“Madame Web” Is The Girlboss Movie We Never Needed

Dakota Johnson was on to something when she publicly said, “I don't know if this is going to be good at all!”

By Andrea Mew4 min read
Sony Pictures/Madame Web/2024

If you told me last week that I’d be watching a superhero film in theaters in 2024, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. I’m that girl who watched Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man films early on, got my fill of the genre, and then simply couldn’t keep up with release upon release after the film adaptations of The Avengers shot Marvel to unmatched levels of success. And frankly, I never felt like I needed to either. 

Comic books in their untarnished, pre-feminist state weren’t really written for me, and I’m okay with that. But you know what was written with my target demographic in mind? Movies like Madame Web – which, upon seeing it get slammed as absolute garbage by moviegoers online, I decided to actually go watch and see if it was really as bad as reviewers were making it out to be. Because my husband and I are connoisseurs of bad cinema (watched ironically, of course), I dragged him along too.

When I left the theaters, I was reminded that now – more than ever before – Hollywood has officially entered into its own late Rome. And an empty, lazy attempt to subvert the girlboss genre with more girlbossery only further proves this point. Let’s unpack this controversial new release.

Never Forget Ancient Rome’s Cautionary Tale

Cinema has been hollowed out by profit-hungry showrunners, willing to dole out another large sum of money to simply go through the motions and perhaps make some sort of return on their “investment." In the case of Madam Web, they couldn’t even turn a profit. 

Filmmaking lately feels much like late Rome, a period of time not-so-fondly reflected on for its drastic decline from a once glittering, golden era to a grim, godless endgame. Hollywood, currently hemorrhaging one soulless corporate superhero movie after another, epitomizes this tragic construct. 

Greedy people pulling the strings want to gain as much as they can from simple wash-rinse-and-repeat strategies while they still can, and all the while, the establishment itself is crumbling in real-time. 

Yes, cinema is a shell of its former self, and while there are certainly still some good films being made today, they’re sadly overshadowed by global marketing schemes and overlooked by increasingly lazy audiences perfectly content to just consume whatever is put in front of them.

So what really rubbed me the wrong way about Madame Web? Frankly, as bad movies go (and again, you’re getting the facts straight from a bad movie buff here), this one was, for the most part, a snore fest. And that’s precisely what’s wrong with it. No matter how much of their $80 million budget was thrown at the crew to generate some cookie-cutter special effects and, yes, TikTok-style camera zooms.

Hey, Wait, I Think I’ve Seen This One Before

The uninspiring treatment done in post-production is only the tip of the iceberg, however. Madame Web’s greatest offense? It's not the poorly written screenplay or the weak acting performances glossed over by an inexperienced director. It's that none of the characters – from Dakota Johnson as Cassandra (Cassie) Webb to Sydney Sweeney as Julia Carpenter to Tahar Rahim as the villain Ezekiel – were even remotely compelling. 

Cassie comes off as a woman who just allows the world to happen around her, going through life like she’s eternally bored. She’s got some weird victimhood complex about her femininity, like pulling awkward, quirky girl moments that were perhaps meant to be relatable but instead were total cringe.

Like, we get it, you’re uncomfortable at Emma Roberts’ character Mary’s baby shower because you’re “not like other girls,” you drive an ambulance, and your mom is dead, but can’t this NLOG trope be buried already?

But wait, Andrea, isn’t it a good thing that Hollywood is not just remaking stories by shoehorning women into men’s roles? Sure, I’d normally prefer to see filmmakers embark on new intellectual property, but even after Sony hired a female filmmaker (S.J. Clarkson) and focused on original female characters, this movie felt no different from, say, the infamous female remake of Ghostbusters.

Perhaps Sony thought that after Morbius tanked, but still received a bit of a cult following for being notably awful, they could wash-rinse-and-repeat with Madame Web. But Madame Web wasn’t even funny-bad. It was just embarrassingly bad for being touched not only by Sony Pictures, but by Columbia Pictures, Di Bonaventura Pictures, and Marvel Entertainment too.

Technically speaking, the character development was anything but grounded in reality – and you do actually want a bit of that in superhero storytelling. To make magical realism possible, you need a healthy balance between the magical elements and the realistic elements.

Let me paint the picture for you: Cassie’s mother is introduced as a daredevil heroine, out in the Amazon rainforest on a scientific journey in the last few weeks of her pregnancy to find a specific type of spider. Her plan backfires when her guide (Ezekiel) turns on her, but thankfully, some people from the local spider-human cult are there to deliver her baby, Cassie, and instill in her some latent powers that would be triggered later in adulthood. Cassie was then inexplicably brought to the United States, where she grew up with a wistful vendetta against motherhood and femininity. 

Remember how I said my preferred frame of reference for the superhero genre was Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man? Think about how Maguire’s Peter Parker is infinitely more relatable from the get-go. You get the picture that he’ll end up with a spidey sense, but at least his character has more going for him than being a disinterested workaholic.

Ezekiel – somehow Mr. Moneybags with untapped levels of advanced resources to spy on his entire city – later on starts having visions that three girls will kill him. Because he’s, I guess, an unhinged psycho, he decides he’s going to hunt them down and kill them first. But thankfully, Cassie ends up in the right place at the right time, and her own powers conveniently grant her foresight to know these three random girls on the train are about to die.

This spurs a sequence of events where Cassie sloppily tries to get her new girl squad out of danger using only her wit, but can’t stop reminding the audience that she just doesn’t know what’s going on. Knowing that Dakota Johnson seemed to barely know what movie she was even acting in, I almost wonder if her character’s bewilderment was just authentic ad-libbing.

Hollywood Can’t Stop Beating a Dead Horse

In any case, Cassie then acts as a matriarch for three mostly motherless teenage girls to find some sense of togetherness. She becomes their proxy mother, and they all become besties despite each of them being quintessentially incompatible tropes – the bookish STEM nerd, the goody two shoes, and the rebel skater chick. Every “female” element of this purposefully “female driven” script felt so hollow.

Despite there being two pregnancies and two birth sequences, all of the characters felt puzzlingly removed from authentic womanhood. Pregnancy seemed more like a way to prove that the movie still ticked the boxes for fitting a female experience, as though an early iteration of ChatGPT wrote the script. 

Girlbossery used to have some heart to it when heroines were allowed to be vixens. I mean, girlbossery even had more heart to it when Mad Max: Fury Road was released. But, Hollywood’s modern girlbossery that metaphorically (and, often literally) places women in men’s clothing and goes through the motions is soulless. No wonder Madame Web flopped so hard as a feminist film – the era of the girlboss is also sunsetting in a similar “late Rome” situation.

If Hollywood actually cared about making audiences happy instead of placating casual moviegoers, Madame Web wouldn’t have ever been made. The comic book character this film revolves around was originally a side character at best. The “female driven” cast and crew was a failed attempt at making male culture appealing to the female gaze. 

Why did Gerta Gerwig’s Barbie – a film with much more overt feminist messaging –manage to break the record for how fast it skyrocketed to $1 billion? Why did Taylor Swift’s movie version of an already massively successful live concert draw out raving masses to the tune of $261.6 million worldwide? Filmmakers weren’t forcing femininity into an ill-fitting, boycentric box. The superhero genre is already oversaturated, and their attempt to once again overcorrect a masculine genre and subvert expectations isn’t helping.

Closing Thoughts

Should you go see Madame Web? While I’d never advise another gal to waste her time and pony up her own hard-earned cash on something so unremarkable, I at least had fun with my husband picking apart every single issue. And there was no shortage of them – from the painful dialogue to the clunky editing to one of the worst portrayals of a villain I may have ever seen. 

Instead, I’d recommend that if you like to watch “female driven” content, support more authentic instances of feminine filmmaking to show the showrunners where your tastes truly lie. That’s not me telling you that you shouldn’t watch movies made through the male gaze either, because if I’m to be completely honest, those constitute the majority of movies I personally watch. But, when I want girl time, I go all in. You should too. 

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