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What makes a movie so bad that it's good? 'Madame Web' might have answers

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Now, I like a good movie as much as the next person, but if you're a regular listener to this show, you also know that I love a movie that's deliciously bad, especially if it's horror or superhero-related. And for quite a few folks, the trailer for Sony's newest "Spider-Verse" spinoff, "Madame Web," was more than a premonition that the film was a certified box-office bomb.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAILER, "MADAME WEB")

DAKOTA JOHNSON: (As Madame Web) He was in the Amazon with my mom when she was researching spiders right before she died.

RASCOE: That infamous line didn't make the cut in the final version - I wonder why - but there is plenty of wooden dialogue left, not to mention some bizarre story choices and some really strange cinematography. All elements that have lit a fire of memes on social media. But is it so bad that it's kind of good, or is it just kind of eh? And what makes a bad movie fun? Here to hopefully untangle some of this web is Pop Culture Happy Hour's Glen Weldon. Hey there, Glen.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha. Greetings from the Amazon. I'm here with your mom. She says hi.

RASCOE: (Laughter) She says hi. You and the Pop Culture crew have already discussed this on the pod. What did you think of the movie?

WELDON: Oh, it's bad. Yeah. I mean, folks online are saying it's epically bad, the worst Marvel movie ever made. It's not even close. But, Lord, it's not good.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

WELDON: It has clearly been focus grouped to death. It's been cut and recut by a very worried studio. And as a result, the story doesn't make any sense. It just kind of lurches all over the place. The villain is really dull, and all of his dialogue, for some reason, has been rerecorded and then kind of stuffed back into the movie very clumsily. And Dakota Johnson - she's a great actor, but she's an actor who brings a very chill, disconnected vibe. You heard it in the trailer. And she is struggling here to convey, you know, stakes, urgency, life or death - stuff that superhero movies are built on. So you're, like, sitting there going, well, if she doesn't care, why should I?

RASCOE: Is this why it's become such a meme?

WELDON: Well, yeah, but the thing about memes is, I mean, memes are free.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

WELDON: They don't get butts in theater seats. And since the trailer dropped, people have been ripping this film to shreds and more so when it came out, which makes sense. But I got to say, from my perspective, some of this reaction feels a bit performative to me. I mean, look, it's become a cultural phenomenon. We're talking about it. People like to pile on. You've also got a lot of film critics who are champing at the bit for the era of superhero cinema to be over. They're hoping that this is the film that's finally going to do it. I got news - it won't. And always in the background in fandom, Ayesha, you're going to find good old-fashioned misogyny.

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah.

WELDON: It's a constant. You've got to factor it into any equation. There are fanboys out here who are going to hate on any superhero property that's led by women. Now, don't get it twisted. I'm not saying this film's any good. It's not. But this intensity of this backlash, I don't think it's merited by this little piffle of a movie.

RASCOE: So how has the reception to "Madame Web" differed from other really bad movies like Sony's other Spider-adjacent bomb "Morbius," which I did see for Pop Culture Happy Hour, and I don't think I was a big fan of it (laughter).

WELDON: Yeah, well, sorry about that. But I mean, "Morbius" is the perfect example because that film I think is just as bad, maybe worse. The thing about "Madame Web" is it's a lot more fun to watch because it is so weird. It's doing its own thing. It's just out here stumbling around like a toddler. "Morbius" took itself a lot more seriously. It was doing everything it could to cling to this, you know, superhero genre formula. So it's really dull.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MORBIUS")

JARED LETO: (As Dr. Michael Morbius) Did you know that there are 27 bones in the human hand?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, screaming).

LETO: (As Dr. Michael Morbius) Allow me to introduce the phalanges...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, screaming).

LETO: ...The metacarpals...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, screaming).

LETO: (As Dr. Michael Morbius) ...And the pretty little stinky pinky.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, screaming).

WELDON: Yeah. Now, see, "Morbius" was also a film that followed exactly the same trajectory, right? When the film came out, people made fun of the trailer. They made fun of the movie. Stinky little pinky - they made memes. But Sony tried to cash in on that, right? They rereleased it in theaters, and of course it bombed again, because I can stay home and make fun of this for free. I don't need to buy a ticket. But it's nothing like what "Madame Web" is coming in for, because, you know, I don't get it. Because here's the thing - "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania." To me, that's a terrible movie. I'd argue that film is way more deserving of this kind of "Madame Web"-style drumming, because it wasted so many millions more dollars. It was so much more expensive. But I've given up trying to find the logic here.

RASCOE: Taking that into account, "Madame Web" is still a bad movie, right? But what do you think is in the formula for making a bad movie a cult classic?

WELDON: Oh, well, to rise to the level of classic, you need, weirdness, idiosyncrasy, plus misplaced confidence. Like, that's the formula.

RASCOE: Yeah (laughter).

WELDON: It has to be kind of blithely bad, heedlessly bad. If it's self-aware, if it's self-consciously bad, then you feel like it's hedging its bets, right? It's "Morbius." It's boring. But to be a classic bad movie, you need, like, Tommy Wiseau's "The Room" and "Showgirls." And, you know, here's the quintessential bad movie "Plan Nine From Outer Space."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE")

DUKE MOORE: (As Lt. Harper) We found a lot of suspicious things out in that cemetery. Then again, didn't find anything to base a fact of suspicion on.

WELDON: That movie is passionately poorly made. That's not holding it back. And that's why it's fun.

RASCOE: Ultimately, why do you think watching such bad movies can bring us so much joy?

WELDON: I mean, everybody loves a big swing, right? We love to see a big swing. When it connects, like in "Dune: Part Two," coming out very soon - now, that is a hugely ambitious movie, and it nails the assignment and that is a lot of fun to watch. But let's face it - we also love to see people just completely biff it, right?

RASCOE: (Laughter).

WELDON: We love to see that same passion, that same confidence, but if that confidence just happens to have been, you know, wildly misplaced and completely unearned, then that's fun too. But it's not just fun. It's funny.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Glen Weldon, co-host of the podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour. Glen, thanks again.

WELDON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.