The Real Villain Of Madame Web Is Loneliness

Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Spoilers ahead. In the past decade-plus of comic book domination in Hollywood, we’ve seen stronger-than-life figures rise against evil and superheroes quite literally assembling on behalf of humanity. But to be human (or a sentient being) is to feel lonely, at least sometimes — even if you are a caped crusader with superpowers.
Enter Madame Web, in theaters February 15. It’s a standalone origin story adapted from a lesser-known Spider-Man-adjacent Marvel comic (but the movie is not part of the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe, so you don’t have to be a superhero expert to understand what’s going on). On-screen, Madame Web follows Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson), a NYC paramedic who suddenly develops the ability to see — and possibly change — the future, leading her down the path of protecting three teens (Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, and Celeste O’Connor) who are pursued by a deadly and mysterious figure. But, more notably, the movie also explores loneliness in a deep and meaningful way. 
When Madame Web starts, each of our four main characters are profoundly on their own. Cassie has a good friend in her paramedic partner, Ben (Adam Scott), but as an orphan who was raised in the foster system, she never learned to rely on others and has become accustomed to handling everything herself. Meanwhile, Julia (Sweeney) has just moved in with her dad and his new family, who make her feel neglected and unwanted; Anya (Merced) has been forced to fend for herself after her undocumented immigrant father was deported, leaving her unable to trust anyone; and Mattie (O’Connor) has wealthy, absentee parents who prioritise money and their careers over their only child. None of them would willingly admit it, but they are all lonely, closed off, and lost in their own ways. 
Those feelings add a genuine human element to the story that the cast found interesting to explore. “The journey of our characters, going from being shut out, isolated, not really having a strong sense of community or friendship, to finding that [community] is something that’s really beautiful,” O’Connor tells Refinery29. “Something I want audiences to take away is that friendship, connection, and community is possible for you — and it’s powerful.” 
It’s a journey that proves to be difficult in Madame Web. The central foursome meet for the first time as strangers on a subway car when Cassie has a vision of the three teens being murdered. Although Cassie helps the trio escape, it’s immediately clear they want nothing to do with each other. Julia shouts that they’re being kidnapped (which, to be fair, is understandable), and once they’ve found temporary safety, Cassie quickly wonders out loud how she can rid herself of the girls. In her mind, she’s fulfilled the burden of responsibility of her vision, and their care is no longer her problem — Julia, Anya, and Mattie can figure the rest out on their own. Even after they all begrudgingly agree to stick together, each of their individual guards are up. No one trusts the others to do right by them. 
“Everybody has, at some point in life, has felt marginalised, on the fringes, a bit lost, and I think we all crave connection,” director S.J. Clarkson tells Refinery29. In her mind, the fact that Madame Web is made by and about women (something that still isn’t common enough in the comic book adaptation boom) and features a more obscure character gives the movie a unique perspective; she felt that they had the creative freedom and opportunity to dig deeper into the more human elements of the story, hence the nature of Cassie’s relationship with the teens. “And in Madame Web, you see those connections start to form and come together — and that doesn’t always come in the most easy, organic way.” 
When these connections finally start to form in Madame Web, things start to shift. Cassie, to the girls’ surprise, keeps showing up for them when they need her most — and she finds herself liking the nurturing role. And as she begins to understand her powers better, she sees past the trio’s shields and recognises how much more they have to offer, both as humans but as future Spider-Women themselves. (If you’ve seen any trailers, or are familiar with the comics, you’ll know that Julia, Mattie, and Anya all become superheroes, though that’s not the main focus of this movie.) Ultimately, it’s not just a dangerous man these characters have to overcome (though, it would help in terms of their physical safety), it’s their all-consuming loneliness. 
Sweeney agrees. “Something fascinating about the group dynamic on this set was that everyone really built each other up. By building the community that you want to be with and having a support system, they help you bring out the better sides of yourself,” she says. “They help you shine, have confidence, speak out — that’s what’s really amazing about the three girls and Cassie. No one tried to compete with one another, they were truly in it together.” 
And therein lies the true power of Madame Web. Once Cassie starts believing in her newfound friends, they’re able to unlock their own potential — not because they need someone to tell them how great they are, but because they need to know they have somewhere (or someone) to turn to whether they succeed or fail. 
“It’s important to recognise your individual strengths and see how it’s okay to ask for help, see that it’s okay not to do it all alone. That doesn’t make you any less powerful or accomplished,” says Merced. “[Empowerment] is trusting your power as a woman, trusting your intuition, leaning on your community, and not doing anything alone.” 
Madame Web is in theaters February 15. 
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here!

More from Entertainment