Madame Web: an unnecessary but lightly likeable addition to the Spider-verse

Dakota Johnson leads the latest attempt to make a grab-bag of Spider-dependent characters in this fun, overstuffed spin-off.

15 February 2024

By Kim Newman

Dakota Johnson as Cassie in Madame Web (2023)
Sight and Sound

Like the Venom films and the ill-fated Morbius (2022) – plus the upcoming Kraven the Hunter – Madame Web attempts to make something out of the grab-bag of Spider-dependent characters Sony have the rights to. Some special pleading must have been involved to greenlight a film about Cassie Webb, a seeress usually depicted in comics as an elderly blind woman who lacks function in her limbs due to a neurological disease called myasthenia gravis and requires a web-look life-support system to stay alive while doling out cryptic advice.  

Madame Web hasn’t even had her own comic title, though the three younger women worked into the plot – Julia Cornwall/Arachne, Mattie Franklin/Spider-Woman (one of several) and Anya Corazon/Araña – have managed their own (short run) series between supporting parts in Marvel titles. S.J. Clarkson’s Madame Web fits into a sub-cycle which includes Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (2020) and Nia DaCosta’s The Marvels (2023) featuring team-ups of lesser-known, fractious, diverse female characters – who are, as here, literally trying to escape the influence of lasting male icons while co-opting elements of their looks, origins and life missions. Not incidentally, all three films have taken a disproportionate battering from critics.

The villain here is Ezekiel Sims (a splendidly glowering Tahar Rahim), who performs traditional nemesis service by murdering the heroine’s mother and is a dark foreshadowing of a hero to come. However since this takes place before anyone has heard of Spider-Man, he tends to be dismissed by intended victims as ‘ceiling guy’.  

The costumed spider-women are glimpsed only in prophetic visions shared by Sims and Cassie (Dakota Johnson), who is at this stage of her complicated life a New York City EMT with mommy issues. The totemic ‘with great power’ tagline is never far from anyone’s lips – uncle-to-be Ben, winningly played by Adam Scott, is on hand – but this is refreshingly irresponsible. Told to stay out of the sightlines of Sims’s cutting-edge-for-2003 surveillance system, Mattie, Julia and Anya get the munchies and go to a diner where the villain finds them table-dancing to Britney Spears.  

The world (and Sony) probably don’t need to spin Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor and Isabela Merced into their own mask movies. Indeed, it’s likely development is proceeding on Marvel’s more film-friendly (and recently-created) successor spider-girls Silk and Spider-Gwen. But, despite what the Daily Bugle says, this crew is fun to hang out with for a while.

 ► Madame Web is in UK cinemas from February 14. 

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