Yes, it forms part of Sony’s live-action Spider-Man cinematic universe, but nobody involved with the production of Madame Web wants you to think of it as just another superhero movie.
Speaking to Zavvi, first-time director S.J. Clarkson said: “The character of Cassie felt more at home in a psychological thriller, which made this a really exciting prospect. Clairvoyance is far more grounded as a superpower by its very nature, which in turn helped us create the landscape for a grounded superhero world; it still has all the bells and whistles of the genre, but its main focus isn’t on a character with brute force strength and unbelievable physical abilities.”
Set in 2003, Madame Web stars Dakota Johnson as Cassandra Webb, a New York City paramedic who, after a near-death experience, begins to experience intense premonitions of the future. One of these causes her path to cross directly with three teenage strangers – led by Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney as Julia Cornwall – who are being unwittingly hunted down by Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), a clairvoyant who keeps witnessing visions of his own death at the hands of the teens.
Clarkson signed on to direct the script based on an earlier draft by Morbius screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, but it became obvious during pre-production that this material needed a more authentic voice.
She continued: “The script I signed on to was a good script, so I never wanted to do a complete rewrite; we’ve maintained the structure of it. But from a female perspective, I wanted to take these characters and dig a bit deeper, which was one of the biggest things me and (co-screenwriter) Claire Parker did.
“During my two and a half years working on this movie, its undergone a major evolution, but at its core, it has always been about a woman who has to go back and understand her past to clearly see the future. We just needed to mine pockets of it throughout, and steer it in a direction that hopefully makes for a more fulfilling cinematic experience”.
She was given a surprising amount of freedom to achieve this too, which is still a novelty in a tentpole blockbuster of this size – especially one that it is integrated within a wider cinematic universe, no matter how loosely.
“When making a big movie, there will always be boundaries set for you. But the fact that this was a new character for the screen was liberating in many ways, so it always represented an exciting opportunity.”
While Clarkson doesn’t want her film to be viewed as a mere superhero movie, being a part of that genre was part of the attraction for Tahar Rahim, who plays the scene-chewing villain Ezekiel Sims. The French-Algerian actor, most recently seen as Paul Barras, the commissioner of the Revolutionary Army in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, is increasing the number of English-language projects he takes on, driven by a desire to appear in the kinds of movies that wouldn’t get made in France.
He told Zavvi: “In Europe, superhero stories aren’t part of our cultural mythology, but I’ve always wanted to explore a character like this. I wanted to know what it feels like to wear a supersuit and have special abilities, but at the same time, within a good story that was grounded, which the audience could personally identify with – I think the Marvel world knows how to do this.
“The thing that jumped out to me about this character was the psychological aspect, how someone could fall into darkness just by knowing the way in which they’d die. From there, I consumed everything I could on Ezekiel, reading every comic book and trying to bring in everything from those – but also, I had to remember, this is the first time seeing this character onscreen, and we wanted to create our own version of him, not defined by that.”
Rahim’s research for roles typically tends to go to darker places. For his Golden Globe-nominated role in 2020’s The Mauritanian, for example, he asked to be waterboarded so he’d know what his character – a prisoner of war in Guantanamo Bay – went through.
In a heightened, fantastical role, his preparation couldn’t go to those extremes, but he still took getting into character deeply seriously, as he explained: “I went to a psychologist with a lot of questions, to understand what would happen to the mental state of a man who saw his own death every night.
“I wanted to understand the consequences this would have in his real life, and it was interesting to understand how those feelings develop. At a certain point, someone plagued by this wouldn’t be able to understand if they were living in reality or a dream, and it was fun to take the character in that direction.”
That being said, the other responsibilities of the role ensured Rahim was never at risk of being stuck in an intense headspace; “Playing a character like this actually made training for the action scenes a lot more relaxing! Fight choreography is such a core part of this character’s DNA, and at the same time, it gave me the opportunity to get back into shape, which I was never going to turn down.”
I spoke to the pair the day after Clarkson finally wrapped the extensive editing process, and if nothing else, this period has proven to the director that she would hate to have clairvoyance (unlike her star, who would go to the future to check his kids have turned out alright, if given the chance).
“I’m experiencing the relief of finally finishing the movie after a nail-biting run to the finish; I haven’t thought about a sequel, and would only know about one if I had the power of clairvoyance to look into the future and see if I make it!
“But ultimately, spending so much time in this world with a character who has this power, it’s clear that it’s as much of a burden as it is a blessing. I think I’ll be okay to live in a constant state of delicious ambiguity.”
Madame Web is in UK cinemas from Wednesday, 14th February.