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Madame Web: An Explainer for the Uninitiated

Sony has dropped the first trailer for the next entry in its Spider-Man-affiliated universe, Madame Web–and like the Venom movies, Morbius and the upcoming Kraven film, Madame Web seems to lack the central component in these stories when they first made the pages of Marvel Comics –- namely Spider-Man. Of course, t wasn’t a terribly difficult task for Sony to leave the wall-crawler out of the previously released films, as they had easy workarounds. Venom and Carnage, instead of being Spider-Man’s nemeses, were simply portrayed as the alien symbiotes that they are, with Venom taking on the role of the hero. Morbius is a self-made “living vampire” and the antihero of several Marvel Comics series to have spun off from his original Spider-Man appearance, beginning with 1992-1995’s Morbius the Living Vampire.

Madame Web by contrast is deeply rooted in Spider-Man lore, a central figure in the Spider-Verse, while the other characters in the trailer are likewise “spider-people.” The lack of Spider-Man in the proceedings leaves these characters in the strange position of somehow existing without the focal impetus that sparks their circumstances in the comics. Therefore, this trailer can come off as extremely confusing for Spider-Man fans who are unfamiliar with the comic book backstories involving Madame Web and company. For those folks left scratching their heads after watching the trailer, here’s a deep dive into the events and characters portrayed within.


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Who Is Madame Web?

The original Cassandra Webb a.k.a Madame Web from the comics was actually quite elderly, as opposed to 34-year-old Dakota Johnson who plays the character in the film. Webb was born with a neurodegenerative disease that caused her blindness and paralysis. She required the assistance of a life support system that (naturally) had a form similar to a spiderweb’s. Although these afflictions took their toll on her body, she was a mutant with a mind capable of powerful telepathic and clairvoyant abilities. X-Men fans might see a parallel between Cassandra’s circumstances and those of Charles Xavier.

Madame Web was first introduced in the Spider-Man comic books as a minor character who used her talents to help Spidey solve a case. However, she later became more prominent after being retconned as someone who draws her psychic powers not from mutant genes but the Web of Life and Destiny, which is the force that connects all the spider-people of the Spider-Verse.

As seen in the movie trailer, many of Madame Web’s aforementioned characteristics have been stripped away to provide a more lively, action-oriented protagonist. This younger version suffers from none of the original character’s debilitating health issues, and her clairvoyance here seemingly springs from a near-death experience in which Cassie becomes trapped in a car teetering on the side of a bridge while performing her duties as a paramedic. The car goes into the water with her, and she needs to be resuscitated.

Thereafter Cassie can see things before they happen. In one sequence she has a vision of entering a diner to tell Julia Carpenter (Sydney Sweeney), Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor) and Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced) to come with her when a man in a very Spider-Man-like black costume with red highlights shows up and attacks the girls, killing Cassie with a knife in the process. When the vision ends, she’s back outside the diner and aware of what’s about to happen, stating, “Let’s try that again.”

Cassie’s precognitive abilities are further portrayed when she sees the same man coming for the three girls on a train, and then again when she’s able to foresee the man’s attacks during a high-speed chase, thereby enabling her to tell the others how to counter him. While Cassie’s reasons for protecting the three younger girls are still a bit murky by the trailer’s end, it’s revealed that they’re all somehow connected, with one of them even living in the same building as Cassie.

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Marvel Comics’ original, elderly Madame Web character is a far cry from the cinematic version.


Who Are the Spider-Women?

Peter Parker’s conspicuous absence aside, there is another glaring omission to the cast of Madame Web. Instead of introducing Marvel Comics’ first Spider-Woman, Jessica Drew, the movie seemingly skips right past her to two Spider-Women who succeeded her in Spider-Man canon, not to mention a Spider-Girl. These, we learn, are the three young girls that Cassie is trying to protect in the trailer. The man hunting them warns Cassie (more on this later) that she “has no idea what those girls become,” the clip providing a quick snippet of each girl in a distinct spider-suit.

In the comics, Julia Carpenter was the second person to assume the mantle of Spider-Woman after Jessica Drew, having gained her powers during an experiment (under the guise of an athletic study) by a government organization called The Commission. It provided her with essentially all of Spider-Man’s powers. But instead of web-shooters, this Spider-Woman had psionic abilities that could manifest as (surprise!) webs. Before Cassandra Webb died during the Grim Hunt, an attempt by Kraven’s widow to bring her beloved back to life, she passed her powers onto Julia, making her the new and current Madame Web in the comics.

Mattie Franklin, the other Spider-Woman featured in the trailer (and J. Jonah Jameson’s niece), gained her abilities through even more convoluted means–namely taking her father’s place in a ceremony called the Gathering of Five conducted by Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin. During this bizarre crapshoot of a ceremony, each of the five participants was given power, knowledge, immortality, insanity or death. Mattie lucked out, receiving power in the form of superhuman strength, speed, agility, durability, and even flight. Cassandra Webb, one of the other ritual participants, gained immortality.

Mattie later gained more spiderlike powers by absorbing them from Charlotte Witter, granddaughter of Madame Web, who was tortured by Doctor Octopus and tasked with hunting down all the spider-women to steal their abilities. Hey, sorry, we warned you this is convoluted. Anyway, once defeated by Mattie, those spider-related abilities flowed into her, giving Mattie venom blasts, wallcrawling powers and psychic spider legs on her back.

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This being quite the complex origin story, it seems unlikely all of this will take place on the big screen.

Things don’t get any less complicated when it comes to how the comics’ Anya Corazon a.k.a Spider-Girl gains her powers. She first received superhuman strength and agility, as well as the ability to generate a highly durable carapace around herself via her induction into the Spider Society, an ancient sect of spider god worshippers. But her exoskeleton was eventually ripped from her body by Doomsday Man. She later gained all the same powers as Spider-Man, as did all of Manhattan, during 2011’s multiseries Spider Island crossover event. While the rest of the city was “cured” of their superpowers, Anya retained hers. She also has organic webbing and the ability to camouflage herself.

Who Is Ezekial Sims?

The Big Bad of the Madame Web movie is Ezekial Sims, played by Tahar Rahim. This is a pretty radical change from the comics, wherein Sims, in his short-lived role, was mostly an ally to Peter Parker. If it looks in the trailer like he has many of the same powers as Spider-Man, it’s because he does. He received them in a Spider Society ritual, although it’s eventually revealed in the comics by a character known as the Gatekeeper (no relation to the Ghostbusters villain) that Sims “stole” these abilities. Like Madame Web, Sims is much younger in the film than in the comics, which introduced him as an old man who’d used his powers to build wealth instead of playing the role of the hero.

Ezekial does exude some villainy later on when he reveals that the Gatekeeper will only allow either himself or Peter to live, and proceeds to defeat Peter in combat by drugging him. However, the two connect via spider-sense and Ezekial sees all the heroic and selfless acts Spider-Man has done to save people over his lifetime. As a result, an enlightened Ezekial sacrifices himself to save Peter.

This is a far cry from the murderer Ezekial appears to be in the Madame Web trailer. Cassie tells the other girls straight-out that he’s trying to kill them, which aligns with the portentous warning Sims gives Cassie about what the girls will become in the future. But the trailer gives no indication about why Julia, Mattie, and Anya becoming spider-people would motivate Sims’ nefarious actions against them.

Sims’ movie backstory also seemingly strays far from his comic origins. In the trailer Cassie tells the girls that Sims was in the Amazon with her mother, researching spiders, before she was killed. How Cassie’s mother’s involvement affects the story remains to be seen, but it clearly has something to do with Sims and his procurement of spider powers. Whether the movie retains the Spider Society’s presence and its ritualistic worshipping of spider gods to gain those powers is also unknown.

What is currently known is that Sims, according to Cassie, can also see the future (as he must to know what the girls’ futures as spider-heroes look like … see what keen detectives we are?). This makes him formidable indeed. Additionally, in the comics, it’s revealed that Ezekial has been keeping the spider-hero Silk hidden away from the dangers of the Gatekeeper and company, so it is possible she may make an appearance in the film as well. Or not.

In short, the Madame Web movie looks to have taken generations of Spider-Man comic lore and boiled it all down into a very unexpected conglomeration of spider-heroes and villains … except for good ol’ Spidey himself. Whether or not this all gels into an enjoyable theatrical experience remains to be seen. Eventually, though, all these Sony projects had better bring the wall-crawler into the proceedings, lest they peter out into obscurity (no pun intended, maybe). Madame Web is in theaters February 14th, get your tickets below!


For more about how the Kraven movie fits into the SSU click here.


Jason Robbins is a features editor and writer, attorney, computer scientist, bio-exorcist and inventor of the piano key necktie.

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