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Madame Web may be the newest Marvel legend to join Sony’s Spider-Man Universe alongside Morbius, Venom, and (soon) Kraven the Hunter, but, as a superhero film, it’s different from any CBM you’ve seen before!
Based on the comic book character appearing in Amazing Spider-Man, the film follows paramedic Cassandra Webb, who gains the power to see fractured visions of the future, and thus, the ability to alter it. We were lucky enough to chat to director S.J. Clarkson and star Tahar Rahim, playing Ezekiel Sims, about the upcoming movie!
As we said, this isn’t a conventional Marvel film like you’d expect; as Clarkson tells it, it’s really a genre film with comic book characters.
“What I love about this movie is, it’s really a psychological thriller, in the Marvel world, which is what makes it unique and exciting, and it was one of the things I got really drawn to initially,” she tells.
Rahim adds: “As S.J. said, this Marvel movie is different from the others, it’s a suspense thriller, it’s grounded in reality, and I like the fact that it’s about lonely people, who don’t really have family, or have bad relationships with their families, and end up forming their own superhero family.”
Despite what it’s Valentine’s Day release date may suggest, Madame Web is a family film at its core. Cassie and the three Spider-Women of the film, Julia Cornwall, Mattie Franklin, and Anya Corazon, are all fiercely independent, but surviving Ezekiel’s murderous rampage will bring them to rely on one-another.
As Rahim tells it, “As a paramedic, her job is to fix people quickly and move on. She doesn’t commit to any kind of relationships.”
Clarkson was very conscious to craft a superhero film that used ‘female-forward’ storytelling as well. “There’s a theme of empowerment throughout the movie that comes from the fact that each of these characters go on their own journey. Cassie has to resolve the wounds of her past in order to fully embrace the future, and each of the girls come to learn that they had strengths within them that they didn’t know.”
Madame Web employs a lot of suspense and thriller genre conventions, and plays quite a bit with the psychological aspect of Madame Web’s abilities. Eagle-eyed observers will be able to spot threads in some of the psychedelic sequences, which will become extremely important later. A lot of care was taken to reward the true fans!
Cassie’s superpower of clairvoyance presented a unique set of challenges for the film. How do you make a very passive ability like seeing the future look cool and dynamic in an action movie?
“It was really challenging!” Clarkson admits. “At first I thought, ‘Oh, this is a bit of a rubbish superpower, you see the future, and then what!?’
“But then I thought about how I was gonna show the clairvoyance, and I thought, I don’t understand psychic powers, but I do understand memory, and memory comes at you in an often fragmented and disjointed, non-linear way, so I thought about that as how you might see the future.”
Crafting the look for Cassie’s clairvoyance was a technical challenge as well, and Clarkson wanted to do as much of the effect in-camera as possible, as opposed to CGI. They achieved this with, among other things, a split diopter lens.
(In layman’s terms, it’s a camera lens that allows half the frame to be in shallow depth of field, while the other half has a deep depth of field, so two subjects on different planes can both be in focus, while the space between them is blurred, something not possible with a normal camera lens!)
Scenes intercut with Cassie’s visions of the future had to be shot as many as four times, each with a different diopter. As Clarkson tells it, “The diopter shifts the focal plane – it makes things bigger and more distorted. I would wave that lens in front of a portrait lens, which puts the focus at the central point of the frame as the rest drops off. That combination would create a distortion and warp the image in front of us to another image.” A super cool filming technique, and a practical effect!
Since Madame Web is set in the bygone age of 2003, we had to ask Clarkson and Rahim what it was like to make what is now considered a period piece…
“It was fascinating because, you think not much has changed since the noughties to the twenties, but look at the phones, we had a flip phone in this!” Clarkson said.
“I think we’re so used to how much we use our smartphones, and how things online are so readily available. It was quite liberating that everyone [in the film] was operating on a pre-iPhone level, because it enabled you to get beneath the characters and storytelling in a way, without using [phones and the internet] as a trope.”
And finally, on the film’s early ‘00s aesthetic, Clarkson comments: “Someone said the other day, ‘What’s cool about this movie is, it’s vintage,’ and I said, ‘I remember 2003! I’m vintage!?”
Madame Web, starring Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, and Tahar Rahim, is in cinemas now!