It’s my unfortunate duty to report that “Black Widow,” the much-delayed kickoff to Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a rather lackluster affair. Bloated and empty, it’s a movie that spins its wheels, teasing us with moments that suggest it will break free from its by-the-numbers script, only to retreat to safety of a car chase or scene of hand-to-hand combat instead.
That’s too bad, as there’s a great deal of potential. There’s some ideas here that, had they been developed, might have resulted in one of the most unique entries in the universe. Instead, it’s a run-of-the-mill feature, with director Cate Shortland content to play it safe.
The movie begins in Ohio in 1995 with a typical Midwestern family quickly packing so they can hightail it to the airport. Far from flag-waving, apple-pie-eating patriots, they’re a group of Russian spies who’ve been compromised and forced to flee.
While embedded, Alexi (David Harbour) and his faux-wife, Melina (Rachel Wiesz), have uncovered key secrets and are expecting a hero’s welcome when they return. Instead, they’re exiled, and their two “daughters,” Natasha and Yelena, are taken into the country’s Black Widow program to become trained assassins.
The highlight of the film is the credits sequence that follows. This extended prologue presents a montage of disturbing images showing young girls being trafficked to be cruelly indoctrinated and transformed into lethal weapons. This points toward a darker tone than previous Marvel films, one that regrettably is cast aside.
Instead, we get a predictable exercise as the action jumps 20 years into the future. Taking place after “Captain America: Civil War,” Natasha and Yelena (Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh, respectively) reluctantly reunite to bring down the head of the Widow program, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), and secure a chemical concoction that, when ingested, undoes the nefarious brainwashing the assassins have endured.
Ostensibly a long chase film, the movie gets bogged down by far too many action sequences. To be sure, there are exciting moments. A prison break from a Siberian gulag almost reaches Bond-level thrills, while a motorcycle chase through the streets of Budapest is a showstopper. However, these sequences are put on a repeated loop until the film becomes a blur.
Ironically, on the rare occasion when Shortland allows her characters to catch their breath, the film finds its footing. The dynamic between the fractured family — reunited by Natasha and Yelena to help in their quest — provides the best moments.
Alexi’s misplaced pride in his “daughters,” their animosity toward him and Melina’s efforts to ignore it all so that she might pursue her own interests yield moments of grand humor and poignancy. Everyone brings their A game, but the highlight is Pugh, who steals the film from Johansson, supplying a sense of barbed humor as well as humanity that’s welcomed.
I have a feeling Marvel fans won’t care about these shortcomings. Having gone over a year without seeing one of their favorite characters on the big screen, they’ll be eager to embrace this. But once they get around to rewatching, they’ll see how thin it really is.