Sunday, February 18, 2024

A Tangled Web

It takes real effort to make a movie as breathtakingly awful as Madame Web (2024, directed by S. J. Clarkson), a film that can stand with the likes of Catwoman, Batman and Robin, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace as the nadir of superhero cinema. Given the disjointed nature of its plot, I'm going to assume that what ended up on screen is the product of studio notes rather than any incompetence on the part of its main contributors. Certainly, the actors here are left hanging in the wind, actors being at the mercy of other departments. A bad performance isn't always the fault of the actor. Performances are created and sometimes undermined in the editing room. There's a failure to trust the audience in this film that is striking and conspicuous. You can't miss it. So probably the studio. I'm trying to be generous, here.

The plot opens in the Peruvian Amazon in 1973, where pregnant scientist Constance Webb is researching a rare spider whose venom is reputed to have healing properties. The spider is connected to the myth of the Arañas, a fabled tribe of indigenous people who have the abilities to climb and leap through the treetops like spiders. Constance finds the spider, but when she returns to her encampment, her partner in research, Ezekial Sims, murders her guides, takes the spider himself, and accidentally shoots Constance. She is found by the Araña, who take her to a cave to have her baby. To keep her alive long enough, they permit one of their spiders to bite her. She gives birth and dies. Three decades later, Constance's daughter Cassandra is working as a paramedic in New York City. When the film meets her she is working on a bridge pile-up, attempting to rescue a man from a car that is teetering perilously above the river. The man is rescued. Cassie is not so lucky. She's trapped in the car as it falls. She drowns. As she drowns, she has visions of the web of her life, both past and future. When she awakes, she begins having feelings of deja vu, which become outright visions of the future as she recovers. At another rescue scene, she sees a vision of one of her co-workers dying under her hands as she performs CPR. The ambulance he is driving will be t-boned by a truck as it leaves the scene. This comes to pass exactly as she envisioned. Understandably freaked out, she retreats from work. At home she has a vision of a pigeon flying into her apartment's window and dying. When she opens the window and leaves it open, the pigeon flies into the room very much alive, then flies out. Not only can she see the future, it seems that she can change it. When she hops a train to the funeral of her co-worker, she has a vision of a man she doesn't know boarding the train and murdering three teenage girls who are on the train with her. Each of the girls are someone she has met in passing during the last couple of days. She manages to get the girls off the train, pursued by a man in a black outfit festooned with red webs. He crawls on the ceiling. She doesn't know why he wants to kill the girls, just that she's the only one who can save them...

Director S. J. Clarkson is a twenty year veteran as a television director, significantly having worked on the Netflix Marvel shows, so it puzzles me why this film is as poorly directed as it is. Some elements of the film--everything having to do with the Araña, for example--seem of a piece with television superheroics a la The Flash or Arrow, where the production design seems at odds with the better production design of the rest of the film. These are probably reshoots mandated by the studio. Just a guess. This doesn't explain how certain shots seem to have no actual focus, though. The fundamental job of a director is to arrange the scene in such a way that the narrative is clear or to communicate ideas, and this film occasionally fails at this basic function. For example: After Cassie and the three girls flee the subway station, they steal a cab. A part of this sequence includes a shot where the three girls are in the back seat while Cassie drives, but Cassie is put so far over to the edge of the screen, that it takes a second to realize that she's the only thing in focus in the shot. Ideally, this kind of shallow focus is used to isolate a particular person or thing to emphasize its importance, but here, the eye loses track of Cassie because of how the shot is blocked. There are other instances of this, some of it owing to how the film is edited. When, for instance, Cassie and the girls are running around on top of a burning fireworks warehouse and Cassie is directing their path with her precognition, it's never clear what the perils they are avoiding actually are. This is a film that indulges in shaky camera shots and close-ups during its action scenes, which further obscure its narrative. This is especially true of any sequence in which Cassie is seeing the future. The film has this right during its early scenes with Cassie, in which her visions are unannounced by the way they are filmed. The audience has no trouble with this. They should have stayed with this method. But the filmmakers--probably from the level of producers on up--don't trust the audience to follow this without being led by the hand. This is the only explanation I can muster for the inclusion of the film's prologue, detailing what happened to Constance Webb, when practically the exact same footage is included in a later sequence when Cassie sees what happened to her mother. They could have left the first ten minutes of the film on the cutting room floor. Instead, the film allows its exposition to lead it to bloat. This could have been a lean film at, say, 90 minutes. Instead it's two full hours. Worse, it's a film that's devoid of mystery, devoid of a sense of discovery. That is a grievous fault.

The same problem can be said to attach to all of the scenes featuring Ezekial Sims's pursuit of the three girls from Sims's point of view. These also have the hallmarks of studio meddling because they just explain too damned much. We don't need to know the reasons for Sims's actions. Indeed, he could be much more frightening if we don't. His scenes also set up the expectation that we will see all three of his potential victims turn into spider-women to take him out, a promise on which the film reneges. As a side note, Sims is a character who demonstrates the importance of the humanities, because if he had ever in his life bothered to actually read a Greek myth, he would know that acting on his foreknowledge of the future is liable to bring that very future about. See for instance the man with one shoe who turns out to be Jason and who will kill his father, Perseus and his mother set to sea in a great treasure chest, or even The Terminator if you want something less ancient. The basic conception of his character is risible, too. He's Spider-Man, but EEEEvil. Jesus tap dancing Christ, I wish I was kidding.

I don't have any real issue with most of the casting in this film. This isn't a film that's kind to its actors, but it's not the actors who are at fault. Dakota Johnson is fine for the part she's given, even if it's not the character one finds in the comics--at least until she IS the character one finds in the comics. That part of the film makes everyone in it look ridiculous and it had to be mandated by the suits. Gotta give the fans their fan service, after all. It just reeks of filmmakers forced to make an ending they don't believe in, one where they've made it so tacky that they might as well be saying "don't blame us." Anyway, Johnson is competent at the very least. So are Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, and Celeste O'Connor, even if they are all too old for their parts. The problem is the parts that are written for them. None of these characters has any interiority. They don't get strong emotions to play, not even Johnson who has a man die in her hands. Without that interiority and emotional depth, they don't read as real people so much as they read as types. They don't express any emotions beyond "sass." And, god, they're dumb. There is a sequence where Cassie tells them to not do anything dumb and as soon as she's gone, they go and do the dumb thing. More than once. This is a film with an idiot plot, and such films have snared better actors than these.

Two of the supporting players bear mention: Adam Scott, who is a charming comic actor, is completely wasted as Cassie's paramedic partner. He's there specifically for franchise building. The character's name is Ben Parker, a name that is very spider-adjacent. Also wasted is Emma Roberts, also a considerable actor in her own right, as the pregnant Mary Parker, whose childbirth is part of the plot. Like Scott, she's there for franchise building. They never name her baby in the film, but it's not a mystery. The presence of both actors is suggestive of a better film. The real victim of the producers' distrust of the material and the audience is Tahar Rahim, who has been a staggeringly good actor in films like A Prophet and The Mauritanian. In many scenes in this film, he doesn't even get to speak in his own voice. Many of his lines have been dubbed after the fact.

In one regard, this isn't a film at all. It's a holding action. Sony has to make movies with the Spider-man characters every so often in order to keep the rights to the character from reverting to Marvel full stop. Given that Spidey has been a license to print money for Sony, they'll do anything they can to hold on to these characters. This movie doesn't even need to be good. It doesn't even need to be successful. It just needs to get released. Mission accomplished. Congratulations, Amy Pascal. You get to keep on doing this. On to Kraven the Hunter. You'll pardon my diminished expectations for that one.

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