Madame Web's biggest problem is that it doesn't even know if it wants to be a Spider-Man spin-off

Dakota Johnson in Madame Web
(Image credit: Sony)

Warning: This feature contains spoilers for Madame Web so make sure you’ve seen the Marvel movie before reading on.

Madame Web’s links to Spider-Man have long been something of a sore-point. The latest addition to Sony’s Marvel universe was originally billed as a Spidey spin-off, set to introduce key characters from the comics in live-action for the first time, including its titular clairvoyant and selection of Spider-Women. However, as the film neared its release date, that changed somewhat. 

Instead of being called a spin-off, the studio began emphasizing its autonomous nature. The official Sony Pictures website calls it "a standalone origin story of one of Marvel publishing's most enigmatic heroines". Meanwhile, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura told that the reason there is no Madame Web post-credits scene is because they didn’t want there to be too many links to the wider webbed universe.

"We made a decision early on that the advantage in this story was not to attach it to all these other stories," Bonaventura said. "We tip the hat. But really, we wanted to concentrate on a character journey, and I think some of the superhero fatigue that people talk about is because those movies are often not about the central character." 

It’s an admirable approach, choosing to focus on creating an individual origin story for a new character in this universe without constant outward referencing. Or at least, it would be, if that’s what Madame Web actually did. Instead, the resulting film is somewhere in the middle, full of Spider-Man Easter eggs and nods that never really get the follow-through they need to feel satisfying.

Commitment issues

Madame Web

(Image credit: Sony)

Instead of simply tipping the hat, as Bonaventura suggested, the movie is packed full of Spider-Man references. Take the introduction of Adam Scott’s Uncle Ben: there is never any doubt in the movie who Ben Parker actually is, with references to a new woman who’s in his life (hi, Aunt May) right through to wisecracks about him being an uncle with "all the fun and none of the responsibility".

However, despite Scott’s charming performance, we don’t learn anything about his character; his thoughts, motivations, or what happens to him before the start of Spider-Man: Homecoming. Instead, his introduction never really feels more than a drawn-out throwaway nod.

Then there’s the whole side storyline of Peter Parker’s birth, with Emma Roberts’ character Mary Parker referencing her husband Richard and speaking about their baby "leaping around" in her stomach. It’s clearly baby Spidey, but even this, the film can’t quite commit to, with the name 'Peter Parker' never actually mentioned.

These are paired with more knowing references, including a nod to comic book location 4 Star Diner and a play on Spider-Man’s iconic "responsibility" line in the final third. The latter was described by director S. J. Clarkson to GamesRadar+ as a way of honoring the comics. However, without the gravitas this line deserves (it has been part of several heartbreaking scenes in the Spidey cinematic universe), it feels just a side-eye to the audience without the nuance to be satisfying.

Novel approach

Isabel Merced, Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney and Celeste O'Connor in Madame Web

(Image credit: Sony/Marvel Entertainment)

The decision to let Madame Web straddle the line between acknowledging its place in Spidey lore while also being its own thing results in it not being able to commit to either. Of course, this is not the only issue that Madame Web has – as our review points out, product placement-galore and heavy exposition hinder things, too, for the latest Marvel offshoot. 

But you can’t help but wonder if Sony had committed fully to building an origin story for Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson), Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Mattie Franklin (Celeste O'Connor), and Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced) without wider references, some of its story struggles may have been overcome.

There are countless examples of this done well that the film could have drawn on too. Guardians of the Galaxy is the MCU’s most notable example, while Joker and The Batman brought fresh perspectives to overdone stories for DC. As a viewer, it feels like if Sony wants to really commit to building out their own Marvel universe, they need to look for a similar approach. 

And while Madame Web couldn’t escape the shadow of Spider-Man’s tangled web, this could be a new path for the studio. From what we’ve seen so far of Kraven the Hunter bending away from its comic origins, it could indicate this is something Sony will embrace. Indeed, lessons can be learned from Madame Web’s wasted potential, but it’s just a waiting game to see if they’re taken.

For more, check out our Madame Web ending explained, as well as what Dakota Johnson had to say about slipping into her superhero suit.

Fay Watson
Deputy Entertainment Editor

I’m the Deputy Entertainment Editor here at GamesRadar+, covering TV and film for the Total Film and SFX sections online. I previously worked as a Senior Showbiz Reporter and SEO TV reporter at Express Online for three years. I've also written for The Resident magazines and Amateur Photographer, before specializing in entertainment.