If I were Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. the Black Widow, a.k.a. the first original female Avenger and yet years overdue for her own film, I’d be hella miffed.
After wearing myself out doing flips and kicks and spy work, I finally get my own movie, but the result, Marvel Studios’ “Black Widow,” opening Friday, uncomfortably mashes up a heartwarming family reunion flick with a spy thriller — and then lets its star, Scarlett Johansson, get overshadowed.
“Black Widow” begins in Ohio in the ’90s: Natasha is a brave but serious young girl who already has a hardened look in her eyes. She looks after her younger sister, Yelena, and suspiciously follows the lead of her parents, Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour), who are actually spies posing as a married couple. Natasha, who has already started training at the Red Room, a secret Soviet boot camp turning young women into deadly agents, is split from Yelena, and the girls are taught to kill.
The main action of the film skips ahead to the time immediately following “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), when Natasha (now played by Johansson) is a fugitive separated from the rest of the Avengers. If jumping back a few films in the franchise sounds confusing, “Black Widow,” along with the current Disney+ series “Loki,” serves as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most recent attempt at retroactively building character narratives and back stories by doubling back on its own colossal, ever-expanding timeline. And so Natasha finds out that not only is the Red Room still in business and its leader, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), still alive, the other “widow” operatives are chemically manipulated so they become mindless assassins without free will. To bring down Dreykov and his Red Room, Natasha reluctantly joins forces with her fake family, including an older Yelena (Florence Pugh), who has found an antidote to the mind control.
Despite the intriguing opening sequence, which involves shootings, a jet and a family escape, “Black Widow,” directed by Cate Shortland, lags, unsure of how to proceed with the story. There’s Natasha puttering around while in hiding, some muddled exposition and the introduction of a helmeted assassin who looks like a Mandalorian cosplayer.
For a story about a woman named after a deadly spider, “Black Widow” is surprisingly precious with its hero. An Avenger who has been afflicted with something of a savior complex, Natasha hopes to redeem the red in her ledger with good deeds but ends up sounding like the dull Dudley Do-Right of the superhero film.
In a lot of ways “Black Widow” feels different from the usual M.C.U. film. The coercion and manipulation of young women, the kidnapping and murder missions with civilian casualties — the film seems more like a Bond or Bourne movie, with a tacked-on moral about the importance of family, and it sits awkwardly with heavier themes. (In one scene, an exchange about the forced sterilization of the widows is played for comedy but just sounds absurdly dark.)
Though Johansson gets some great action shots, she is outshined by the other strong actors (strong despite their inconsistent, and often odd, Russian accents). Harbour’s Alexei is an obnoxious though endearing Russian teddy bear of a retired super soldier. Weisz’s Melina is the tough but cowardly scientist who is used to being complicit in a system of which she’s also a victim. But most often Pugh steals the show. Her Yelena is steely and sarcastic yet still reeling from what she’s done while under mind control. Pugh brings cleverness and vulnerability to the character, and she and Johansson have the chemistry to pull off the comic taunting and teasing that comes with a sibling relationship.
Why does Natasha always pose in the middle of fights, landing close to the ground, flipping her hair up and back? Yelena asks mockingly. And she challenges Natasha’s self-righteous idea of heroism: “I’m not the killer that little girls call their hero,” Yelena tells her. There’s a whole movie in that exchange alone.
The script, by Eric Pearson, grants Yelena more personality, emotional depth and intrigue. It not only mines the more immediate trauma she has faced but also, through her, critiques the wishful optimism that Natasha holds for the Avengers, whom she considers her real family.
The film also struggles to figure out its deeper politics. Natasha and Yelena’s rough beginnings as immigrant children who are pushed into the extraordinary world of superheroes and villains recall the early years of the Maximoffs, the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. There’s some statement here about young immigrants who are left behind, but the movie never figures it out. And the villain with a love for controlling little girls? Well, I’m sure I don’t need to go into the sinister implications of that.
Women assassins, women mad scientists: There seems to be a thematic undercurrent of girl power and the strength of women, which is often systematically subdued or controlled by men, but it feels superficial. We aren’t introduced to the other widows, and, for a film about expert fighters, the fight choreography and cinematography don’t do our female warriors justice; the rapidly shifting camera angles obscure rather than reveal the martial arts.
By the end of the story, which leads into “Avengers: Infinity War” (and a post-credits scene jumps forward to the future, in case the hops around the M.C.U. timeline haven’t been confusing enough), it seems as though “Black Widow” is self-satisfied with its protagonist. She’s got the freshly dyed-blond ’do, and her journey with her spy family inspires her to get back to her other family, the Avengers. But “Black Widow” never feels more than just a footnote in the story, a detour that holds no weight in the larger M.C.U. narrative, except to set up Yelena for a larger role in the future.
With many of these new Marvel productions, however, it seems that’s the best we could hope for: stories that finally feature the underrepresented heroes we want to see, but that often still serve as placeholders, slotting in another piece of the puzzle of the larger M.C.U. as it continues to grow.
I’d hoped “Black Widow” could be deadly and fierce, but it ultimately slides just under the radar.
Rated PG-13 for spy vs. spy stabbings, fisticuffs and some naughty Russian words. Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes. In theaters and on Disney+.
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