Some people are seeing ‘Madame Web’ despite, or perhaps because of, the bad reviews

By most metrics, Madame Web has been a disaster of blockbuster proportions.

Starring Dakota Johnson as a woman who develops clairvoyant powers, the latest Marvel superhero movie from Sony’s Columbia Pictures has flopped at the box office. The film cost more than $100 million to make, according to the Hollywood Reporter, but it garnered just $53 million in global ticket sales in its first week, resulting in the worst opening for any film from the so-called Spider-Man Universe.

Critics have savaged the film. On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie’s score hovers at a lowly 13%. Veteran film reviewer Richard Roeper with the Chicago Sun-Times called it “one of the worst comic book movies” he had ever seen, while Alison Wilmore at Vulture dubbed it a “real stinker” that had been reworked “to the point of incoherence.”

Yet, those awful reviews haven’t scared off all moviegoers. Some have been racing to catch Madame Web in theaters not in spite of the film’s terrible word of mouth, but precisely because of it.

“The trailer was wonderfully bad, but the reviews made me decide I had to see it for myself,” Peter Turo, a 39-year-old executive assistant in New York City, told Yahoo Entertainment.

“There were a lot of tweets urging people to see Madame Web because it was so awful and how fun it is to watch a terrible movie,” said Paige Alena, a 25-year-old voice actor in Los Angeles. “I love so-bad-they’re-good movies, especially when I’m watching them with my friends, so I was absolutely down to see it.”

On X, formerly known as Twitter, there is a plethora of posts from users claiming they feel more inclined to watch the movie because of its horrendous reviews. There are many people, it turns out, who find a certain thrill in witnessing a cinematic trainwreck.

“Every choice or lack of explanation on the plot direction was somehow terrible but also perfect,” said Daniel Bettenhausen, 33, of Davenport, Iowa. “I honestly wish I could see it for the first time again.”

So why are people willing to fork over $20 for a movie ticket to catch something they know is going to be terrible? And what does a bad movie need to do to enter so-bad-it’s-good territory?

Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece, the director of the film studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught classes on so-called “trash cinema.” She told Yahoo Entertainment she wasn’t surprised by the Madame Web phenomenon because audiences have long been fascinated by poorly reviewed movies.

“I think a trainwreck like Madame Web is appealing because there’s so much investment in terms of capital and star power, and there’s great fun in seeing that fall apart,” Szczepaniak-Gillece said.

This concept of cinematic schadenfreude isn’t new in film circles. Matthew Strohl, a philosophy professor at the University of Montana, argued in his 2022 book Why It’s OK to Love Bad Movies that there is an important distinction between what he called “bad movie love and bad movie ridicule.” While adherents to the former school of thinking may find some aesthetic value in certain bad movies, the latter can make watching some bad movies enjoyable simply because they’re fun to ridicule.

There’s also evidence that those who seek out bad movies may actually be more culturally curious than other moviegoers. A 2016 study in the journal Poetics found that some film buffs seek out trash movies expressly because they deviate from artistic ones.

“The majority of trash film fans appear to be well-educated cultural ‘omnivores,’ and they conceive of their preference for trash films in terms of an ironic viewing stance,” Keyvan Sarkhosh and Winfried Menninghaus, the academics behind the study, wrote.

But Szczepaniak-Gillece said there’s an important distinction between trash cinema — cult classic movies, like Showgirls, that “operate on the fringes of good taste” when it comes to gore, sex or offense — and trainwrecks.

Comparing Madame Web to the 2019 movie musical Cats, Szczepaniak-Gillece said those involved in these fiascoes need to initially believe their work will amount to prestige cinema, only for the end result to miss the mark entirely. “Its pleasures are located entirely in its failure,” she said.

It’s this artistic misfiring — what Susan Sontag dubbed “the sensibility of failed seriousness” in her 1964 essay “Notes On Camp” — that makes these bad movies camp and thus enjoyable, as opposed to just plain bad.

In the case of Madame Web, the movie’s camp value was no doubt aided by a trailer that became the subject of many memes thanks to one particularly clunky line of dialogue about spiders in the Amazon, as well as a press tour dubbed “chaotic” by BuzzFeed thanks to Johnson’s candidness about her lack of Marvel knowledge, the “absolutely psychotic” experience she said she had filming the movie, and her (it turns out prescient) admission that she didn’t know if the end result would be any good.

Iowa moviegoer Bettenhausen said he was motivated to see Madame Web by FOMO, or a fear of missing out, based on what he’d heard about the movie. His desire to participate in both real-life and online conversations about the film also compelled him to head to the cinema. “It has since led to hours-long conversations about how wild the movie was,” Bettenhausen said. “And I have encouraged other friends of mine with similar tastes to see it, to the point that we joke it is a cultural moment we will never forget.”

John Wilson, co-founder of the Golden Raspberry Awards, or Razzies, which recognize the worst movies in Hollywood each year, told Yahoo Entertainment that he believes American culture has become snarkier thanks to social media.

But Wilson admitted he can understand why people are compelled to pay to watch a bad film like Madame Web with others. “I actually find the experience of sitting in a theater, watching an audience turn on a movie, to be very enjoyable,” he said.

Szczepaniak-Gillece also noted comedies tend to be more enjoyable in movie theaters because laughter can come more naturally in group settings. “In much the same way, trainwrecks are so much more fun when we share the absurdity with others,” she said. “Ironically, trainwrecks can bring us back into the theater.”

Wilson said he suspects movie studios don’t ultimately care why viewers might buy a ticket, just that they buy one at all. Still, he can’t help wondering how the film was greenlighted in the first place.

“I have to say, it looks like the first pretty obvious contender for next year’s Razzies, based on the reviews,” Wilson said.

This article contains affiliate links; if you click such a link and make a purchase, we may earn a commission.

Source link