Black Widow deserved better. This sentiment first applied when the former Russian assassin made her onscreen debut in the woeful Iron Man 2 in 2010 and certainly when she martyred herself and died in Avengers: Endgame nine years later. Now Scarlett Johansson‘s OG female Avenger — worthy of her own movie since she drop-kicked her first villain — is saddled with an underwhelming prequel.
And just to underscore that life is not even fair in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the pioneering character’s stand-alone has been delayed for more than a year due to the pandemic. Totally understandable. But during the interim, the Disney+ streaming service has debuted and delivered three ultra-innovative MCU TV series (WandaVision, Falcon and Winter Soldier, Loki) that have all pushed the saga forward. As much as we root for Black Widow and have long-clamored for this day, wading into her past at this point seems a wee bit counterproductive.
We find our heroine in that crevice of a time-frame after the post-Sokovia Accords (as seen in Captain America: Civil War back in 2016) and before the Avengers reassembled Infinity War. Black Widow, nee Natasha Romanoff, is on her own and in a transient place both emotionally and physically. She’s soon drawn back into her old life as a trained killing machine, leading to a reunion with her former undercover “family.” We first meet them in a thrilling on-the-run prologue set in Ohio in 1995 when Natasha is an adolescent. As her “sister” (Florence Pugh), “mother” (Rachel Weisz) and “father” (David Harbour) each enter the picture years later, the foursome bond in their mission to defeat the sinister brainwasher-in-chief (Ray Winstone). Think The Incredibles with more faux-Eastern European accents.
That promising revenge story devolves into silliness when body pheromones (?!) are used as a weapon. A magical anti-mind-controlling antidote is in play too, but it’s hardly ever used even though it’s an anti-mild-controlling antidote. Annoyingly, the movie follows that one-step forward, two-steps back pattern throughout its two-plus-hour run time. Pugh’s fiery line-readings — love the way she mocks Black Widow for her glamorous, hair-tossing posing — give way too often to heft-free familial turmoil. Smart action choreography is hampered by messy CGI-enhanced set pieces. (A prison break involves an avalanche and an extended shoot-out via land and air; the bullet-riddled helicopter flies off fancy-free anyway!). Characters talk ominously about a Red Room as if Christian Grey himself designed it; the actual reveal is anticlimactic.
Kick-bam-wham action is part of the MCU DNA, of course. The problem in the Black Widow context? The stakes are nonexistent. No matter how many times a bad guy (or girl) aims a gun at Natasha, we know she has a specific, er, end game and will live to see the closing credits. This conceit was always going to be a risk with a prequel. Still, comic-book-based origin stories such as X-Men: First Class and Wonder Woman prove that a built-in lack of suspense can be overcome. The key is a well-executed character study that also fills in the blanks for the fans. The introduction of a family tree alone doesn’t cut it. Does Black Widow have some extra-special affection in her heart for Chris Evans’ Captain America? Or perhaps she was secretly in contact with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye prior to saving his life? We don’t get the answers about her fellow Avengers and, sigh, never will.
The real triumph here is the dynamic between the two lead actresses. The great Johansson, who’s earned two Oscar nominations since Endgame, stays true to her signature character despite the new confines. She’s the rare action heroine who conveys emotions in her eyes while twisting and turning all other parts of her body. And Pugh refuses to wilt, making her presence known in every scene with her de facto sister. They beautifully bridge the past and future, leaving fans to wonder if Black Widow: Just Kidding, She’s Alive! is a remote possibility.
Black Widow opens in theaters and on Disney+ premium on Friday, July 9