Johansson finally gets her Marvel closeup

JOHANSSON: Scarlett Johansson stars in "Black Widow," a prequel exploring her origins. Marvel Studios

Before it settles into its familiar, diverting, rather wearying rock-'em-sock-'em-blast-'em-all-to-kingdom-come groove, the new Marvel movie "Black Widow" opens with a startling evocation of loss. We're in Ohio in 1995, and a seemingly normal American family has just sat down to a dinner that will be their last together for a while. Soon they're on the run, firing bullets, dodging pursuers and jetting off to Cuba, where they are greeted by ominous-looking Russian contacts and given a fresh set of marching orders. Mom and Dad always knew this day might come, but Natasha and Yelena, the two young girls they've raised as their own, are shocked to learn that their family life until this point has been a lie.

The trauma of that discovery ripples through "Black Widow," if never as deeply or resonantly as that prologue seems to promise. Part origin story, part swan song, part Marvel-ized riff on "The Americans," the movie, directed by the Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland ("Lore"), zips us through the brutal education of the young Natasha Romanoff (Ever Anderson) as she's separated from the only family she's ever known and transformed into a ruthless Russian spying/fighting/killing machine. Eventually, of course, after growing up to be played by Scarlett Johansson, Natasha will defect to the U.S. and find an even weirder adopted clan in the Avengers, becoming one of the few women to join their world-saving ranks and one of the few people to do so without immortal powers or a mechanized supersuit.

All Natasha has are her killer instincts, her spectacular martial-arts moves and a billboard-ready arachnoid pose that comes in for some gently calculated mockery here. Cheeky, self-aware humor is by now an expected fixture of the Disney/Marvel brand, and as strenuous as it can be – look how serious these movies are about not taking themselves too seriously! – a little levity admittedly goes a long way in "Black Widow," steeped as it is in elements of torture, mind control, murder and espionage. (Natasha Romanoff, the comic-book brainchild of Stan Lee, Don Rico and Don Heck, first emerged in 1964 amid rampant Cold War anxieties, which the screenwriter Eric Pearson has effectively updated for the present day.)

Grim as it sounds, the movie is nonetheless par for the Marvel course: The Avengers may be taking a breather, but the violence remains predictably PG-13 bloodless, the moral ambiguity close to nil. Clever audience-tested jokes and one-liners wait attentively in the wings, quick to defuse any tension that might last more than a few minutes. It probably comes as little surprise that Natasha's gravest Russian-agent misdeeds are either left offscreen or shown ever so briefly in flashback; an edgier character portrait might have confronted the worst head-on and dared risking your sympathies – or trusted Johansson to carry them, given how capably she's done so in a franchise that hasn't always made it easy for her.

Fractious families

When Natasha strolled onto the big screen 11 years ago, making a memorable first impression in the otherwise unmemorable "Iron Man 2," she turned heads with her beauty before unleashing a panoply of lethal moves. It was a familiar Hollywood bait-and-switch, objectification masked as empowerment. ("I want one!" Tony Stark famously said of her after their first meeting, while Pepper Potts warned of "a very expensive sexual harassment lawsuit if you keep ogling her like that.") Johansson would later call out her character's early, over-sexualized depictions, and in time those depictions improved. Deployed early on as a multipurpose Avengers love interest, Natasha gradually emerged a tough, credible action hero and a fiercely loyal ally, the mortal glue holding this fractious superhero family together.

Having met a nobly tragic end in 2019's "Avengers: Endgame," Natasha lives again here, though you can't help but wonder how her story might have played out years ago, back when Marvel fans started clamoring for a Black Widow movie and the character's fate was still unwritten. As it is, the knowledge that her days are numbered lends this solo adventure a bittersweetness that's moving and disorienting by turns. Most of the oddly timed story unfolds in the past, immediately after the events of "Captain America: Civil War," with the Avengers torn asunder and Natasha facing some downtime at a gorgeous Norwegian retreat. Or so she thinks, until a fiery attack draws her back into her troubled past and propels her toward an overdue reunion with Yelena, the woman she grew up knowing as her sibling.

Herself a recently deprogrammed Russian assassin who's just as deadly as Natasha, Yelena is played by the superb English actress Florence Pugh – who, between this and her stellar recent turn as Amy in "Little Women," clearly has the market cornered on bratty younger sisters. Yelena and Natasha have some baggage, to say the least, a history marred by separation, betrayal and geopolitical warfare. Picking up the baton from the recent "F9: The Fast Saga," they renew ties the only way long-estranged siblings can: with a visceral slugfest, full of pummeling fisticuffs, nasty knifework and a touching mutual-strangulation stalemate. It's all nicely choreographed if rather too mechanical by half; once they've gotten all that comically exaggerated violence out of their systems, it's time to put differences aside, join forces and pour on the crowd-pleasing sisterly banter.

No family reunion would be complete without Mom and Dad, or rather Melina (Rachel Weisz, underplaying nicely) and Alexei (a boisterous, big-hearted David Harbour), whose journeys have led them and their vaguely Russian accents in wildly different directions since 1995. I won't divulge too much more, except to note that the residual feelings of guilt, awkwardness, estrangement and affection pinballing among these four characters are awfully rich in emotional potential. It might even have made for a pretty terrific movie, if the filmmakers had been allowed to slow down and fully develop that dynamic, rather than simply dragging this oddball foursome through one noisy set-piece after another.

Marvel machinery

Those set-pieces are admittedly nothing to scoff at, and Shortland brings an unusual intensity and muscularity to the explosive, frequently airborne action. But as it progresses, "Black Widow" doesn't seem to be telling its own story so much as perfunctorily bridging the gaps between other stories. You never quite forget that it's busily connecting this phase of the overarching Marvel narrative to that one, or conveniently installing Pugh's scene-stealing Yelena as Natasha's likely successor. The plot piles up without really cohering: As Natasha digs into the past, aided by a flirty private contractor (O-T Fagbenle) who hooks her up with personal helicopters and the like, she comes face-to-face with her old enemy Dreykov (Ray Winstone, sinister), who's produced an entire global army of deadly female assassins. Like Natasha and Yelena before them, these are Russian orphans who had their minds invaded, their bodies violated and their free will taken, all in service of one man's megalomania.

Shortland, whose previous feature, "Berlin Syndrome," was an agonizingly tense thriller about a woman in captivity, would seem the right filmmaker to tell that story, and also to tease out what it says about the mass subjugation of women. But as with so many smart filmmakers fed through the Marvel machinery, her talents feel whittled down to size, bent in service to a corporate vision that looks grand and sweeping but ultimately homogenizes everything it touches. Something similar befalls Johansson, a terrific actress who's often been treated as a franchise afterthought, and whose long-awaited solo adventure is both an overdue treat and a missed opportunity. Like the young Natasha herself, "Black Widow" feels as though it's been programmed into submission – and scarcely allowed to live and breathe before it's suddenly over.

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