Black Widow is, on balance, a largely blank experience: devoid of anything particularly obnoxious other than a 133-minute running time that it seems to view as an obligation rather than an opportunity for expansive storytelling, pretty formulaic in every single element of its storytelling, packed with hollow action scenes that don't hurt to watch, nor do they offer surprises or delights. It is perhaps the single most mediocre film of the now-24 features making up the Marvel Cinematic Universe: some of them have offered more to actively hate (Thor: The Dark World, Captain Marvel), some have lurched more erratically between their highs and lows (Avengers: Endgame), but none have nestled into such a cozy level of unmemorably proficient blockbuster filmmaking for so many minutes at a time.

Granting all of that, the film does have one strength that no MCU entry has had in a good long while, something I wasn't expecting at all: good character scenes. Not scenes where brightly-defined personalities ping off each other like particles in a supercollider built of quippy one-liners, but actual moments of tiny human-sized drama between figures who struggle with interior conflict and silently maneuver their way around exterior conflict, often expressed in the actors' body language and even - mirabile dictu! - in the way they are positioned relative to each other and the camera. In fact, being human-sized is the most persistent strength of Black Widow, which feels like it takes place at a self-contained level involving stakes that are mostly concerned with the characters we see in the film and not The Entire World, something not really true of any 2010s MCU films other than Ant-Man in 2015 and Ant-Man and the Wasp in 2018. It gives the film a nice throwback feeling to an earlier age of rougher, scruffier popcorn action thrillers that were more about heroes punching their way across rooms than about kaleidoscopes of shiny-as-shit computer graphics making humans look as weightless as dry leaves. Which, to be clear, Black Widow has in abundance, crowded mostly into its long act, which like most Marvel films finds the film descending into a banal, choppy hell of unengaging setpieces.

Anyway, character scenes. Black Widow has something else that's not so common for an MCU film: an honest-to-god film director. At the very least, Cate Shortland has 2012's Lore to her name, a sturdy and subtle character drama, and I have heard only good things about her 2004 debut, Somersault. That translates into an unusually strong human element, present right from the opening scene, an unexpectedly modest and subdued flashback to 1995, in a fuzzy vision of suburban Ohio at dusk. Here we meet a fake family of Russian spies: Alexei (David Harbour), Melina (Rachel Weisz), and little orphan daughters Natasha (Ever Anderson) and Yelena (Violet McGraw). As that suggests, by the time the prologue is done, they've been obliged to flee the United States for the motherland, having been found out by the Feds after completing their top-secret mission, but in the opening moments, Black Widow quickly paints Melina's relationship with the girls with a sweetness and nostalgic warmth that feels miles removed from the stuff of a big-budget summer tentpole. The light shimmers in soft focus, the handheld camera bobs around gently, and it's just a nice human moment.

This being an action movie, that obviously doesn't last; in fact, it is cut off rather brutally by a genuinely atrocious opening credits sequence that creates a sloppy montage of contemporary history, both real and comic book,,set to a diabolically bad cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Malia J, one of those glacially slow and moody rock covers that feel like they had passed into parody at least five years ago. Why "Smells Like Teen Spirit"? For no reason I can discern other than "The '90s", which speaks to the approximate level of soulless witlessness that will mark the next 40 minutes of Black Widow. It's 2016, and a now grown-up Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), former Russian assassin turned American superhero and member of the Avengers, is trying to figure out what to do in the wake of Captain America: Civil War. This is not the plot, at all; in fact, Black Widow is thankfully light on connections to the greater franchise, focused instead on how the now grown-up Yelena (Florence Pugh) pulls Natasha back in to the old life, so that the two not-sisters can help break the brainwashing control over all of the Widows, turned into pliable sexy lady spies by Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who is probably not nearly as dead as Natasha supposes him to be. For the first long stretch of the movie, this mostly just consists of nonsensical action scenes, some of the most exhaustingly bland and badly-edited in franchise history; if there are any flashes of life to it at all, they are due almost exclusively to Pugh, whose thick cartoon Russian accent and mumble-mouthed delivery of cynical one-liners, more snotty than funny as such, are clearly the film's strongest element.

Then, around 50 minutes in, Natasha and Yelena stage a prison break-out to rescue Alexei, now sporting a massive frazzled beard and hefty potbelly, in the hopes that their much-despised fake dad can point them in the direction of Dreykov. And once this happens, Black Widow more or less forgets that it's a comic book action movie for some 20 or 30 magical minutes, instead turning into a loopy travesty of a family sitcom, with Alexei, and shortly thereafter Melina, beaming with parental pride at the two little girls who hate their guts and the grisly destruction of mind and body that their "parents" put them through. It certainly doesn't hurt that between them, Weisz, Harbour, and Pugh are giving three of the best performances in any Marvel movie; Weisz is horribly under-used, no surprise there, but there's still enough of her and her own cartoon Russian accent to grace the film with both a bleak sense of dark humor and the charmingly fucked family love she pours into her scenes. Harbour, meanwhile, gets an actual role to play, more broadly comic (and it's pretty shticky comedy), but with its own little kernel of robust paternal enthusiasm. And Pugh is just all-round great in her deadpan underplaying. It's kind of a big shame that Johansson, finally getting her first solo vehicle as Black Widow (and presumably her last) after seven appearances as an ensemble player, should be so thoroughly trounced by her co-stars; despite all the press conference hype about how much she wanted to make this work and how glad she was to wait to get it right, Johansson is pretty obviously tired as she lifelessly scowls through the one note she has latched onto.

Still, even with a tonally flat performance at its core, Black Widow manages to get a full half-hour of genuinely nice character material, played simple and without being overloaded by the snarky insincerity that is the hallmark of the MCU. That's quite a lot for any comic book movie, let alone one in this uniquely machine-produced, extruded-plastic series. It leaves about 100 minutes of pretty generic action filmmaking, to be sure, and some of the de rigueur explosions-and-floating-shit material at the climax is especially ugly-looking in its digital slickness, this time around. It's clear this wants to be a tough, physically-grounded exercise in brutal (for PG-13) hand-to-hand combat, except that it simply doesn't have the know-how to carry that off; but the impulse is appreciated. And the fact that there's any humanity to be extracted from the boring crush of visual noise and cluttered storytelling is a nice, unexpected treat.

Other MCU reviews (Phase 4)
Black Widow (Shortland, 2021)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Cretton, 2021)