LUKE’S GRADE: C
The word family has been all but trademarked by “F9” this summer, but it is also the theme driving Cate Shortland’s “Black Widow,” unbelievably the first movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe in over two years.
Of course, the MCU and its chokehold on the entertainment industry never feel too far away, and not even a global pandemic was enough to squash the product from the collective cultural consciousness. Rearranging its mammoth, calculated release schedule, the franchise opted to use everybody’s closed-in time to drop its first several TV ventures, which were an admitted success.
But now, the franchise – and the world, if the box office numbers from the series’ blockbuster among blockbusters “Avengers: Endgame” are to be believed – has returned to its big screen format with the origin story of one of its founding characters.
At first glance, the timing of the Black Widow movie is its most deafening characteristic. In the 20-plus film lore, Russian assassin-turned-hero Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has ran her course. And despite Black Widow having a strong, if sidelined presence in the story since 2010, waiting to build her standalone film until after her death and setting it in the aftermath of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” feels quite indicative of a franchise that never truly cared about the character.
Now, that’s if you can even call “Black Widow” a standalone film.
Filling in some of the holes of Romanoff’s past – mostly her abduction by the Red Room, an undercover Soviet boot camp, and the life that was taken away from her – “Black Widow” often feels more like a preview of what’s to come than a dedicated celebration of what is, or in this case, was. That over-determination to fill movie theaters down the line is a classic Marvel mistake.
Following the Avengers’ galactic break-up from “Civil War,” Black Widow finds Romanoff fleeing from the government after violating the Sokovia Accords. Camping out on a remote hideaway with a dead-end generator and plenty of beer, she’s soon attacked by a masked assailant who mimics her fighting style to a T. But the fighter is not there for Romanoff. A mysterious cache of vials is what’s of interest, which Natasha manages to escape with...or rather, is kicked off the side of the bridge with.
When she makes it back to land, a strip of photo booth pictures tucked within the vials identify the sender: her long lost, sort of sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh).
An Ohioan prologue addresses the “sort of” nature of Natasha’s family and childhood. Without going into too many details, she was separated from her sort of sister, mother (Rachel Weisz), and father (David Harbour) by the Red Room and has had no contact with them since being converted first into a relentless, blood-soaked killer and then an international hero.
Reunions galore and bitter begin centered around the vials, turning “Black Widow” into a hybrid between soapy, heartfelt family dramas and both campy and serious spy thrillers. If that blend translates awkwardly on paper, look no further on the screen than scenes featuring sisterly hand-to-hand combat and explicit references to 007’s Moonraker.
Of course, it’s not just Yelena who’s popped back into Natasha’s life. Fake papa Alexei, absorbed in his glory days as the Russian answer to Captain America, and mama Melina, wrapped up in piggy experiments, are back too.
Together, as a family for some reason, they take on Red Room leader Dreykov (Ray Winstone), whose established history as a torturous figurehead is made even more vile once Yelena discovers his Widows are not just devoted super killers, but mind-controlled super killers.
Romanoff’s positioning against a flagrant misogynist, combined again with the delayed timing of her long-awaited solo film, may feel dangerously close to tokenism. Whatever study of the character is being drawn by both the presence of her dysfunctional family and her reckoning with her assassin past is quickly flattened by the overbearing quest to destroy someone who’s little more than a woman-hating man. Watching the dialogue-laced finale, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the overly transparent “girl power” moment from “Endgame” – a symbolic money shot during the climatic battle that omitted Natasha, by the way.
What’s confusing about “Black Widow” is that wrapped inside this gender-simplified mission are solid performances, witty enough writing, and some of the best, most grounded action of the franchise. Pugh and Johansson prove that a sisterly battle of oneupmanship is enough to carry an entire film, and both Harbour and Weisz are clearly enjoying themselves in roles that are simultaneously bloated in the story and empty in terms of depth.
But at the end of the day, the narrative purpose of “Black Widow” never becomes as apparent as its financial one. Criminally, the film seems to lose interest in its titular character, paying more attention to the family’s quirky reunion and Yelena’s own future with the franchise.
Of course, the performances are solid enough to stymie most arguments about the film’s priorities, but they still can’t make “Black Widow” feel like anything more than a footnote in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“Black Widow” is playing in theaters now, and is available on Disney+ with Premier Access.