‘Madame Web’ Review: Dakota Johnson Can’t Save This Spidey Spinoff

The only real bummer about “Madame Web,” the latest installment in the Spider-Man chronicles, isn’t that it’s bad, but that it never achieves memorably terrible status. The story is absurd, the dialogue snort-out-loud risible, the fights uninspired. Even so, there are glimmers of wit and competency. And then there’s its star, Dakota Johnson, who has a fascinating, seemingly natural ability to appear wholly detached from the nonsense swirling around her. Most actors at least try to sell the shoddy goods; Johnson serenely floats above it all.

A misterioso clairvoyant, Madame Web is a secondary Spider-Man character who met the web-weaver in the comics in 1980 while regally parked on a life-support system shaped like a round-bottom flask. Blind and plagued by a debilitating autoimmune disease, she had a standard super-type get-up — a black unitard veined with lines that converge in a web — that was offset by a white-and-black hairdo that suggested she shared a stylist with Peter Parker’s editor J. Jonah Jameson. She entered with “a smell of ozone and disinfectant and age,” the classy intro explained, and with “a voice that crackles like ancient parchment.”

Johnson’s Cassandra Webb — Cassie for short — is far younger and seems more like a patchouli and cannabis kind of gal, despite the frenetic wheel skills she displays in her job as a New York paramedic. Her powers haven’t yet emerged when, after a preamble in the Peruvian Amazon, she is speeding through the city in 2003. As with many superheroes, Cassie has a tragic back story and so on, a generic burden that Johnson’s palpably awkward charm humanizes. If the actress at times seems understandably baffled by the movie she’s in, it’s because she hasn’t been smoothed into plastic perfection by the star-making machinery. Johnson seems too real for the phoniness thrown at her, which is her own super power.

The British director S.J. Clarkson has multiple TV credits on her résumé, including a few episodes of the Netflix series “Jessica Jones,” about the hard boozing, fighting and fornicating superhero. Johnson’s Cassie is sadder and more naturally offbeat than Jones, and like most big-screen superheroes, Cassie doesn’t seem to be getting any noncombative action. Yet she too doesn’t fit easily in Normal World. One of the better scenes in “Madame Web” happens at a baby shower, where Cassie inadvertently wipes the smiles off the faces of a roomful of women by talking about her dead mother. It’s squirmy, funny filler: the guest of honor is Mary Parker (Emma Roberts), Spidey’s soon-to-be mom, who chats with his future uncle, Ben (Adam Scott).

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