‘Black Widow’ is more concerned with setting up the future of the MCU than giving Scarlett Johansson’s character the origin story she’s deserved since 2010

Black Widow
Scarlett Johansson stars in ‘Black Widow.’ Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
  • Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for “Black Widow.”
  • Though it’s a good watch, it’s likely not one you’ll revisit due to its darker subject matter.
  • Florence Pugh and David Harbour manage to outshine Black Widow in her own movie.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Black Widow” is a decent standalone action movie, but it would have landed better if Disney and Marvel had the guts to release it a decade ago – or even five years ago.

Scarlett Johansson and her Natasha Romanoff character have been part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2010’s “Iron Man 2.” Yet, it wasn’t until 2017 that work on a solo movie finally began.

The new film, which serves as both an origin story exploring Romanoff’s dark past and an explanation of what she was up to between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” was originally supposed to lead May 2020 as the first big summer release. Of course, even if it had debuted on schedule, Black Widow frustratingly still wouldn’t have been the first female Marvel hero to get her own movie. (That was 2019’s “Captain Marvel.”)

But because of the pandemic, not only does “Widow” need to follow the heels of Universal’s successful “Fast 9,” it’s also relegated to a film you can unlock on Disney+ for an additional $29.99 – a release strategy Marvel never would’ve gone with for an Iron Man movie, or quite frankly any of its male-leading vehicles.

Herein lies part of the problem with debuting a “Black Widow” movie in 2021, 11 years after debuting the character into the MCU.

Though I enjoyed what I was watching, and I believe other Marvel fans will as well, I found myself wondering so many times why I should care about this film more than two years after Marvel killed Johansson’s Black Widow character in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.”

What’s the point? Will people care for a movie about a dead Marvel character, or will they see it as a disingenuous cash grab?

Perhaps Disney has considered the same question and that’s why, in part, it’s heading to Disney+ in addition to its theatrical release. Even if that’s not an issue for most fans, I predict the casual Marvel viewer is going to be confused trying to figure out when in the Marvel timeline this film takes place.

‘Black Widow’ should have come out 4 or 5 years ago

Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow
You shouldn’t need an instruction manual to figure out when ‘Black Widow’ takes place, but here’s where we are. Marvel Studios

As Johansson confirmed in 2019, “Black Widow” takes place between the events of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” and 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” But that’s not made clear to casual Marvel fans in the film.

While the MCU has never been beholden to chronological releases, this movie really should have come out in 2016 or 2017 because it plays as a direct sequel to “Civil War” with Nat on the run from General Ross (William Hurt) after turning her back on Tony Stark to help Captain America flee on the Quinjet.

With nowhere else to run, Nat finds herself coming face-to-face with her younger adopted “sister,” Yelena (an excellent Florence Pugh).

Together, they decide to take down the Red Room, the place that transformed them into Widows, once and for all after Nat learns it’s still operational. They just need to find it first.

The other obstacle is a soldier named Taskmaster, a new antagonist who can mimic the fighting techniques of any person they come across.

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Taskmaster is one of the villains of ‘Black Widow.’ Marvel Studios

The trailers have made this mystery character out to be the main villain. Taskmaster is the villain, to an extent, but there’s another big bad I won’t reveal here, who is a rather silly, self-important character and feels like they belong in an early Marvel movie.

The moment viewers finally learn who’s behind the Taskmaster mask, meant to be a shocking and emotional revelation, falls a bit flat. Most fans will probably go, “Oh. That’s it?” I doubt you’ll even guess it because the reveal is just not as interesting as the movie believes it to be.

Johansson isn’t even the main highlight in her own movie

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ScarJo waited patiently for her own Marvel movie and it mostly serves as a passing of the baton in addition to a sort-of half-hearted dive into Nat’s past. This is a Yelena origin story disguised as a ‘Black Widow’ movie. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The wildest thing about “Black Widow” may be that the title character isn’t even the main hero in her own story most of the time.

The film is very much a vehicle for the passing of the baton to a younger lead as we head into what Marvel calls “Phase 4” of its cinematic universe. This film serves more as an origin story for Pugh’s Yelena instead of a singular deep dive into Nat’s history.

Pugh and David Harbour nearly overshadow Johansson, at times making her seem like a sidekick in her own movie.

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David Harbour as Red Guardian in ‘Black Widow.’ Disney/Marvel Studios

Harbour plays Alexei Shostakov/The Red Guardian here, aka Russia’s cocky Captain America. He’s a good pick to get his own Disney+ spin-off series to explore his origin story, and Harbour is definitely interested in reprising the character – he’s already told Insider he’s down for a Red Guardian movie where he seeks “vengeance” for Nat’s death.

If you’re not already a fan of Pugh, you will be by the end of “Black Widow.” Yelena’s a firecracker with great one-liners and jabs at her “older sister.”

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Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in ‘Black Widow.’ Marvel Studios

One of the better jokes in the film comes from Yelena and pokes fun at how oversexualized and accentuated Black Widow’s fighting poses were over the years in the MCU.

I have to imagine that’s in part because Johansson serves as a producer on the film. The actress told HelloBeautiful on a set visit for the film that she felt like she was treated like a possession early on when she first joined “Iron Man 2.”

Rounding out Black Widow’s “family” is Rachel Weisz’s Melina, who has excellent chemistry with Harbour and an intriguing character arc that’s better to discover for yourself.

Ultimately, ‘Black Widow’ is a wannabe ‘The Americans’ knock-off that plays it too safe

Florence Pugh Black Widow

As others have said in overzealous early reaction tweets, “Black Widow” feels like a “Bourne” movie meets “The Americans.”

While true, it’s a hollow version of the FX series at that.

Despite having one of Marvel’s strongest and most haunting openings ever, “Black Widow” tiptoes around the KGB to give us the Disneyfied version of Russian spies infiltrating America in the ’80s in a brief montage by simply explaining that random major events in history have all been orchestrated by the Black Widow program.

We’ve heard so much about this Red Room and its psychological and physical torture across 20+ Marvel movies. But after a 134-minute movie, some of it still feels like a mystery. The basics are there, and any smart viewer can fill in the gaps, but you still never feel like you completely understand Natasha and Yelena’s trauma.

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Florence Pugh and Scarlett Johansson in ‘Black Widow.’ Marvel/Disney

Every other Marvel movie actually did a better job of making you feel empathy for Natasha’s character.

Disney had the opportunity to go all-in on this movie, but they kept the dial turned way down in order to make it more kid-friendly – and they don’t even quite succeed at that.

I’d caution parents with little ones to consider sitting them out for at least portions of “Black Widow.” This is one of Marvel’s darker, grittier movies. Some scarier images of girls being rounded up at the film’s start and discussion of weak ones being killed off may stay with young children after the film’s over. You never see child deaths on screen, but the images may be a bit haunting, nonetheless.

Later in the film, Yelena makes the Widow sterilization process into what I imagine will be an uncomfortably long joke for men and for parents who will have to explain fallopian tubes and how the reproductive system in women works to any young viewers.

Overall, “Black Widow” is a decent action vehicle and spy thriller, even if it feels a bit paint-by-numbers and years late to the screen.

At the very least, fans will be satisfied that after 24 movies, Marvel finally explains what happened in Budapest.

And always, be sure to stay until the film’s very end for an extra scene after the credits.

“Black Widow” is in theaters and streaming on Disney+ for an additional $29.99 on July 9. It will be free to all Disney+ users on October 6.

Grade: B-