The opening prologue to “Black Widow” is so expertly constructed and so down to Earth in more ways than one, it feels like we might be getting a gritty, edgy, authentic Marvel Cinematic Universe origins story on the level of the original “Iron Man.”
Alas, that hope dies quickly. After a setup worthy of a John le Carre adaptation, the main storyline is an admittedly well-filmed and well-acted but disappointingly lightweight journey more akin to a lesser Bond movie (there’s more than one reference to “Moonraker” along the way), with a cartoonishly forgettable villain and far too much time devoted to domestic soap opera antics played for easy laughs and unconvincing sentimentality. Natasha Romanoff, Black Widow and Scarlett Johansson deserved a higher quality stand-alone vehicle.
“Black Widow,” the first new Marvel movie in theaters in more than two years, opens in a sun-dappled 1995 Ohio town straight out of a Spielberg movie, where young Natasha Romanoff (Ever Anderson, who bears no small resemblance to the Scarlett Johansson we saw in 1990s movies such as “The Horse Whisperer”) and her little sister Yelena (Violet McGraw) are enjoying an idyllic, carefree American childhood — until the night when their father (David Harbour) and mother (Rachel Weisz) get the news they knew would eventually come, and it’s time to leave NOW. After a harrowing chase and shootout sequence, the family lands in Cuba, where the girls learn their parents are not actually their parents but are, in fact, Russian operatives, and everyone is to go their separate ways to meet their Russian spy destinies.
Flash forward years later, and both Natasha (now played by Scarlett Johansson, and it’s great to see her once again as Black Widow) and Yelena (Florence Pugh) have been transformed in brutal and torturous fashion into Russian spies and fighting machines capable of disabling a dozen henchmen at once. The screenplay by Eric Pearson glosses over Natasha’s darkest days as an enemy agent and plunges us into a convoluted and borderline ridiculous plot that kicks off when Natasha and her “sister” Yelena are reunited after all these years and greet each other with a “Bourne Identity” hand-to-hand combat sequence that serves no purpose other than to give Johannsson and Pugh and their stunt doubles the opportunity to execute some whiz-bang fighting moves.
Natasha enlists the help of a comic-relief freelance contractor (O-T Fagbenle) to hook her up with all the weapons and transpo she needs, as she and the wisecracking Yelena plot to take down the evil Dreykov (the great Ray Winstone, hamming and hissing it up) who has created a global army of runway model-looking female assassins who are powerless to disobey his commands. (As I said: third-rate Bond stuff.) After Natasha and Yelena rescue their Soviet super-soldier father-but-not-really-their father Alexei (David Harbour) from a gulag in a thrilling albeit entirely implausible sequence, the trio makes their way to the remote pig farm where the girls’ mother-but-not-really-their-mother Melina (Rachel Weisz) is holed up, running experiments on, well, pigs.
This is when “Black Widow” really loses its footing. As the hulking Alexei/Red Guardian tries to squeeze into his old fighting suit, Melina fusses over Natasha and Yelena as if they’re her real daughters, and the whole thing is ludicrous because Alexei and Melina were FAKE PARENTS for a very brief time and then handed their prop daughters over to a megalomaniac who transformed them into killing machines. You’d think Natasha and Yelena would be just a tad more resentful about the whole thing.
Johannsson and Pugh are terrific together, as Natasha and Yelena cling to each other and bicker with one another and defend one another like sisters, because even though their bond is artificial and they haven’t seen each other since they were little girls, all they’ve got is each other. David Harbour is a terrific actor and he’s clearly having fun playing the man-child Alexei, but it’s almost as if his character wandered onto the set from a sitcom about superheroes. Rachel Weisz does what she can with a thinly drawn role as the surrogate mom trying to keep the faux family together. Unfortunately, this brilliant quartet is nearly lost amidst all the gunfire and explosions of the rote final act, which is filled with action and impressive CGI and awesome location shots, and ho hum, we’ve seen all this before, often in better movies.