‘Madame Web’ and the Failure of Meme Marketing
The marketing campaign for Madame Web, Sony’s latest Spider-Man spin-off film, is a definitive guide on how not to promote a movie.
Making a bad movie intentionally to get “so bad it’s good” watches goes back a long way. At the height of Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s success, Bad Brains would often receive copies of “bad movies” to make fun of from the filmmakers themselves. Bad Brains does not review purposefully bad movies because they aren’t funny. The idea of making a movie bad on purpose doesn’t work.
Sony isn’t setting out to make bad movies, but they are leaning more and more heavily on attempting to manufacture memes. They famously put Morbius back in theaters to cash in on the “It’s Morbin’ Time” meme. And with Madame Web, they cast noted walking human meme Dakota Johnson in the lead. Johnson’s interviews for the film seem to lean heavily on intentionally meme-worthy quotes.
There are multiple obstacles to making memes on purpose as a means of movie promotion. For one, it’s hard to manufacture a meme when you don’t know why something is a meme in the first place. Also, and more importantly, memes do not automatically translate to ticket sales. Putting Morbius back into theaters because “It’s Morbin’ Time” was a total failure. And yet here we are again with what appears to be the same playbook.
Let’s look at how we got here, what the marketing for Madame Web looks like, and why it doesn’t work.
Like a Turd in the Wind
It’s the start of 2018. The MCU is riding a massive wave of superhero success, especially with the landmark film Black Panther. And just the year prior Spider-Man: Homecoming sees Marvel and Sony working together to massive success as well. It’s a prime time for Sony to piggyback on that success. And they have the perfect character to do it with—long-time Spider-Man nemesis Venom. And, indeed, there’s a Venom movie set for a late 2018 release.
The first Venom trailer drops and fans are bewildered. Not only is Venom a movie entirely without Spider-Man, but the tone of the story itself is, to put it mildly, unexpected. And the part from the trailer most people latch onto is where Venom threatens to rip someone’s arms and legs off so they will go rolling down the street “like a turd in the wind”.
The only thing more surprising than that line is what happens come October. Venom isn’t just a success—it’s a huge box office win for Sony. The film makes $856,090,650 in worldwide profits. How does the “turd in the wind” movie which was a laughingstock for most of 2018 become a winner? That’s the question everyone wants an answer for. And no one wants an answer more than Sony.
Why is Venom a Success?
There is no single reason why Venom makes the kind of bank it does. However, there are a few things we can confidently say are contributing factors. The first is the success of Spider-Man: Homecoming. Connecting Sony with Disney’s MCU juggernaut is basically a license to print money. The first Sony Spider-Man film after Homecoming was basically guaranteed to succeed no matter what.
Then there’s Venom himself. During the comic book boom of the 1990s, there are a few comic book characters who find themselves very present in the cultural consciousness. One of those characters is Venom. So, in addition to the success of Homecoming, there’s also a mix of nostalgia and general brand awareness that Venom has going in its favor.
And then there’s the meme factor. No doubt, people are curious about the “turd in the wind” movie. People do want to know if Venom is bad or “so bad it’s good” enough that they’ll pay for an opening night movie ticket.
But then this funny thing happens—Venom is actually enjoyable. Not because it’s a meme, but because its character-driven storytelling actually works.
The relationship between Eddie Brock and the Venom symbiote is bizarre but mesmerizing. The tone of the film is unlike any superhero movie in the late 2010’s making it refreshingly unique. And also there’s the fact that Venom and Eddie Brock seem to be in a 50 Shades of Grey type of romance, something people comment on because one of Venom‘s writers, Kelly Marcel, is also a writer for 50 Shades of Grey.
The “memes” are a factor in Venom‘s success, but they aren’t the whole picture.
How can we say with confidence that memes are not the primary reason for Venom‘s success? The answer, in a singular phrase, is “It’s Morbin’ Time”.
The year is 2022. The MCU is no longer on top. The DCEU isn’t doing much better. We’re starting to see think pieces asking if audiences are suffering from superhero fatigue. Related—the entire planet is dealing with a global pandemic and has been since 2020. Enter Morbius, Sony’s long-delayed next Spider-Man spin-off film.
On the plus side, the end of 2021 sees the release of the wildly successful Spider-Man: No Way Home which crosses over three different Spider-Men. Unfortunately, by now audiences know that the Sony-only movies are not strongly tied to the MCU. Unlike Venom, the character of Morbius is not well known, even among comic book fans. And there’s no particular meme coming off of the Morbius trailers.
All combined, it’s no surprise that Morbius is a box office bomb. However, Sony sees after the film’s release that there is a meme coming off the film—it’s Morbin’ Time. Sony thinks they can profit off the joke and rerelease Morbius into theaters to capitalize. This does not work because you don’t need to watch Morbius to make fun of it. And unlike Venom, there’s little conversation online suggesting that there’s anything worthwhile about Morbius itself.
This should have told Sony that memes don’t guarantee success. Instead…
Dakota Johnson and Marketing Madame Web
Remember how funny it was that a writer for 50 Shades of Grey also worked on Venom? What if Sony cast the star of 50 Shades for a Spider-Man spin-off? Wouldn’t that be hilarious?
Welcome to 2024. There hasn’t been a live-action Spider-Man movie since 2021. People talk more about atomic bombs and Barbie than they do about comic book movies. And the new Sony Spider-Man spin-off is about Madame Web—a character even die-hard comic book fans barely know exists.
What can possibly go right?
This is not an indictment of Dakota Johnson. She is our allergic-to-limes meme queen. We love her. But is she a draw for superhero movie fans? Unclear. What is clear is that Sony’s marketing team sees both Johnson and Euphoria actress Sydney Sweeney as potential draws. There’s some marketing focus on how this is a woman-led superhero movie. However, the thrust of the marketing seems to be on Johnson herself and her unintentional meme-ing.
In an interview with Variety Johnson says using blue-screen is “psychotic” before proclaiming “I don’t know if this is going to be good at all!” Similarly, in Johnson’s interview on The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon writes “Spider-Man” on a piece of paper while Johnson struggles to promote Madame Web. And then there’s Johnson being asked the names of the previous three Spider-Man movies. She, of course, knows none of them.
This is the marketing for Madame Web — making fun of your own movie and franchise.
Where Even is the Meme?
Memes on their own will not bring people to theaters. But one has to ask: is Dakota Johnson saying she doesn’t know the quality of her own film actually a meme? I would say no! And Dakota Johnson hilariously shutting down Ellen and Fallon isn’t something easily manufactured. In fact, rule one of the internet is that authenticity is key. If your meme feels like someone tried to make it happen, much like “fetch”, it will not happen.
But, again, to be clear Venom‘s success comes not solely by memes. It doesn’t even come secondarily by memes. Venom is an interesting film that had the support of brand recognition that people actually wanted to talk about thanks to its divergence from formula and (potentially accidental) embracing of queer culture. Morbius is a movie with minimal brand recognition whose memes were the only interesting thing about it to movie-goers.
Sony seems to be learning the wrong lesson with Madame Web. The reviews for the film are in the gutter. Only time if the marketing campaign will generate meaningful interest in seeing the movie. But, if you’ve already watched Johnson and Fallon goof off, haven’t you already got the meme part of Madame Web?