At long last, this? The latest Marvel offering finds the titan of franchises folding in on itself, looking backwards with a floundering lack of ideas for one of its most popular icons. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, after arriving in Iron Man 2 to become one of the original Avengers, is finally the star of her own standalone film. One that sadly cannot measure up to the wait. Like a reheated Bourne film with its visual identity zapped like nutrients from a meal in a microwave, this entry features some of the most popular cinematic world’s stalest tropes and characterizations. The assembly reeks of half-heartedness, a complacency for what will merely suffice instead of what will enrich and best suit the character. After waiting a decade for Black Widow to have her own movie, we are served one that could basically belong to anyone.
Black Widow has no identity, flimsy with story beats that follow the motions rather than illuminate deeper shades of our hero’s backstory. Also somewhat deflatingly, the film occurs during Natasha Romanoff’s disappearance in the wake of the events of Captain America: Civil War, requiring the audience to have fresh knowledge of context from a dozen or so films ago. While a time hop was unavoidable given where Endgame resolved Natasha’s story arc, such an inconsequential story placement is a head-scratcher. This sizable leap back in the overarching timeline of the series not only isn’t supported in any satisfying way or revelation for Natasha, but it ultimately makes this flatter installment feel even more like an artifact. And yet had it been released congruent to the timeline, it still might have made for a disappointment.
Here we are served a little bit more of Natasha’s backstory, including her life before becoming a trained assassin. While on the run, Natasha’s vulnerable position makes her a prime target for a force bent on her demise, and chance reunites her with a former younger sister figure and fellow indoctrinee Yelena (Florence Pugh). To free herself from a treacherous organization and her pseudo-outlaw status, Natasha must reunite with her long lost family unit including her lost would-be parents Alexei and Melina, played respectively by David Harbour and Rachel Weisz. Mostly a basic espionage thriller that makes little sense, Black Widow underwhelms for being a cookie-cutter plotline that isn’t worth the wait.
Black Widow also feels half-baked in its rendering of its set pieces and action sequences. While among the most brutal and hard-hitting of the Marvel films, it also delivers among the weakest for well-shot action; the visual effects are rubbery even though their challenge is average, the combat is confusingly chopped up with odd framing and disjointed cuts. Despite the well-oiled machine that makes Marvel’s output so easy, so pleasant to digest (and Black Widow is still that in some stretches), this one doesn’t always offer the usual fireworks to keep us excited, action sequence or character-based alike.
Director Cate Shortland does attempt to establish a strong chemistry among her featured foursome, but is encumbered by the script’s by-the-Marvel-numbers comedic patter. By now, the MCU’s comedic blueprint of buffoonery, stone-faced irony, aw-shucks goofiness combos are easy to predict, and Black Widow is one of the most comically formulaic to their mold. Pugh fares best, making the most out of a character that struggles to stand outside of Natasha’s shadow (both in their dynamic and in the audience’s mind) with moviestar aplomb. Perhaps most left outside of the intrigue is Johansson, burdened by an unceremonious send-off that leaves her most beloved character with remarkably little to define herself by.