Producer: Lorenzo di Bonaventura   Director: SJ Clarkson   Screenplay: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Claire Parker and  SJ Clarkson   Cast: Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, Celeste O’Connor, Tahar Rahim, Mike Epps, Zosia Mamet, Kerry Biché, Emma Roberts and Adam Scott   Distributor: Sony/Columbia Pictures

Grade: D

The latest “Spider-Man” spin-off feature—connected with the MCU but not a part of it—is the third title in the series, following the inexplicably popular “Venom” movies and the deserved bomb “Morbius.”  Based on the postscript, “Madame Web” hopes to become a franchise, but it’s more likely to go the “Morbius” route and disappear after a single misguided outing.

The movie is a clumsy origin story for a minor-league Marvel character whose elevation to major movie status is but the latest example of how filmmakers have been scraping the bottom of the comic company’s barrel to come up with new figures to topline now that the real stars—Spider-Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man, X-Men and the like—have been run into the ground. 

In the comics Madame Web, usually playing a supporting role, is an elderly, blind woman in a wheelchair whose main power lies in being clairvoyant.  Now (or more properly in 2003, when most of the story is set)  she’s twenty-something Cassandra (like the Homeric prophetess), or “Cassie,” Webb (Dakota Johnson), a NYFD paramedic who starts to have premonitions about events in the immediate future after she nearly drowns to death rescuing a man whose car has crashed on a bridge.  The flash-forwards are depicted in messy collages contrived by director SJ Clarkson (in her first feature after years of TV work), cinematographer Mauro Fiore (“Dark Phoenix,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home”) and editor Leigh Folsom Boyd (“Black Widow,” as well as the two most recent Spider-Man movies).

A prologue set in a fake Amazon set explains, rather torturously, the origin of her sudden ability.  Back in 1973, Cassie’s mother Constance (Kerry Biché), a scientist of sorts, was, though in the last weeks of pregnancy, trying to track down a rare spider and disprove the existence of a Peruvian people who climb the trees like spiders.  When she finds the spider, it’s stolen by her guide Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), who kills the other members of her team and leaves her wounded.  Luckily, though she was right about the spider, she was wrong about the spider people: they carry her into some mysterious pond, deliver her baby (thereby, one presumes, endowing the infant with her future powers) and after she dies send the kid back to the States to be raised in the foster system. Cassie grows up to become a socially awkward but dedicated paramedic teamed with her equally dedicated but genially laid-back partner Ben Parker (Adam Scott), whose wife Mary (Ellen Page) is pregnant; in fact, it’s at a baby shower for Mary that Cassie’s social awkwardness is most clearly displayed.   

Ezekiel, meanwhile, has used the stolen spider to gain powers that help him become a megalomaniacal mogul of some sort—but one troubled  by dreams he takes to mean that he’s going to be killed by three spider-girls who, as depicted in  these visions, look like the creepy, low-rent special effects they are.  He kills a government agent who’d been inserted into his circle to secure information on his nefarious activities and uses her ID to gain access to all the government’s security apparatus.  He then instructs his security head (Zosia Mamet, in a thoroughly thankless role that keeps her constantly seated at a bank of computer monitors) to employ its facial recognition systems to identify and locate the teen girls—geeky Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), over-privileged Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor) and spunky Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced)—from his dream. His goal is to kill them before they kill him.

He does find the trio, but by then all have coincidentally, if briefly, bumped into Cassie in various ways, and by the time he’s located them, they’re all—again coincidentally—gathered in the same subway car she’s just boarded.  Foreseeing Sims, in his black spider-man costume, arriving to kill them, Cassie forces them all to run from the train with her, gradually persuading them of the danger they’re in.  From then on the movie becomes one long chase, with Cassie desperately foiling Sims’s assaults and the girls acting, for the most part, very stupidly; in the big final confrontation the Parkers, to whom Cassie’s entrusted the trio, get involved as Mary, inevitably, has to be driven to the hospital to give birth, giving Sims the chance to find his prey.  In the end, the script cops out, as the villain’s visions are abruptly revealed to be utterly wrong. 

It’s just the last instance in which the screenplay, attributed to director Clarkson and three others, proves to be sloppily constructed and illogical even by very loose comic-book standards.  It also raises some questions about Spider-Man mythology: Ben Parker is Peter Parker’s uncle, whose murder leads the orphaned kid to become the costumed hero.  But his wife is traditionally May, not Mary, which was the name of Peter’s deceased mother, wife of Richard.  Perhaps we’re dealing with some alternate portion of the overused Marvel multiverse here. But in a movie this bad, who cares?

In any event, Johnson tries to keep the soggy narrative afloat with some canny line readings and plenty of energy; she’s easily the best thing in the picture, though Scott adds notes of deadpan humor that are welcome.  All three of the girls are too old to be playing teenagers; Sweeney, for example, recently starred, playing close to her actual age of twenty-six, in the surprise hit romantic comedy “Anyone But You,” and her geek persona here is strenuously overdone.  O’Connor and Merced face no less difficult demands, the former as an overprivileged preppie and the latter as a kid trying to make it on her own, though both are otherwise attractive.  (In another coincidence, all three effectively play orphans—Cornwall’s mother is institutionalized, Corazon’s father had been deported, and Franklin’s parents are rich globe-hoppers who ignore her—so it’s fine for Webb to “adopt” them as her new, prospectively crime-fighting family, although the script never explains how they’ll get their spider-powers.)  Rahim is pretty much wasted as Sims; unmasked, he just fumes and rages, while in costume he, or his stuntman, comes across as a pale imitation of Venom.  (Ngila Dickson designed the journeyman duds.)  The only other cast member of note is Mike Epps, who plays, in his usual voluble way, Cassie’s captain, who’s killed in an accident and immediately forgotten.

As already mentioned, the movie’s effects are second-rate, as might be expected of a project whose budget was but a fraction of that regularly poured into an MCU picture.  Production designer Ethan Tobman has the opportunity to inject some period stuff into the piece, though—a Calvin Klein street advertisement and a vintage neon Pepsi sign that plays a major role in the finale, presumably offerings to the gods of product placement.  Johan Söderqvist’s music follows the customary beats of superhero scores, though except for Sims’ spider-guy and the Peruvian spider-people of the prologue—along with Sims’ visions and the occasional flash-forwards—the characters remain in ordinary dress.

“Madame Web” is somewhat less obnoxious than last year’s “The Marvels,” if only because it wastes less money.  But in other respects it’s an even weaker example of a genre in decline, a confusing, pointless and—even worse—dull introduction of less-than-super-characters that, one hopes, will in all likelihood never make another appearance at your local multiplex.