Before it settles itself into some familiarity, Marvel’s latest Black Widow opens with a crumbling loss. We’re in 1995 Ohio, and a seemingly normal American family has just sat down to a dinner that will be their last together for a while. Soon they’re on the run, firing bullets, dodging pursuers and jetting off to Cuba, where they are greeted by ominous-looking Russian contacts and given a fresh set of marching orders. Mom and Dad always knew this day might come, but Natasha and Yelena, the two young girls they’ve raised as their own, are shocked to learn that their family life until this point has been a lie. The trauma of that discovery ripples through Black Widow, yet in the oddly detached manner that’s felt in that prologue. Part origin story, part swan song, the movie, directed by Cate Shortland, zips us through the brutal education of the young Natasha Romanoff (Ever Anderson) as she’s separated from the only family she’s ever known and transformed into a ruthless Russian spying/fighting/killing machine. Eventually, of course, after growing up to be played by Scarlett Johansson, Natasha will defect to the U.S. and find an ever weirder adopted clan in the Avengers, becoming one of the few women to join their world-saving ranks and one of the few people to do so without immortal powers or a mechanized supersuit.
All Natasha has are her killer instincts, her spectacular martial-arts moves and a billboard-ready pose that comes in for some gently calculated mockery in this movie. Self-aware humor is by now an expected element of the Disney/Marvel brand, and as strenuous as it can be a little levity admittedly goes a long way in Black Widow, steeped as it is in elements of torture, mind control, murder and espionage. Grim as it sounds, the movie is nonetheless par for the Marvel course: The Avengers may be taking a breather, but the violence remains predictably PG-13 bloodless, the moral ambiguity close to nothing. Clever audience-tested jokes and one-liners wait attentively in the wings, quick to defuse any tension that might last more than a few minutes. It probably comes as little surprise that Natasha’s gravest Russian-agent misdeeds are either left offscreen or shown ever so briefly in flashback; an edgier character portrait might have confronted the worst head-on and dared risking your sympathies — or trusted Johansson to carry them, given how capably she’s done so in franchise that hasn’t always made it easy for her.
When Natasha memorably strolled onto the big screen eleven years ago in a rather unmemorable movie (Iron Man 2), she turned heads with her beauty before unleashing an array of lethal moves. It was a familiar Hollywood bait-and-switch, objectification masked as empowerment. Johansson would later call out her character’s early, over-sexualized depictions, and in time those depictions improved. Deployed early on as a multi-purpose Avengers love interest, Natasha gradually emerged a tough, credible action hero and a fiercely loyal ally, the moral glue holding this fractious superhero family together. Having met a nobly tragic end in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, Natasha lives again here, though you can’t help but wonder how her story might have played out years ago, back when Marvel fans started clamoring for a Black Widow movie and the character’s fate was still unwritten. As it is, the knowledge that her days are numbered lends this solo adventure a bittersweetness that’s moving and disorienting by turns. Most of the oddly timed story unfolds in the past, immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War, with the Avengers torn apart and Natasha facing some downtime at a gorgeous Norwegian retreat. Or so she thinks, until a fiery attacks draws her back into her troubled past and propels her toward an overdue reunion with Yelena, the woman she grew up knowing as her sibling.
Herself a recently deprogrammed Russian assassin who’s just as deadly as Natasha, Yelena is played by the superb English actress Florence Pugh. Yelena and Natasha have some baggage, to say the least, a history marred by separation and betrayal. Together, they renew ties the only way long-estranged siblings can: with a visceral slugfest. It’s all decently choreographed if rather too mechanical; once they’ve gotten all that comically exaggerated violence out of their systems, it’s time to put differences aside, join forces and pour on the crowd-pleasing sisterly banter. No family reunion would be complete without Mom and Dad, or rather Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (a boisterous David Harbour), whose journeys have led them and their vaguely Russian accents in wildly different directions since 1995. I won’t give away much more, except that there’s plenty of emotional potential within the guilt, awkwardness, estrangement and affections of these four characters. Such potential might’ve made for a pretty good movie, if the filmmakers had been allowed to slow down and fully develop that dynamic, rather than simply dragging this oddball foursome through one loud set-piece after another.
Those set-pieces have their positives, as Shortland brings an unusual intensity to the explosive, frequently airborne action. But as it progresses, Black Widow doesn’t seem to be telling its own story so much as perfunctorily bridging the gaps between other stories. You never quite forget that it’s busily connecting this phase of the overarching Marvel narrative to that one, or conveniently installing Pugh’s Yelena as Natasha’s likely successor. The plot piles up without really cohering: As Natasha digs into the past, aided by a flirty private contractor (O.T. Fagbenle) who hooks her up with plenty of devices and vehicles, she comes face-to-face with her old enemy Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who’s produced an entire global army of deadly female assassins. Like Natasha and Yelena before them, these are Russian orphans who had their minds invaded, their bodies violated and their free will taken, all in service of one man’s megalomania. Shortland would seem like the right filmmaker to tell such a story, but as with so many filmmakers fed through the Marvel machinery, her talents feel whittled down to size, bent in service to a corporate vision that looks grand and sweeping but ultimately homogenizes everything it touches. Something similar befalls Johansson, a terrific actress who’s often been treated as a franchise afterthought, and whose long-awaited solo adventure is both an overdue possibility and a missed opportunity. Feeling as programmed as its protagonist, Black Widow can’t seem to get around from being blandly inconsequential; both perfunctory and anonymous.
Black Widow is playing in Theaters Nationwide, as of July 9