Writer/director S.J. Clarkson (Jessica Jones, Succession) turns the superhero origin story into an action thriller with Madame Web. The film follows a 30-something clairvoyant mutant living in Boston, whose powers are realised when villain Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim) sets his sights on murdering three teenage girls played by Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced and Celeste O’Connor.
Set in the Sony Spider-Man Universe and starring Dakota Johnson (pictured above with S.J. Clarkson) as the eponymous hero, it is a film that places themes of motherhood and responsibility at the centre while also crafting a character who is struggling with a sense of belonging. When speaking with Clarkson in London in early February, she explained what she wanted to achieve with the film (which was not originally scripted by her) and how she adapted the comic book character for the big screen.
“I’m not gonna lie, during the prep of this I watched Heat again!” explains Clarkson who notes Michael Mann as an influence on the fast-paced car chase sequences featured in Madame Web. “Heat was definitely an influence. He is an incredible director. He does action so brilliantly and I think what he does and what I’ve always tried to do, is action as storytelling.
“It’s not just action for action-sake and it’s not just action for stunts-sake. They’re great but the story and the character always sit front and centre. That was really important for me, hence why she’s a paramedic and drives an ambulance because it made it front and centre and part of her character.”
Johnson and Clarkson talked about the character development in depth. “We both came at the character from the same place. We really wanted to make a grounded film and I wanted her to be relatable and real”, explains Clarkson. “She’s got rough edges and she is a bit abrasive and I loved that about her. We never wanted her to be cold or bitchy, it was always about making her feel like she was real. I think it was challenging because people thought she was going to be unlikeable but I kind of like her more for that.”
Though set in 2003 for the most part, Clarkson mentions a 1970s aesthetic was important when it came to the central character’s fashion and Taxi Driver was also a touchstone in relation to the theme of solitude. “There’s a couple of moments of her walking lonely down the street”, explains Clarkson. “I call them my Taxi Driver shots because it’s an homage to the great Martin Scorsese.” (whose opinion on Marvel films and cinema has famously been discussed by critics, fans and filmmakers alike).
Cassie or Madame Web sports a 70s style red jacket, which is a nod to the films of Wong Kar-wai (who was also referenced in the Oscar winning multiverse extravaganza, Everything Everywhere All at Once). The colour red appears throughout the film as a way to connect Cassie to her mother (an explorer who met her demise in a Peruvian rainforest searching for a spider) and there are visual and stylistic Wong Kar-wai flourishes across the production and costume design.
The mise-en-scène, themes and soundtrack (Britney Spears, 4 Non-Blondes) weave different eras together which works in tandem with Cassie’s relationship with the three teen girls she takes under her wing. Cassie becomes a mentor of sorts to the young women which feeds into how different generations inform one another in real life.
On what the younger generation can teach the world, Clarkson eloquently states: “There’s so much to learn both ways. I think if we’re both open to each other there’s an awful lot we can learn. I think their outlook on life, I think the way that they are open to so many things that were not so open when I was growing up, I hope that is going to make a healthy and better society. And equally learning what we went through and understanding how things were different will hopefully inform them so you just…you’ve always got to be open to learning, curious and tolerant and really just be open to hearing someone else’s experience because it can always inform your own.”
Madame Web will be in cinemas on 14 February 2024