'Black Widow' Can't Make You Care About Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow
But it will get you excited for Florence Pugh's Yelena.
After nine movies and one tragic death, Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, is finally the subject of her very own Marvel movie. Black Widow, directed by Cate Shortland, zaps back in the now overly confusing MCU timeline to give Natasha a solo adventure that succeeds more as an introduction to her successor, Florence Pugh's Yelena, than it does as any sort of ode to the original Black Widow herself. When Pugh is on screen, the sometimes slick, sometimes clunky movie comes alive, just proving that, in over a decade, Johanasson never really figured out what makes her assassin tick. When it comes to Black Widow herself, Black Widow is too little, too late.
Johansson swung into Iron Man 2 with long curly locks and a skin-tight catsuit and was immediately, and now infamously, described as a potential "sexual harassment lawsuit." She got more screen time in 2012's The Avengers, where the villain Loki dissed her by way of her anatomy as a "mewling quim," and from then on was a company player in nearly every team-up. But for as often as Natasha appeared in the MCU, she also became an example of how the massive property had failed its female characters. Seemingly the most prominent woman in the franchise had little to no interiority. Whereas hours of material had been spent explaining the motivations of various men, she was a blank slate.
Black Widow attempts to offer a corrective to her lack of development. With a story by Ned Benson and WandaVision's Jac Schaeffer and a screenplay by Eric Pearson, it establishes that Natasha spent her early years in the US posing as the child of "illegal" Russian spies, a la The Americans. When her fake parents, Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour), are discovered, they drag Natasha and Yelena back to Russia where the girls are immediately captured by Ray Winstone's mastermind Dreykov—whose motives beyond general evil are vague—and put into assassin training camp.
The story picks back up after the events of Captain America: Civil War when Natasha is on the run from the US government. Yelena is still working as a Widow and has come into the possession of the movie's MacGuffin, a package of vials containing an antidote to the mind control technology Dreykov has been using to keep his army of highly trained fighters under his thumb. Trying to prevent it from getting into the wrong hands, she sends it to her "sister" Natasha—they are not related by blood—which reunites them at a safe house in Budapest where they fight one another until they realize they have to work together, ultimately bringing Melina and Alexei into their plot.
The initial action sequences unfold with a Bourne-like energy that eventually gets relinquished in favor of more classic Marvel blandness, but the movie comes alive whenever Pugh is on screen. Affecting a Russian accent that is better than anyone else's in these movies, Pugh handles the quips that are de rigueur for Marvel screenwriting with a confident naturalism, while still allowing the trauma of Yelena's life to seep through. Her fighting style lacks Johansson's practiced sleekness, but it feels effortful in a way that aligns the rest of her take.
Pugh is matched, at least in energy, by Stranger Things star Harbour, clearly having a great time as Alexei, who is just attempting to relive his glory days as Soviet hero the Red Guardian. His bombast might be over the top for some, but he and Pugh are working on a similar level that adds a surprising amount of fun and humor to the movie. Weisz is greatly underused as Melina, whose allegiances are at first questionable, but then all-too-easily resolved.
But there's a black hole at the center of Black Widow where, unfortunately, the titular character sits. Around the time Johansson took on the role, she started reinventing herself from indie queen into alien-esque action star, turning in unnervingly chilly performances in the likes of Under the Skin and Lucy. But the actress never seems to have reconciled the icy trained killer of Natasha's past with the warmth Marvel asks of its heroes.
Black Widow explains what happened in Budapest, an event Natasha alludes to during banter with Hawkeye in The Avengers, but it never really plumbs her psychology. It's a movie ostensibly about confronting your past and embracing makeshift families, but Johansson never seems to figure out what this journey means for her character.
In some ways, that's not entirely her fault. Black Widow is a retroactive layover for the MCU, an attempt to fix the mistakes of its past and imbue new meaning into a major moment that has already happened in Natasha's death. Coming out more than a year after it was supposed to, it feels like an awkward reminder of what Marvel failed to do early on in its run, but occasionally, mostly whenever Pugh is in control, it's a thrilling preview of what's to come.