Everybody knows about Peter Parker, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and the success of the animated Spider-Verse movies means that most everyone probably knows about Miles Morales, too. But, neither of those Spider-Men is headlining a movie this year. Instead, Madame Web will swing into theaters this February in a new movie of the same name starring Dakota Johnson. Madame Web is like Venom, Morbius, and Kraven the Hunter (the last of which is also coming out this year) in that it is about characters from Spider-Man comics, but not Spider-Man himself. So, you’d be forgiven for not knowing who Madame Web and her supporting cast of characters are—especially because it doesn’t seem like the character in the new film will have all that much in common with her comics counterpart.
Before you see Madame Web, here’s a primer on her comics backstory, along with the comic-book origins of Julia Cornwall, Mattie Franklin, and Anya Corazon (played by Sydney Sweeney, Celeste O’Connor, and Isabela Merced, respectively), three Spider-Women who also appear in the new film, and of course the story’s villain, Ezekiel Sims, played here by Tahar Rahim.
Who Is Madame Web, Dakota Johnson’s Character?
In the upcoming movie, Johnson plays Cassandra “Cassie” Webb, a young and active paramedic living in New York City who gains clairvoyant powers following an accident. Aside from her name and the fact that she has clairvoyant powers, pretty much everything about the character is drastically different from the original comic-book version of Madame Web.
Writer Denny O’Neil and artist John Romita Jr. created Madame Web for The Amazing Spider-Man No. 210, which hit shelves in November 1980. Cassandra Webb does have precognitive abilities, though they’re derived from her mutant gene (the same sort that gives the X-Men their various powers) rather than an accident. She is also an elderly woman who is blind and paralyzed, as she has the neurological condition myasthenia gravis. She stays alive with the help of a life-support system her husband built for her, and all of the various tubes and devices just so happen to resemble a spider’s web, with her in the center.
In her debut appearance in The Amazing Spider-Man No. 210, Spider-Man goes to Madame Web for help rescuing a kidnapping victim, and in the process Web learns Spidey’s secret identity, thanks to her powers. As is often the case for long-running comic-book characters, tracking Madame Web’s story over the next several decades becomes an exercise in complexity. At one point she gains youth and immortality during a conflict with her granddaughter Charlotte Witter, a supervillain Spider-Woman. She later loses these gifts and is eventually murdered in a 2009 storyline, though she was able to give her precognitive abilities to Julia Carpenter, the Spider-Woman who will be played by Sydney Sweeney in the Madame Web movie. Madame Web was resurrected, as a clone, in a 2016 storyline, though she died again when her clone body deteriorated, as clone bodies do.
Fans of the 1990s animated Spider-Man TV show might be familiar with Madame Web, as she made a couple of appearances on the small screen, voiced by Joan Lee—wife of Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee.
Unless there’s a lot of footage of Johnson, who is 34 years old, under loads of old-age makeup that hasn’t been featured in the trailers yet, it does not appear that too much of Madame Web’s comic-book backstory is going to be required reading in order to enjoy the film, which is presenting itself as a standalone. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, director SJ Clarkson said she wanted the film to be an “origin story” for the title character. (Notably, the movie is set in 2003, so if there happen to be any scenes or post-credit teasers set in the present day, Johnson’s character would be in her 50s—not quite elderly grandmother age, but closer.)
What are the stories of the three supporting Spider-Women?
Dakota’s Madame Web is joined by three friends who are also Spider-affiliated heroes in the comic books, though none of them have the same origin story as Peter Parker. Rather than being bit by a radioactive spider, all three have more complicated backgrounds and it remains to be seen how they will all gain powers—let alone what sort of powers they’ll have—in the upcoming film.
Sweeney plays Julia Cornwall, better known in the comics by her married name Julia Carpenter. First appearing in the sixth issue of the Secret Wars event series in 1984, Julia gains powers very similar to Spider-Man’s when a government agency injects her with a mixture of spider venom and exotic plant extracts under the guise of performing a simple athletic study. She adopts the name Spider-Woman (the second to do so after Jessica Drew, a character with a different backstory involving spiders who is not in Madame Web). Julia has also gone by the superhero name Arachne.
O’Connor plays Mattie Franklin, the third character to go by the name Spider-Woman. Mattie made her comic-book debut in The Amazing Spider-Man No. 441 in November 1998 following a tease in an issue of The Spectacular Spider-Man the previous month. She gained her powers—an assortment of most of Spider-Man’s abilities plus supersonic flight and Psiconic spider legs—when she took her father’s place in a mystical ritual called The Gathering of Five orchestrated by Norman Osborne (better known as the Green Goblin). The ritual gave its participants superhuman abilities, and it was The Gathering of Five that gave Madame Web her temporary immortality and youth. Mattie headlined her own Spider-Woman comic series from 1999 to 2000 before it was canceled after 18 issues. She made infrequent comic appearances after that, and was killed, resurrected, and died again in the same storylines in which Madame Web suffered the same fate.
Merced plays Anya Corazon, who made her comic-book debut in 2004’s Amazing Fantasy No. 1. Her origin story is the wildest one yet: She gains her superpowers (spider-like abilities and the power to summon a protective exoskeleton) when she is caught in a gang war between two mystical clans that hang out in Brooklyn, as mystical clans do. Mortally wounded when Spider Society and the Sisterhood of the Wasp were going at it, Anya is saved when a member of the Spider Society gives her a magic tattoo granting her powers. Anya originally goes by the name of Araña, but she ends up adopting the Spider-Girl moniker after she loses her powers when a supervillain rips off her exoskeleton, only to regain them after a 2011 storyline where everybody in Manhattan gains Spider-Man’s powers. Unlike the rest of the Big Apple, Anya keeps hers at the end.
Again, it seems very unlikely that Julia, Mattie, and Anya’s comic-book backstories, as involved and elaborate as they are, will feature too much in Madame Web.
Who Is the Villain, Ezekiel Sims?
The trailers for Madame Web showcase a Spider-Man-lookin’ baddie in a black Spidey suit assaulting Madame Web and her friends. This villain is not Venom—the Spider-Man character typically associated with the black suit—but instead a reimagined version of an obscure but important character from the comics.
Notably, Ezekiel Sims, who made his debut in Amazing Spider-Man No. 30 in 2001, was never a villain in the comics and was instead something of a mentor or foil, depending on the story. It’s revealed that he obtained Spider-Man’s power thanks to a magic ritual involving a Spider-Totem well before Peter Parker gained his abilities. Ezekiel eventually informs Peter that his superpowers are actually part of a much larger mystical “Web of Life” rather than simple random chance involving a spider bite. Ezekiel helps Peter fight Morlun, a multiversal vampire of sorts who preys on the Spider-Totem powers, and later dies when fighting The Gatekeeper, a supernatural being who wanted to kill those it deemed unworthy of having the spider powers. Originally it was going after Peter, who gained his powers in an accident, but Ezekiel realized that the selfless Peter was actually the more deserving one and sacrificed himself.
Clearly, this is not going to be exactly what happens in Madame Web. All of the second-tier Spider-Man characters in the movie have fairly complicated, intertwined, and magical backstories, and the film looks to be using them as rough source material for a heavily remixed original story rather than a straightforward adaptation. If I’m wrong about this and the movie is comics-accurate to a fault, I will eat a bunch of spiders in my sleep.