Dakota Johnson’s Madame Web Was a Flop — Hollywood Is to Blame


Photography by Getty Images

Is this the end of superhero mania?

Madame Web, the latest movie in Sony’s Spider-Man cinematic universe is here, and everyone has thoughts on it — including its star Dakota Johnson. In a new interview with Bustle, Johnson, who plays the titular role of Cassandra “Cassie” Webb, opened about the film, most specifically how it has been…largely ridiculed. ICYMI, since its February 14 release, the film has become fodder on TikTok, Saturday Night Live and general social media discourse. The consensus? Madame Web sucks.

And Johnson knows exactly why it didn’t work. In fact, as she told Bustle, she wasn’t surprised that the response to her new film turned out the way it did. “It’s so hard to get movies made,” Johnson told the outlet, “and in these big movies that get made — and it’s even starting to happen with the little ones, which is what’s really freaking me out — decisions are being made by committees, and art does not do well when it’s made by committee.”

The star went on to note that audiences can sniff out BS when it comes to the movies they watch, something studios and their execs don’t take into account. “My feeling has been for a long time that audiences are extremely smart, and executives have started to believe that they’re not.” Damn.

While Johnson may have been speaking in reference to Madame Web, the actress has clearly defined the overarching problem with Hollywood and the movie industry as of late, with profit overtaking the art and joy of filmmaking. So, if we have anyone to blame for Madame Web being a bit of a cringe-fest, it’s Hollywood itself.

For those not up on their superhero films, Madame Web is the fourth film in Sony’s Spider-Man universe, and follows Cassandra Webb, a Manhattan paramedic who develops psychic abilities after an accident. The character is based off a Marvel comics character of the same name. The cast also features Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced and Celeste O’Connor as three of the future Spider-Women, who are being hunted by the movie’s villain. While it sounds like the movie would be a hit with Spider-Man fans, reviews have been less-than-complimentary, raking in a 12% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a weak box office opening.

The thing is: This is a long time coming. It’s no surprise that Sydney Sweeney’s superhero film is faltering at the exact same time her romantic comedy Anyone But You is flourishing and smashing box office records; because these two genres of film have been on the opposite end of the popularity see-saw forever. After a strong run in the 1990s and early 2000s, romantic comedies started to trickle out around 2010.

There were a few reasons for this, including a slew of romcoms that didn’t hit where audiences needed them to. Behind the scenes, there was also a push from Hollywood execs and movie financiers to either back billion-dollar franchises like The Fast and the Furious or awards season contenders. As Scott Meslow, the author of From Hollywood with Love: The Rise And Fall (And Rise Again) Of The Romantic Comedy, told Refinery29 in October 2022, romantic comedies just didn’t fit that bill.

“Romcoms were uniquely devalued by an era similar to where we are now, [where] everything is a $300 million Spider-Man movie or a $10 million indie that might win best picture,” Meslow said at the time. Compared to these films or the few romcoms that did get garner acclaim, typically with a white male protagonist at the center, “commercially, [romcoms] were never going to make $1 billion worldwide, and critically, they were never going to get the awards applause that studios are hungry for. So there was a sense that they weren’t serving the purpose that the studios needed them to.”

And that formula worked — for awhile at least. But new factors, like growing fatigue over said franchises (sorry, but do we *really* need 12 Fast & Furious films?!) and a change of priorities during the pandemic, means that not only do viewers want original and new stories, but they want films that help them escape and — most importantly — make them feel good. As writer Benjamin Lee noted in a February 2024 (one-star) review of Madame Web for The Guardian, the response to the movie was “an inevitable collapse” of a “lucrative yet tiresome stronghold.”

In short, moviegoers are sick of seeing the same tired formula over and over again (Madame Web *is* the fourth film in the Sony’s Spider-man universe) and feeling exploited by execs who are just aiming for one goal — profitability. (Hey execs, we know what you’re doing!!) It not only leaves audiences tired and made to feel undeserving of new and exciting content, but also limits access to new and diverse storytellers who often don’t fit within the blockbuster parameters. This distaste is exhibited by the downfall in popularity of this former blockbusters and the romcom renaissance on the big screen.

Before the release of Johnson’s latest film, other superhero films like 2023’s The Flash, 2019’s Shazam, and 2023’s Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom were already underperforming. If anything, Madame Web’s downfall is the perfect encapsulation of this, and potentially heralds the end of superhero mania as we’ve come to know it over the past decade. Of course, what makes this particular flop so much more upsetting is the fact that Madame Web wasn’t just any old superhero movie, but one of the few to feature an entire cast of female superheroes. (Is this giving anyone else serious glass cliff vibes?).

But maybe this is something that needed to happen in order for execs to realize change is necessary in Hollywood and the movies that are produced — because people are catching on. Viewers have always turned to films as a means of escape, but also as a way to see themselves, their interests and their desires reflected back to them on-screen, and what’s been on our screens over the past several years hasn’t necessarily been fitting the bill.

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