Madame Web doesn’t seem particularly interested in being a great superhero movie. It is not particularly committed to the tropes or trappings of the genre at all.
Rather than that being an out-and-out weakness, it is something that makes the film stand out – for better and worse – in an oversaturated and wrung-out superhero blockbuster landscape.
In fact, while it is far from perfect, Sony’s latest attempt to start its own live action Spider-Verse is at its strongest when it is embracing the strange supernatural-tinged teen thriller it really wants to be.
Opening in the Peruvian Amazon during the 70s, the film creates a new origin for Cassandra Webb, a deep-cut comic book character who has been both ally and antagonist for Spider-Man throughout the years.
Here, her mother is attacked while looking for a spider with strange powers and, although she dies, her daughter Cassandra is saved by a local tribe of 'spider-people' known as Los Arañas. It is a pulpy beginning that ultimately feels like it comes from another movie.
Soon the action moves to New York in 2003 where a 30-year-old Cassie – played with an impressive deadpan awkwardness by Dakota Johnson – is now an EMT working alongside the future uncle of Spider-Man himself, Ben Parker.
Adam Scott brings a charm and gravitas to the role, and the pair's banter-heavy chemistry does a lot to keep the film moving until we meet the younger cast of Spider-Women who are at the heart of what Madame Web does best.
After a near-death experience, Cassie begins to have visions of the future and becomes entangled with three teen girls: the shy, lonely Julia (Sydney Sweeney); the rule-breaking skater Mattie (Celeste O'Connor); and booksmart, independent Anya (Isabela Merced). Their chemistry is so fun and watchable that you'll be hoping for the spin-off film almost as much as Sony surely is.
The trio are being targeted by the superpowered Spider-villain known as Ezekiel, played by Tahar Rahim. The actor seems to be having a lot of fun crafting an operatic foe for the girls, who regularly makes dramatic proclamations and uses state-of-the-art 2003 CCTV technology to hunt them down.
Once the trio of teens and Cassandra collide, Madame Web picks up speed, throwing our heroines into a threat-filled supernatural romp that often feels more like a Final Destination-style teen horror than a Marvel film, and that's definitely a good thing.
Cassie's powers manifest as strange visions, meaning that the film often flits between time or repeats sequences. While it is generally effective, your mileage may vary as it is an unusual twist and at times becomes repetitive as Cassie tries to get a handle on them.
As superhero movies have become the ultimate Hollywood currency, fans have often wanted something a little different: a new genre or a twist on the stories that they love.
Madame Web ambitiously attempts that with a charming found-family story wrapped in a violent, horror comedy about an angry, often unlikeable woman coming to terms with her new role as a mentor and potentially a superhero. Even as it tries to do something new, it suffers from some of the problems that have long impacted the genre.
Reshoots, story edits, and automated dialogue replacement work become more noticeable as you get deeper into the film, and there are moments that the computer-generated imagery looks closer to a TV series than a big-budget film.
But the charming cast, spooky supernatural tone, and often genuinely funny script – Madame Web is definitely in on the joke – make this an enjoyable popcorn film that's likely to become a bit of a comic book cult classic in years to come.