Cassie’s mom in the Amazon and stealing her special spider. This is one of exactly two things we learn about him in the entire movie. The second thing we learn is that he has had a dream since the night he got his powers that three women who also have spider powers will one day kill him, so he’s made it his life’s mission to kill them first. In our glimpse of this dream, we get to see that of course the three women are Anya, Julia, and Mattie, all dressed as Spider-Woman variants from the Marvel comics.

These three “heroes” reveal Madame Web’s real cynicism: The whole movie is just a backdoor pilot. When the three women line up for a group hero shot in Ezekiel’s dream, just after pushing him out a window, they’re practically a poster for a hypothetical Spider-Girls movie.

But Ezekiel’s dream sequence near the beginning of the movie and a brief vision from Cassie at the end of the movie are all we see of these three fresh heroes. They don’t get their powers in this movie, they don’t find out they’ll one day be heroes, they don’t even fight anyone. Madame Web, it seems, is nothing more than a craven attempt at inflating a cinematic superhero universe. It’s a trailer for the excitement to come someday, assuming fans love (and pay for) this movie enough for it to get a sequel or two.

Given how many movies nowadays are just Trojan Horses for future films, that could almost be excusable, if any of this post-credits-tease-in-movie-form were more interesting to watch. Director S.J. Clarkson (Jessica Jones) can’t find any life for her action scenes at all. Almost all of them boil down to a rote, slow-speed car chase. Even a brief sojourn back in the Amazon doesn’t lead to anything more interesting than a flashback to the movie’s bizarre opening scene.

Dakota Johnson stands in front of a spider web in Madame Web

Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/Sony Pictures

And the movie’s climax takes place at an abandoned fireworks warehouse, which eventually turns into a CGI light show of sparks and rockets that seem somehow both way too destructive — who knew a firework could blow a massive hole through a brick wall? — and never too dangerous to our characters if they happen to be standing next to them when they explode.

Yet for all the boring set pieces, bad exposition, and faulty universe expansion, Johnson, Sweeney, Merced, and O’Connor still manage to find tiny spaces where their charisma can peek through. In the few moments these four are left alone, like a scene where Johnson deposits them in the New Jersey woods for safe keeping, they bounce off each other gamely with humor and charm. The scene is a sudden glimpse of the star power this movie never bothers to tap into.

Frankly, all those little jokes should have been enough to keep this movie ranked above the absolute dregs of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, laughless bores like Thor: Love and Thunder or Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. But the sheer ickiness of Madame Web’s franchise-building is impossible to ignore. In a just world, Madame Web would be the death knell for this kind of IP strip-mining. But with two more Sony Spider-Man universe movies on the way this year alone, instead Madame Web is just a brief glimpse into our own future doom.

Madame Web debuts in theaters on Feb. 14.

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By fcjyy