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The Internet Is Obsessed With ‘Madame Web.’ The Box Office? Well …

The Internet Is Obsessed With ‘Madame Web.’ The Box Office? Well …

Ricky Valero walked into a mostly empty showing of “Madame Web” with a bucket of popcorn and an open mind.

He had some idea of what he was getting into. The movie, which stars Dakota Johnson as a clairvoyant character from the Spider-Man comics, has been gleefully panned in the week since its release.

The reviews were lousy, with critics calling the movie “a genuine Chernobyl-level disaster” that is “full of bad dialogue delivered badly.” The box office numbers were somehow worse, landing “Madame Web” among the lowest ticket sales ever for a superhero movie.

The movie has been jeered on social media, where Mr. Valero, 37, had been seeing negative posts about it for weeks. But when he attended a showing on Thursday at a theater in Nashville, he was pleasantly surprised.

“There’s a level of terrible that can be enjoyable,” he said, adding that he would rate the movie three out of five stars despite some cheesy dialogue. When he voiced mild appreciation for the movie on X, the responses were so vicious that he ended up muting them.

“You feel like you’re standing alone on an island,” he said.

Sony’s latest addition to the Spider-Man franchise has been inspiring memes for months. But after a dismal first week in theaters, it has come to occupy an odd perch in popular culture: It’s dominating online conversation, but not drawing all that many viewers to theaters.

Some criticism of a known commodity like the Spider-Man franchise can be a sign of a healthy brand, according to Cristel Antonia Russell, a professor of marketing at the Graziadio Business School at Pepperdine University. “It’s free P.R.,” she said, adding, “It shows that consumers are engaged.”

But while “Barbie” managed both meme dominance and box-office success, “Madame Web” does not appear to have pulled off the same feat. According to Sony, the movie was on track to sell $17.6 million in tickets during its opening weekend.

“Madame Web” started functioning as an online punching bag pretty much the moment its trailer was released in November. A line of clunky exposition delivered in monotone by Ms. Johnson became a meme: “He was in the Amazon with my mom when she was researching spiders right before she died.” (The line did not end up in the movie.)

Then came a press tour in which Ms. Johnson issued typically deadpan responses that were sometimes startling in their ambivalence.

“I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to be good at all!’” she told Entertainment Weekly of the film’s blue-screen sequences. (She added that she trusted the movie’s director, S.J. Clarkson.) In a recent interview with MagicFM, she said she had not yet seen the movie because she does not like to watch her own films: “I don’t know when I’ll see it. Someday.”

Since the movie’s release, social media users have complained about its costumes, its editing, its frequent Pepsi product placement and the thinness of its villain’s back story.

Mr. Valero detected an element of misogyny in internet users’ eagerness to criticize superhero movies — like “Madame Web” or “The Marvels” — that have a female director and stars. “I’m tired of these type of movies with women leading the way flopping at the box office,” he said. He worries it will prevent studios like Sony and Marvel from giving women more opportunities to helm superhero movies.

The criticism may also reflect a fatigue with superhero movies, especially among the prestige cinema crowd, said Jordan Crucchiola, the host of the “Feeling Seen” podcast. “It feels like a snotty class kind of getting the object they’ve been hoping for that they could just drop out of a 10-story window.”

There are signs that even the internet’s harshest critics may be tiring of dunking on “Madame Web.”

As the movie enters its second week in theaters, some fans have taken to semi-ironically reframing the movie not as a flop but as a future cult classic. “Just saw Madame Web and it was terrible and I loved every second of it,” one fan wrote on X.

In the newsletter “Hola Papi,” the writer John Paul Brammer placed the movie in the “so bad it’s good” category. The movie “achieves an anti-quality that makes unwitting meta-commentary on the genre it has infiltrated,” he wrote.

Ms. Crucchiola saw the movie for a second time at a busy theater in Burbank, Calif., where viewers giggled through an implausible dream sequence. Although parts of the movie are “brain-breakingly discordant,” she thinks it is more fun to watch than the online response would make it seem.

“We’re watching people with powers to become spiders,” she said. “Why are we that upset about this?”

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