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MOVIE REVIEW | ★½

‘Madame Web’ spins a convoluted superhero story

Dakota Johnson tries her best as the future-seeing Cassandra Webb, but it’s not enough to save this Marvel ‘standalone’

From left: Celeste O’Connor, Dakota Johnson, Isabela Merced, and Sydney Sweeney in "Madame Web."Courtesy of Sony Pictures

If you don’t know the name Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson), “Madame Web” will be a waste of your money. Are you familiar with Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced), or Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor)? No?

Then stay home.

“Madame Web” is yet another Marvel outing, but this one’s from Sony (meaning it’s separate from the MCU), and it’s being pitched as one of those “standalone” features, which implies that you can go in with little knowledge and learn about the new heroes. But outside of Webb, this movie doesn’t even identify the other superheroes who populate the prophetic visions of villain Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim). It assumes you already know them and their backstories.

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I knew not one iota of Cassandra Webb lore going in but gleaned what I could here; if you’re worried about spoilers, proceed at your risk.

Sims’s mission is to murder Corazon, Cornwall, and Franklin. They’re the costumed characters who have come to kill him in his premonitions. In addition to seeing the future, Sims has powers that give him super strength, super speed, and spider-like reflexes. I think he also has poison in his hands, but don’t hold me to that.

In any case, Sims is ruthless enough to shoot Constance (Kerry Bishé), a pregnant researcher in the Amazon jungle who trusted him as her guide, and he spends much of his screen time violently dispatching people with no regard to innocent bystanders. He’d be a compelling antagonist — I mean, who wouldn’t want to prevent their own death? — if the barebones screenplay by Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Claire Parker, and director S.J. Clarkson bothered to flesh him out.

Turns out Constance was Cassandra’s mother. She gives birth to Cassandra before she dies, assisted by some mythical spider people who live in the trees of Peru. Why was a massively pregnant woman due to give birth at any moment roaming around the rain forest, you ask? She was looking for a magical spider. Unfortunately, so was Sims.

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Fast-forward to 2003. Cassandra is now a surly, unlikable EMT. Years in the foster-care system have hardened her, though she tries to be sociable with her colleagues. She also appears to be very good at her job. When not tending to a cute stray cat who deserved more scenes in this movie, Cassandra pals around with fellow EMTs O’Neil (Mike Epps) and Ben Parker (Adam Scott). Yes, that Uncle Ben Parker, the one from “Spider-Man.” Cassandra first realizes she has superpowers when she envisions O’Neil’s death minutes before it happens. She also sees Sims brutally murdering those three teenagers over and over and over, giving the film the feel of an ′80s slasher.

“Madame Web” also appears to share some DNA with ′80s teen sex comedies: At one point, we see those same teens salaciously dancing on diner tables to Britney Spears, and Cornwall wears a skirt short enough to send Catholic school nuns into cardiac arrest. Webb assumes the role of spoilsport adult when she becomes the teens’ protector.

Johnson tries her best, and O’Connor is good for a few laughs, but “Madame Web” is a lost cause. The special effects are confusing and the action scenes are poorly edited. By the time we get a rote explanation of Webb’s powers, it’s too late to care.

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Oddly enough, the most fascinating thing about this movie is its Pepsi product placement. The blue cans are everywhere, and at one point, Johnson holds up a can as if she’s in a commercial. What struck me as intriguing was Pepsi’s role in the film’s climax. This is the first movie I can remember where someone is killed by product placement. You’ll never be able to look at a Pepsi-Cola sign the same way. That is, if you’re unwise enough to see “Madame Web.”

★½

MADAME WEB

Directed by S.J. Clarkson. Written by Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Claire Parker, and Clarkson. Starring Dakota Johnson, Tahar Rahim, Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, Celeste O’Connor, Kerry Bishé. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, Alamo Drafthouse Seaport, AMC Causeway, suburbs. 117 minutes. PG-13 (comic-book violence, more vicious than usual).


Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.