‘Madame Web’: Spider-Verse-adjacent action flick has low-key appeal

(2.5 stars)

Dakota Johnson isn’t an obvious choice for a superhero. Best known for “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the actress mostly exudes a laid-back, half-lidded, even soporific energy that only rarely rears up with intensity, as it did in her acclaimed supporting performance in “The Lost Daughter.” But that may be precisely the best argument for casting her as the title character in “Madame Web,” a surprisingly low-key action-adventure movie based on one of the more enigmatic and peripheral characters from the Marvel universe and its ever-expanding sub-realm, the Spider-Verse.

The character is Cassandra “Cassie” Webb, a woman whose superpower, at least when it first reveals itself in this entertaining if understated origin story, seems to be nothing more than a nagging sense of déjà vu — a.k.a. the Spidey-sense we are all familiar with from the Spider-Man movies.

Cassie, you see, is the orphaned daughter of Constance Webb (Kerry Bishé), a spider researcher who, the prologue tells us, was bitten by one of her subjects while on a field trip to the Peruvian Amazon in the 1970s, when she was pregnant. Fast-forward 30 years, and Constance’s daughter is now a paramedic with the New York Fire Department, partnering with Adam Scott’s Ben Parker. Fans will catch the unsubtle allusion to Spider-Man/Peter Parker’s paternalistic and doomed Uncle Ben. It’s not the last wink or nod that this movie will make to that adjacent cinematic world, even if the timelines do not seem to sync up.

Cassie’s powers, triggered by a near-death experience on the job, will continue to develop as she finds herself thrown into the role of a mother figure and mentor to a trio of rebellious, under-parented teenage girls (Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor and Isabela Merced) who have been targeted by the film’s villain, Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim). Ezekiel also has some spider-venom-induced abilities: not just clairvoyant dreams of his own — he sees himself dying at the hands of the three girls — but more conventional wall-crawling skills. There will be no web-slinging here, but plenty of adolescent angst and eye-rolling.

For much of the film, which was directed in un-showy fashion by TV veteran S.J. Clarkson, making her feature debut, there is refreshingly little of the testosteronal bluster, bombast and ballistics of most comic-book movies. A central theme in this screenplay by Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless and Claire Parker is motherlessness and the maternal instinct. That’s a nice, unexpected thing to find in a Marvel movie, albeit one that’s perhaps a little too underplayed. Some fans may simply miss all the CGI candy we’ve been conditioned to expect from movies of this ilk.

I have no doubt that Johnson is talented enough to handle a little more heavy lifting, but Cassie hasn’t been given much to explore here emotionally, even in a story that sends her back to Peru for some extra-dimensional communing with the spirit of her dead mom. At times, the movie has the moody feel of a supernatural suspense thriller, not a comic-book-style showdown. (By the way, that’s not a complaint.)

It is while watching the 1951 version of “A Christmas Carol” on TV that Cassie has an epiphany about the strangely prophetic visions she’s been having. Scrooge (Alastair Sim) asks the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come: “Are these the shadows of things that must be, or are they the shadows of things that might be?”

It is only then that Cassie learns the film’s central lesson: The future is not yet written (other than the near-certainty of a sequel). It’s a lesson that she eventually imparts to her young protégées, still struggling to find their crime-fighting place in a male-dominated society. “Madame Web” is no blockbuster, but in its own quiet way, it manages to break down a few barriers.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains violence, action and strong language. 116 minutes.

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