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Madame Web: The ‘psychological thriller’ that wasn’t

Since its release earlier this month, Madame Web has been viciously panned.

One writer described it as “precariously constructed.”

“To say that [lead actress Dakota] Johnson in particular phoned this performance in would be an insult to Alexander Graham Bell,” madame-web-review/677450/” title=””>wrote a critic at the Atlantic.

They’re not wrong: The acting is wooden, the cinematography is as choppy as the plot, and the emotions fall flat. Worst of all, Madame Web could have been pretty good — if almost everything about the movie were different. 

Director S.J. Clarkson had lofty aims for Sony’s latest superhero film, saying on a Deadline podcast: “I found the whole concept of psychic powers and clairvoyance and seeing the near future and how exciting that could be, how visceral, how scary — I saw the thrill of it, the cerebral nature of it, and I got very excited about the potential of this being a psychological thriller.”

If Madame Web is a psychological thriller, then Saltburn is a romcom. 

Our titular heroine, Cassandra Webb (Johnson), begins the movie so cartoonishly averse to human affection that she tries to rebuff a child who offers her a thank you card for saving his mother’s life. (Cassandra is a paramedic and a coworker of Ben Parker, the uncle of Peter Parker.) 

By the end of the film, however, she has fully embraced her role as proxy mother to three future Spider Women, smiling knowingly and telling them that, with her clairvoyant powers, she sees them in the future standing up for what they believe in and other platitudes one might proffer a 6-year-old. That’s not character development — that’s a cop-out. 

During an accident that finds Webb in a car tumbling off a bridge, Cassandra develops the power to see the future, which initially gives her unpredictable and involuntary premonitions. She uses this power to save the lives of three teenage girls who are being tracked down by a villain who knows they will kill him in the future. 

While trying to save the girls’ lives, Cassandra also learns the truth about her mother and how Cassandra acquired her dormant clairvoyant abilities in the first place. Unfortunately for viewers, this means you must watch this origin story’s origin story twice. 

Cassandra, as we have been so ham-handedly shown from the beginning, doesn’t get close to people because she blames her mother for dying during a risky venture; it turns out that she was researching a cure after doctors diagnosed the preborn Cassandra with a muscular disorder. (After her mother is betrayed and shot in the Amazon, she is found by a tribe of spider-people who safely deliver her baby.)

Does any of this make sense? Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to. You can also spend your time trying to figure out why this film is so obsessed with dark Easter eggs, particularly the dialogue that foreshadows the deaths of Ben and Peter Parker’s parents — and hints that Cassandra sees the latter coming. You can also marvel at the product placement so blatant that it is the “P” of a Pepsi-Cola sign that crushes the villain in the end. 

On top of its abysmal ticket sales, Madame Web is the 13th-worst superhero story of all time, at least according to Rotten Tomatoes’s ranking. It’s so bad that leftists aren’t even trying to argue that we should support it in the name of feminism.  

The idea of a stand-alone film about a female superhero who fights not with her strength but with her mind is a good one, particularly in a landscape full of Mary Sues. “My hope was to make a great film,” Johnson said of Madame Web, “to make a great psychological thriller within the Marvel universe.”

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But the dialogue and its delivery are too wooden, the backstory and character development too contrived for this ambitious goal to succeed.

Johnson also said she wanted the film to have a “relatability to the real world,” which is certainly a nice thought, if not one that came to fruition. There may be a world in which a movie about Madame Web is a successful psychological thriller. But it is not this world, and it’s too bad the film’s creators couldn’t predict that. 

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