The late Stan Lee wouldn't have become an iconic comic book legend without his wife Joan. She was the encouraging voice that inspired her husband to go against his bosses at Atlas Comics and slip his newly created hero Spider-Man into the anthology book Amazing Fantasy #15, published in August 1962. Joan was also the inspiration behind Peter's first love Gwen Stacy so it made sense, a few decades later, that she would end up providing the voice for one of the most memorable characters in the Spider-Verse, Madame Web.
Her first introduction into the world of Marvel came when she debuted in The Amazing Spider-Man #210, thanks to her creators Dennis O'Neil and John Romita Jr. Borrowing the name from the tragic Greek seer, Cassandra Webb was born blind and with a rare, neurological condition, myasthenia gravis, which causes weakness in the muscles. While her body worsened, a mutation meant her mind grew in strength, causing her to develop the powers of telepathy and clairvoyance.
In the comics, she first encountered Spider-Man when she provided help to find a missing journalist. In a later storyline, she sought Spidey's help when she became aware of the Juggernaut's plot to kidnap her. Later, she was granted the gift of immortality after taking part in a ritual called "The Gathering of the Five," which meant she no longer needed to rely upon the web-looking life support system designed by her husband Jonathan Webb as her youth was restored and her myasthenia gravis cured.
In Spider-Man: The Animated Series, her characterization and backstory were changed to give her powers on an interdimensional scale, calling for a powerful voice to match, and Joan Lee was the perfect person to provide it. Born in Newcastle in 1922, Lee moved to the States in her twenties and ended up with a rich and textured, transatlantic lilt to her voice that worked perfectly for this transdimensional character.
In fact, series producer John Semper Jr. admitted that there was no one else who could voice the role. "There was only one person I wanted to provide the voice for Madame Web," Semper Jr. said in a Facebook tribute to Lee upon her death in 2017. "I had known Joan and Stan for many years prior to this and as I wrote the Madame Web character it was Joan's voice in my head that I was hearing."
Lee had previously lent her voice to the character of Miss Forbes in Fantastic Four: The Animated Series but as Madame Web, she made more of a pivotal contribution. She was first heard as Madame Web in Season 3 of the animated series, debuting in Episode 2, "The Sins of the Fathers: Make a Wish," as a mysterious mentor to Peter Parker, which provided the set up to a wider narrative arc over several seasons. At first, Madame Web forces herself into Peter's life on the instructions of her cosmic companion Beyonder, to prepare him for a Secret War that would test whether good or evil is more powerful. However, it turns out that the bigger mission was to see if Spider-Man was powerful enough to lead a team of Spider-Men from across the multiverse in a battle against Spider-Carnage who was hell-bent on destroying all of existence.
Lee voiced Madame Web in a total of 11 episodes and her character's relationship with Peter could be rather fraught at times — because of her habit of being purposefully vague and talking in riddles — but she was still a strong voice in his ear during a time of moral crisis and, after he saves the multiverse, she does reunite him with Mary-Jane. Madame Web might have been a trickster but her motives were for good and her presence in Peter's life — in the animated series, at the very least — mostly had a positive effect. It's why I hope the people developing the Madame Web live-action movie take this approach to the character.
We so rarely see mature female characters leading an action movie, let alone a superhero one, and given that the recent Spider-Man franchise de-aged Aunt May it would be rather eye-rolling if this standalone movie did the same. Right now, we have no idea which version of Madame Web Sony is going for. When it was reported that Morbius scribes Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless would be penning the script most outlets used images of the OG Madame Web but in the more recent Spider-Man storylines a younger model has picked up the mantle.
During the "Grim Hunt" storyline of 2010's Amazing Spider-Man series, Cassandra, upon her death, transfers all her powers to young Julia Carpenter (Spider-Woman/Arachne) thus becoming the new Madame Web. Julia would continue to appear under the Madame Web alias during the "Spider-Island," "Spider-Verse" and "Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy" storylines (though the original Madame Web does return in this latter run) so the live-action movie may go with this younger version.
It would certainly be the Hollywood way to go to trade the older Madame Web in for a younger model, but wouldn't it be great if the filmmakers bucked this trend? There's room for a tough-love, female mentor in the life of Tom Holland's Spider-Man, especially as the writers so far have refused to give Marisa Tomei's Aunt May the chance to play that role, and there are plenty of great actors over 60 who could do for the character on the big screen what Joan Lee did for her on the small screen. Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Helen Mirren, and Sigourney Weaver are just a few stand-out stars who could bring Madame Web to life with the same style, passion and sassy energy as Lee.
Stan Lee spent years weaving so much of his love for his wife into the Marvel Comics, especially the Spider-Man series, and it would certainly be a fitting tribute to them both and their legacy if the live-action Madame Web gave more than a nod to the one and only Mother Marvel.