Nobody expected Marvel to deconstruct the tired, oft-pervy “sad lady assassin who ain’t got no good memories” character trope. But would it have killed them to give Black Widow a personality before they killed her?

The hero’s titular film doesn’t release floodgates of her pent-up charisma, perhaps because Scarlett Johansson is incapable, what with being so preoccupied, always prepping for Arbor Day. However, the prequel does at least partially explain why the character has no real character: As an eldest sibling, she is cursed to a forever-joyless existence, buckling beneath the weight and anxiety of responsibility. That’s how every family does it, right?

Since her introduction into the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), nobody has known what to do with Black Widow, including (and especially) ScarJo. She has alternated between smirkingly coy and coyly somber, occasionally tossing in some smirkingly coy somberness. It would have helped great deal if a writer had given the actress more to do than “be sad you can’t have babies,” “flirt with the Hulk,” or “do that spinny, kicky thing again.”

While she does do two of those three again here, she also does some other stuff that gives her the absolute most minimal level of agency. Set after the events of Captain America: Civil War, the film follows the fugitive Widow as she runs headfirst into her past. Okay, she doesn’t “run” so much as she does that spinny, kicky thing into her past.

Although she spent most of her youth being brainwashed in “The Red Room,” which is neither a room nor particularly red, Natasha (Johannson) also spent a few years cosplaying The Americans. That is to say, the Soviet government gave her a fake sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh); mom, Melina (Rachel Weisz); and dad, Red Guardian (David Harbour). Yes, her faux pops was the Russkie equivalent of Captain America. For no easily discernible reason, the quartet had to live together in Ohio for three years, before being called back to the motherland.

Decades later, Yelena is still a brainwashed assassin, Melina (no relation) is doing quasi-evil science to pigs, and the Red Guardian is in the clink. After unwashing her brain with a magic potion, Yelena lets Natasha know that the evil Dreykov (Ray Winstone) is still Le Femme Nikita-ing young ladies. Soon, the family is back together, squaring off against Dreykov’s murderbot, The Taskmaster, who sounds like a sentient Google calendar. Sorry, a more sentient Google calendar.

Unlike most prequels, Black Widow has some legitimately great stuff, first and foremost Florence f’n Pugh. The actress’s effortless ability to elevate source material is borderline supernatural at this point. There’s a scene in a bedroom with her pseudo-pappy that absolutely should not work; somehow, it became one of the most authentic moments in a Marvel movie, based solely on her willing it to be so.

Poor, ScarJo… Yelena is basically Black Widow 2, burdened with the literal exact same bland, vague, unoriginal backstory as Natasha. Watching Pugh immediately turn her into a fully realized, magnetically interesting character who demands more screen time exposes Johansson’s decade-long, thoroughly disinterested turn. If you want people to think you’re good at something, don’t have Florence Pugh do the same thing right next to you.

Like virtually everything in Black Widow, the rest of the cast is either surprisingly engaging or forgivably bad. Harbour is the former. His paunchy super soldier is lovably inept, constantly butchering attempts at inspiring monologues and clinging to former glory like a high-school peaker. Weisz isn’t given much to do, aside from liberally explore the full range of potential Russian accents. She sounds like either a violently drunk fortune teller or someone doing an impression of Elizabeth Olsen’s original Scarlet Witch accent.

Director Cate Shortland nimbly balances the nuclear family drama with the Marvel-mandated “big stakes.” The action is spectacular-ish. The conclusion is significant-esque. It is sufficiently Avengers-like. All of it is worth it just to add Florence Pugh to the MCU.

Grade = B+

Other Critical Voices to Consider

Wenlei Ma at News.Com.Au says “Australian director Cate Shortland brings a light touch to a film that, above all, is trying to tell the story of Natasha and not just how high she can kick.”

George M. Thomas at the Akron Beacon Journal says “There’s much to recommend in Black Widow, but given Johansson has spent more time working in the MCU than anyone other than Robert Downey Jr., a tighter film would have certainly been a sign of respect and appreciation.”

Yasmin Omar at Harper’s Bazaar says “Citing the Avengers at such a rate belittles Natasha because it implies that she has no identity outside the group. Even in her own mind, she has not imagined her future separate from them (‘I never let myself be alone long enough to think about it,’ she tells Yelena). It’s as if, without her ultra-masculine friends, Natasha cannot fathom her very existence.”

Courtney Small at Cinema Axis says “In exploring the similarities and differences between the siblings, both women were trained to be killers by the Red Room, but only Romanoff truly knows was it means to be free; Shortland raises intriguing commentary regarding patriarchy and the trafficking of women. Unfortunately, despite its dark opening credits, this is still a film within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so the themes are not explored with much depth.”

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