Inside Sony’s ‘Madame Web’ Collapse: Forget About a New Franchise

Harry Luke
Harry Luke
6 Min Read

The trailer buzz was worrisome, advance ticket sales anemic. Then last week, the critic reviews for Madame Web were posted, and they stung deepest of all — Sony’s Spider-Man spinoff received the lowest average Rotten Tomatoes score (13 percent) of any major superhero film in nearly a decade.

“On Wednesday night, you could actually watch advance purchase sales declining in real time as buyers were refunding their tickets,” marvels a major theatrical chain executive. “It really says something when you’d rather have Shazam! 2 numbers.”

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It marked one of the lowest starts in Hollywood history for a film based on a Marvel character. Domestic box office for the first six days in North America was just $26.2 million after opening midweek on Valentine’s Day. International tallied $25.7 million from 61 markets. Even the fan-friendly CinemaScore grade was poor (C+ — extremely low for a superhero title).

Like DC and the once-unstoppable Marvel, Sony is now finding itself in under the gun to reevaluate how it makes comic book movies.

Sony’s previous Spider-Man universe movie — 2022’s Morbius — was a critical bust and much-maligned by fanboys online, but at least it managed to earn $170 million worldwide. There’s no such hope for Madame Web. Plus, the feature’s collapse doesn’t just impact this film, but a new potential franchise led by star Dakota Johnson that Sony had hoped to spin out (spoiler alert: her character is connected to Peter Parker, whose birth is documented in the movie).

The film introduced a trio of supporting characters (played by Isabela Merced, Celeste O’Connor and Sydney Sweeney — now one of the top stars her age). It set up a future in which the three could have become a team of Spider-Women under the guiding eye of Johnson’s Cassie Webb. Now that’s not going to happen.

“We’re not going to see another Madame Web movie for another decade-plus,” quipped one industry veteran. “It failed. Sony tried to make a movie that was a different type of superhero movie.”

Madame Web joins a troubling trend for the superhero genre. Every live-action comic book movie last year underperformed (aside from Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3), regardless of studio. “Superhero fatigue” has evolved from a term used by some corners of the fandom to something reluctantly accepted as industry fact. And it’s coming at a time when Marvel, DC and Sony are all attempting the difficult work of birthing new franchises.

So Madame Web — directed and co-written by S.J. Clarkson and starring Johnson as a New York paramedic who develops psychic powers — seemingly took a wise approach: When there are capes and cowls on every metropolis corner, doesn’t it make sense to avoid the usual tropes and try for a more grounded-feeling suspense thriller with low-key charm? And moreover, make a superhero movie for women and young girls?

Except it didn’t work.

“I don’t know if women are enough to carry the box office here,” one veteran studio source outside of Sony says. Indeed, males make up 65 percent to 70 percent of the superhero audience in North America. In the case of Madame Web, the percentage of female viewers was still only 46 percent.

“We are in transition when it comes to superhero movies,” notes the insider. “I don’t know how big that transition is or what the other side looks like. It may be fewer movies, but bigger brands. Sony is willing to take some risk but also wants home runs — that’s good. And if [Sony’s upcoming Spider-Man Universe title] Kraven is a gigantic hit, the narrative could be completely different. So it’s too early to know the outcome.”

The current mood on the Sony lot is gloomy, an insider says. The studio has certainly had notable wins under movie chief Tom Rothman’s tenure, including the Oscar-nominated Spider-Verse series and the live-action Venom (a third Venom, starring Tom Hardy, is due out Nov. 8). Rothman is known for keeping a close watch over budgets and it has been widely reported that Madame Web cost $80 million, but the actual number is in the low $100 million range, according to several sources. Still, that’s far less than the $200 to $300 million routinely spent by Marvel or DC.

Interestingly, some Madame Web reviewers are earnestly making the case that the film could eventually find a second-life as a camp classic (the Los Angeles Times praised it as “the purest form of camp” and Slate raved, “It’s a travesty, a disaster … and I enjoyed the hell out of it”). While such backhanded compliments are hardly solace to Sony, there’s an argument to be made if you’re going to fail, you might as well fail big. Because there is actually something worse than a movie not succeeding: being forgettable.

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Harry Luke is a Professor in University of Galway. Harry's journey has been marked by a relentless pursuit of knowledge, creativity, and a commitment to making a positive impact on the world around him.