You could chalk Black Widow’s moderate energy and mid-level excitement up to unfortunate timing: Marvel waited so long to make a vehicle for its first female Avenger that it had to be set before the character’s death in the canonical timeline to work. COVID delayed the movie for another year, and in that twelve-month period, we got three Marvel TV series, two of which reimagined characters in creative, genre-bending ways. In the wake of Wandavision and Loki, or even the odd couple pairing of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a spy thriller in which there’s only one returning Avenger (and a dead one, no less) looks a little blah by comparison, no matter how competently made it might be.
That’s slightly unfair, given that Black Widow has just enough appeal to recommend it, but it’s not untrue. Very little of what’s good here comes from Scarlett Johansson. The MCU’s Black Widow has never been a compelling character; Natasha Romanoff’s existence is defined by tactical support, with a hint of a backstory the other films never found interesting enough to explore fully. Now that we’re finally getting that story, nobody seems willing to put forth the effort to make Johansson’s Russian defector superspy a hero worth investing in.
The film begins with the childhood origin story of young Natasha Romanoff. It’s Marvel’s version of The Americans, an enticing concept that unfortunately doesn’t last. Natasha and her “sister” Yelena are the adopted children of spies Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), posing as a normal American family. Alexei gets made, and the quartet escapes to Cuba where Alexei and Melina are extracted, and Natasha and Yelena are given to Russian military official General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) to be part of the Red Room, where they’re both raised to be spies for Mother Russia.
Flashing forward, Johansson’s Natasha is on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D. after the events of Captain America: Civil War when she receives a mysterious package. The red vials inside contain an agent that undoes Dreykov’s Red Room programming, releasing his spies from his brainwashing. They’ve been sent by Yelena (Florence Pugh), who’s defected from Dreykov and wants Natasha’s help to bring the program down. Executing their plan requires involvement from Alexei, now in prison, and Melina, now a neuroscientist in Dreykov’s employ.
Pugh is easily the movie’s brightest spot, bringing humor and electric energy to her scenes with Johansson (her description of the Red Room’s reproductive sterilization of its agents is especially hilarious in its frankness). If nothing else, Black Widow introduces Yelena as a presence we’ll be seeing more of, and it’s fun to think of how she’ll bounce off the other characters in the series. Harbour has fun as the nostalgic blowhard Alexei, while Weisz has a little more trouble selling Melina, mostly because of an inconsistent accent.
The whole enterprise is meant to be anchored by Johansson. While she’s reliably sturdy as Natasha, that’s the only thing that performance and that character was ever meant to be up to this point, which makes it hard to feel much toward her. Cate Shortland’s direction is solid but not terribly remarkable. It mostly reflects Marvel’s house style, meaning it’s not going to ruffle any feathers, but lacks a distinctive personality.
Black Widow isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not a great one either. It mostly feels like background noise, with a few individual performances or elements that briefly poke through. More than anything, it highlights Marvel’s early shortcomings in its female representation by continuing to do a disservice to its most frequently shortchanged character. It suggests a bright future for Pugh’s Yelena, but, ironically, does the bare minimum in finally giving Natasha Romanoff her due.
“Black Widow” is out Friday in theaters and via Disney+ Premier Access.