How many origin stories can there be in the Marvel Universe? The number seems to go beyond infinity as is demonstrated in the latest story, “Black Widow” starring Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, the infamous traumatized Avenger who sacrificed herself for the greater good at the end of “Avengers: End Game.” The true stars, however, are Florence Pugh and David Harbour as Natasha’s little sister and father, respectively. THIS is the story we wanted, but unfortunately, we didn’t get enough of it.
We meet the young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and her family who are living in Ohio. She and her little sister, Yelena (Violet McGraw) want nothing more than to live a regular life in a regular town amidst regular people, but Mom (Rachel Weisz) and Dad (Harbour) have different plans. A crisis emerges and the two girls are taken by Russian mobsters where they are the subjects of training, manipulation, and experimentation in the Red Room. We never see any of this, thankfully, but we do hear their sordid tales of forced sterilization and other tragedies while they are growing up. Of course, this is a direct correlation to the difficult lives both of these women lead and provides the motivation for the entire film.
Now adults, Natasha finds herself duking it out with Yelena until they each recognize one another. Both women seek revenge and go on a mission to take down the head of the Red Room lead by Dreykov (Winstone) who also imprisoned their father, the only person who can lead them to the torturous locale. This prison rescue scene, one with total disdain for the man they call Dad, is the most exciting action scene with incredible CGI. While there is plenty more action aka non-stop fight scenes, there isn’t too much that is memorable. What is memorable is the family quipping and clever banter, especially when Mom comes back into their lives. Mom, by the way, is raising experimental pigs which in itself becomes a story. Family dinners never looked crazier; interactions that could have and should have been a focal point of the film because this loose and undeveloped “back story” is as threadbare as an entry room rug.
With a lax storyline and little character development, you have to rely on the actors to carry a very heavy load. Johannson is overshadowed by Pugh who gives us a natural and relaxed performance. Pugh does as much as possible with the written dialogue, but Johannson’s stiff and uneasy performance creates an opportunity for Pugh to steal each and every scene…and she does. (If you haven’t seen “Macbeth,” “Midsommar” or “Fighting With My Family,” you’ll want to check out Pugh in these roles.) Harbour, who, as the film plays on, allows himself to nestle into his comedic role, giving us the impression that he’s initially testing the waters and when he doesn’t get reined in, he lets loose a little bit more. Pugh and Harbour are a delight in the midst of a film that is nothing more than ordinary in yet another typical super hero film.
Cate Shortland directs this lackluster film co-written by Jac Schaeffer who gave us the quirky film “Timer” from 2009 and the recent hit “WandaVision,” but Shortland can’t pull a rabbit out of her hat with this Avenger prequel. No amount of production design or CGI can make up for a dull and monotonous romp through the Marvel Universe. And while there are underlying themes of issues with which females uniquely deal, the thrust of the story is the typical fare much like you’d find at a truck stop buffet—we’ve seen it all before, it’s stale, and it’s been sitting around for much too long. If this origin story for all the Avengers characters continues, it’s time to punch it up a notch and take some chances, something “Black Widow” seemed too timid to do.
If you’ve sat through the previous 23 Avenger films, there’s no doubt you’ll go see this one. If you’re not a fan, stay home and check out “No Sudden Move” on HBOMax by Steven Soderbergh. This complicated period piece inspired by the car industry cover up is well worth your time with an all-star cast.
1 1/2 stars