Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), the underdeveloped villain with unkempt hair, is truly an unfortunate soul. He is the first villain in superhero movies whose biggest enemies might not be the girls he is hunting, but rather speeding locomotives that ram into him, and giant falling letters from beverage signs.

Sims is a bad man whose motives we don’t understand, or don’t care to understand. When we first meet him, he is in the jungles of Peru with Constance Webb (Kerry Bishé), a pregnant woman searching for a mythical spider and the tribes that safeguard its existence. When the spider is captured in a jar, Sims shoots the pregnant woman and runs away with the arachnid so that he can build his empire.

Webb, however, is saved by the mythical tribe and bitten by one of the spiders, which helps her deliver the child named Cassandra (“Cassie” played by Dakota Johnson). That spider bite to Webb gives Cassie special powers of seeing the future that trigger out of the blue 30 years later, when she is desperately in need of them — ie at the same time Sims realises he will get killed by three girls who have Spider-man-like powers.

Madame Web is a part of the Spider-Man universe — we have younger versions of Uncle Ben (Adam Scott), the uncle whose death will teach Peter about power and responsibility, and Peter’s mom Mary Parker (Emma Roberts).

Madame Web has fared poorly at the box offi ce and it’s understandable why

Given the negative hype and presumed box office failure of the film — and not without reason — there is little chance of these story aspects making their way into regular Spider-Man movies.

Most are blaming the studio for delivering an uninteresting box-office bomb, but I’m pinning the dud-ness of Madame Web on director S.J. Clarkson — who was, after all, on the set directing this film. The screenplay, by the way, is also co-written by Clarkson and Claire Parker, with Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless.

To be fair, I’ve seen worse screenplays get made into films. However, a director can at least coax better performances out of his cast and film the scenes with intelligence and zest.

Take Sims scenes: all of his appearances, where he is not hunting the women, are set in a near furniture-less high-rise apartment with his assistant (Zosia Mamet), who sits on the monitor. Almost all of his scenes begin with an arc shot — a type of shot where the camera pivots around objects — of the table with the computers, where dull revelations are data-dumped on to the audience.

These scenes get boring fast, as do Sims’ chases, where he is wearing a badly designed Spider-Man suit. The three girls he is chasing are Julia Cornwall, Anya Corazon and Mattie Franklin (Sydney Sweeney, Isabella Merced and Celeste O’ Conner), who were riding the subway one day when Cassie saves them with her clairvoyance.

Cassie is a rescue medic, so the saving lives part makes sense. If only she would have acted the part with more conviction, the film might have been a tad more bearable.

Johnson holds the screen but doesn’t add to it — but then again, no one does. The girls, who should be the focus of the story, are plain dumb, so there is little chance of them adding value to the story.

Take, for example, a key scene from the film that has been the backbone of all of the film’s trailers. In it, Johnson’s character leaves the girls in a forest so she can gather intel. Rather than stay put, the girls make their way to a diner, and somehow overwhelmed by raging hormones, begin dancing on top of a table where four high-school jocks sit.

This is where Sims attacks them, and is rammed by a car driven by Cassie.

While Sims may have been the victim of the car crash, a similar impact has been felt by the audience since the film began. The film is a bad time loop that doesn’t let up until the end credits roll.

Released by Sony Pictures, Madame Web is rated PG-13 — typical of the certification most superhero films get

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 25th, 2024

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