Coming after a decade of developmental dithering, “Black Widow” literally feels like adding insult to injury. Not only does the long-discussed and delayed standalone come after the Marvel title character, played since 2010 by Scarlett Johansson, met her demise by sacrificing her life for the sake of her married man friend in “Avengers: Endgame,” now she also has to split screen time introducing her replacement. Branded as the first installment in phase four in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (whatever that really means or matters), the movie has all the earmarks of a fulfilled contractual obligation.
Because the titular Avenger is, well, dead, “Black Widow” is set immediately following the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” when Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff is on the run from the government after running afoul of the newly inked Sokovia Accords. Natasha winds her way into exile in Norway, where she holes up in a spartan trailer, eating canned food and watching movies like “Moonraker” — it’s actually rather endearing when she mouths the dialogue by heart.
Trouble eventually finds Natasha — for reasons that aren’t really explained — after someone leaves her a mysterious package — for reasons that aren’t really explained — leading to a fight with a new foe who seems able to mimic the abilities of other Avengers — for reasons that aren’t really explained. This leads Natasha to track down Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Natasha’s surrogate sister.
Natasha and Yelena were plucked as infants from their respective birth parents and conscripted into a Soviet brainwashing and training program named Red Room. They spent their childhood years living in suburban Ohio, minded and indoctrinated by their “parents,” who are actually Red Room scientist Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), formerly the Russian super-soldier counterpart to Captain America known as Red Guardian before being demoted into rearing moppet Manchurian candidates.
Years ago, Natasha escaped the clutches of Red Room and believed she had killed its founder, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). However, Red Room is still alive and active, now conditioning a new legion of women assassins using some new potent mind-altering MacGuffin. Natasha and Yelena team up and get the arranged family back together in hopes of taking down Red Room.
Combining “The Americans” with “Salt,” the otherwise erratic plot to “Black Widow” boils down to if Paige Jennings grew up to become Evelyn Salt. Along the way, writer Eric Pearson peppers the script with attempts at wit that seem to crop up at incongruous and inappropriate moments. Meanwhile, Australian director Cate Shortland feeds it all through a mainframe that spits out action sequences that look spectacular in storyboard but lifeless when run through a software blender.
“Black Widow” just fills a hole in Natasha’s timeline rather than revealing compelling elements of her overall character arc. Even the de rigueur Marvel primer needed to glean any narrative grace notes doesn’t resolve the nonplusness of a sister and sham-fam we never heard about before or after the events in this film.
The real star of this show is Pugh, who ably exudes the necessary spunk and action chops for a Black Widow-in-waiting. That good news, however, comes at the expense of Johansson, who feels like she’s playing second-fiddle in her own standalone, an obvious point driven further home by the end credits sequence.
Farewell “Black Widow,” we hardly knew ye.
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