“Black Widow” starts with a fairly generic flashback, as young Natasha Romanoff and her “sister” Yelena grow up in idyllic Ohio. At a moment’s notice, “Mom” (Rachel Weisz as Melina Vostokoff) and “Dad” (David Harbour as Alexei Shostakov) announce it’s time to go on an adventure, and the family is suddenly dodging bullets and fleeing the country — but not before Nat looks sullenly out the car window at a pastiche of American cliches, from kids playing with sparklers to an American flag to a high school football game, all while listening to Don McLean sing “American Pie.”
It only seems surprising that a CG bald eagle doesn’t zoom past the car.
We learn that Natasha’s upbringing was a ruse, her family a Russian sleeper cell tied peripherally to Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the power-hungry-yet-hidden mastermind behind the Red Room program that transformed Natasha into the butt-kicking Black Widow we’ve all come to know and love.
After some timeline-jumping, we’re deposited firmly in post “Civil War” times, with Natasha being hunted by William Hurt’s Thaddeus Ross (the most interesting element of the movie from a “bigger picture” point of view, but barely given any screentime) and reuniting the family to take down Dreykov.
David Harbour shines so effectively that he comes across as the best special effect Marvel’s FX team never needed to devise. Big and goofy, intimidating enough to break a man’s wrist and dumb enough to feel like a dad out of the Homer Simpson mold, Harbour steals every scene he’s in.
If any character from “Widow” deserves to live on in the MCU, it is undoubtedly his. As a Russian super-soldier equivalent of Captain America, the “Stranger Things” star has transformed himself into a Cold War, live-action Mr. Incredible.
If you like Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, you’ll likely have no problem with more Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff. She’s a talented actor, an able-bodied butt kicker, and an overall appealing movie star.
Some good fun is had via Florence Pugh’s Yelena, who teases her famous “sister” for her trademark splayed-out action star moves, but beyond that, is there anything new here? Any unexpected directions for one of the world’s most famous actors to take her signature role? Not really.
Keeping spoilers to a bare minimum, the most valuable parts of “Black Widow” arrive when the audience learns more about the deliberately-until-now mysterious title character. To be fair, Marvel does do a better job of retconning the character’s origins than its “Star Wars” brethren have done with the likes of Han Solo.
Questions are answered about the horrific Red Room program, we learn about Budapest, we learn about her “family,” and there are some passing comments made to Steve Rogers and the other Avengers “currently” on the run.
But wow, is Taskmaster a letdown (a richly developed character in the comics, here essentially a hybrid of the DCEU’s Cyborg and Ryan Reynolds’ Wade Wilson circa “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”).
The plot, which involves red vials, a ’90s floppy disc and freeing the minds of Widows worldwide, is a jumbled mess filled with half-hearted McGuffins, faceless baddies in black, and flying fortresses hidden above a part of the world where apparently nobody ever looks up and clouds remain stationary.
Strip away the character name and MCU references, and what you’re left with is another film about a trained killer using those skills to take on the shadowy organization that created them.
Further diluting the drama is the fact that we all know Natasha won’t die, since she’ll do that in “Endgame.” It takes a really good movie, a “Titanic”-level movie, to hand you such knowledge and still manage to make you think the main character is in some sort of danger, and “Black Widow” is simply not that film. Even the franchise trademark end credits scene is barely worth mentioning.
Marvel, please get this Phase 4 grade back on track. Black Widow is in theatres starting 7th July, 2021.