Black Widow is overdue. It's overdue since 2020, which is when the film was slated to be released before COVID shuffled movie schedules along with everything else. It's overdue since 2019, which is when its main character died a heroic death that turned her first solo foray into a prequel. It's overdue since 2016, which is when its story is set (specifically, between the next-to-last and last scenes of Captain America: Civil War). It's overdue since 2012, which is when MCU fandom began clamoring for a movie starring Natasha Romanoff, after she became the breakout character of Avengers. And it is, arguably, overdue since 2008, which is when the architects of the MCU decided on a roadmap that did not include even a single movie headlined by a woman.
This lateness contributes to the feeling one gets while watching Black Widow, that it is fundamentally inessential, more important for what it represents—the return of the MCU to movie theaters after a two-year absence; the beginning of the still-amorphous phase four—than for what it is. But the roots of that impression run deeper, into the movie as it was conceived and executed. As a superhero-action movie on a more comprehensible scale than recent extravaganzas like Infinity War and Endgame, Black Widow is effective but unremarkable. As an off-the-wall spy family comedy that doubles as an introduction to Florence Pugh's Yelena Belova, who is being positioned as a major player in phase four (possibly even the next Black Widow), it is an unqualified success. But as the long overdue showcase for its main character that fans have been demanding for the better part of a decade, it is a complete—and completely baffling—failure.
Black Widow begins in 1995, revealing that for a period of three years, a preteen Natasha (here played by Ever Anderson) was pulled out of her training in the Red Room, the Soviet/Russian program where young girls are conditioned from infancy to become spies and assassins, to play a part in an Americans-style infiltration. Playing mom and dad in this scenario are Melina (Rachel Weisz), a graduate of the Red Room who is also a scientist, and Alexei (David Harbour), AKA Red Guardian, the USSR's answer to Captain America. Also along for the ride is Yelena (Violet McGraw), who is young enough that she doesn't even realize her family is fake. When the conclusion of Alexei and Melina's mission forces the family to flee (in a scene that is one of the film's most gripping action sequences, perhaps because the audience's sympathies while watching it are so mixed) Natasha desperately tries to stop herself and Yelena from being taken back to the Red Room. But despite Alexei's promises, the sisters are captured and separated.
Flash forward to 2016. Natasha is on the run following the debacle of Civil War. Through a sequence of events that feel too perfunctory to get into (this very much includes a fight scene with a mysterious, armor-clad assailant), she learns that Yelena, now grown up, has left the Black Widow program after being freed from a form of chemical enslavement that came in after Natasha's time. Yelena now possesses the counter-agent to this conditioning, and wants Natasha's help to distribute it to the new generation of Widows. Natasha, for her part, is shocked to discover that the Red Room still exists. Her audition for SHIELD (the infamous Budapest mission) involved destroying the Red Room and killing its administrator, Dreykov (Ray Winstone)—or so she thought. Determined to finish the job, the sisters decide to reach out to their ersatz parents, in hopes that they can help them discover the Red Room's location and breach its defenses.
The resulting spy family shenanigans are the film's undisputed highlight. Pugh, as commentators have near-unanimously agreed, steals the film, her Yelena at once naïve (as she enthuses about an oh-so-practical utility vest that is the first item of clothing she's purchased for herself) and sardonic (as she horrifies her father with graphic descriptions of the method by which the Red Room sterilizes its graduates, which involves scooping out their entire reproductive system—with a zeal that is almost enough to obscure how ridiculous it is to suggest that the program willingly sends its teenage agents into premature menopause). She's the perfect bratty younger sister, and she scores some good hits on Natasha, whether it's mocking her hero poses or suggesting that the only difference between them is who has to hide in the shadows and who gets to be on magazine covers.
Harbour, meanwhile, plays Alexei as a charming, larger-than-life oaf, obsessed with his legacy as a Soviet superhero (including a running gag about his longstanding rivalry with Captain America that clearly makes no sense given the film's timeframe), unable to comprehend why his daughters resent him, but, when it comes down it, determined to be there for them as he wasn't in the past. Weisz gets the less bombastic role as Melina, but she unsurprisingly manages to imbue it with a great deal of quirk—her reaction when her twenty-years-gone family shows up on her doorstep is to put out a spread and urge her daughters to eat, because they're too thin—with an underlying steeliness. That the foursome almost immediately fall into classic dysfunctional family shenanigans—overbearing parents, resentful daughters, a lot of talking over one another—isn't terribly believable (and ultimately, neither Alexei nor Melina really grapple with how much they failed their daughters and what it would take for them to be a real family), but it is a lot of fun to watch.
The only problem is that Natasha herself fades into the wallpaper in these scenes—and that her presence and importance throughout the movie feel quite muted. She gets a few strong moments—a scene in which she discovers a photo album from her American home on Melina's bookshelf, and muses, with genuine fondness, about the day the fake family posed for all the holiday and vacation pictures at once—but for the most part, she takes a back seat to Yelena. It's Yelena who gets to rail at Alexei for betraying her and Natasha, and Yelena who finally cuts through her fake parents' determination to play house as if twenty years hadn't passed, reminding them that she was a child who believed in their lies. Natasha plays the same role she's played in every other MCU appearance—the kind-hearted but ultimately detached observer, throwing out a quip here and an objection there, but standing back as if, ultimately, the antics of these stronger personalities don't have that much to do with her. When, at the film's end, she breaks down and apologizes to Yelena for not seeking her out sooner, it's an incredibly moving moment. But it also feels like the climax of a character arc that never really existed. (As Film Crit Hulk points out, we never get a persuasive explanation for why Natasha—who as a child was willing to hold soldiers at gunpoint to protect her sister—didn't seek her out until now.)
To a certain extent, this is an understandable choice. Black Widow wears its James Bond inspiration on its sleeve, as in an early scene in which Natasha watches Moonraker while quoting the dialogue word for word. The film is full of Bondian touches, from the anachronistic Cold War vibe, to the outsized McGuffin of the mind control serum, to the new Red Room being a giant floating compound, to Dreykov's Bond-villain-esque demeanor, and even smaller touches such as equipping Natasha with her own Q (O-T Fagbenle) and casting former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko as one of the film's antagonists. (The Bond inspiration might also go some way towards explaining why Black Widow, a film whose title character's most famous line is about wanting to blot out the "red in [her] ledger", is so bizarrely cavalier about collateral damage—when Natasha and Yelena rescue Alexei from a remote Siberian prison, for example, they trigger an avalanche that probably causes the deaths of everyone else in the compound.) And the Bond films are, famously, about a character with no interiority, a smugly detached observer whose body might be battered, but whose heart is never touched.
But the thing is, Natasha Romanoff is not James Bond. Her emotional reserve isn't counteracted by the outsized place she takes in the world, and by the attention and obsequiousness of everyone she encounters. On the contrary, the character has always been defined by her ability to disappear into the crowd, to be whatever people need her to be without them ever stopping to wonder why that is. Her signature move—which is repeated in Black Widow, in the climactic showdown between Natasha and Dreykov—is to get overconfident men to spill the beans about their secret plans by pretending to be weaker and more vulnerable than she actually is. Scarlett Johansson's genius in interpreting the role was in nevertheless finding hints of personality and humor in this reserved, centerless person. But Black Widow was an opportunity to peer beneath that façade, to let the person Natasha is when she isn't performing for anyone take center stage (or, conversely, to grapple with what it means that that person doesn't exist). Instead, it chooses to double down on its heroine's chameleon quality, even in the presence of the people she considers family. The result is that Natasha might be her own film's chief mover, but not its protagonist.
Which brings us to the mind control serum. Despite its Bondian antecedents, the mind control McGuffin sits very oddly within the framework of Black Widow. For most of the film's run, it doesn't really seem to serve a purpose. It doesn't tell us anything about Yelena, because she's freed from its influence almost as soon as we meet her. It doesn't deepen our understanding of the Red Room's perfidy, because that was already quite obvious. (In fact, the film needs to invent another, different form of mind control to explain why Natasha and Melina can't just kill Dreykov as soon as they get near him, awkwardly compounding entities and inadvertently revealing how inert its premise is.) On the contrary, its existence creates complications that the film is forced to handwave away. Yelena, for example, tells Natasha that she has spent most of her life under the serum's influence. What does that even mean? What kind of personality would be formed under those conditions? Most importantly, what would the response be to suddenly being granted free will, for the first time since childhood?
Black Widow's answer to that question is "they would immediately switch sides". This is what triggers Yelena's quest for Natasha and the rest of their family, and it's how she saves Natasha from being killed by a troupe of Black Widows at the film's end. But it also feels glib and unpersuasive, a way of making things easier for the movie and its characters. Instead of delving into what it means to have been raised like Natasha, conditioned to follow orders and to feel a connection only towards the people who are giving you those orders, the film behaves as if goodness has an on-off switch.
A particularly strange expression of this belief comes in the form of Kurylenko's character. She turns out to be Dreykov's daughter Antonia, who was injured and disfigured during Natasha's attempt to kill her father, and sent through the Black Widow program, to act as its mindless champion. When Natasha frees Antonia, the other woman immediately stops trying to kill her and even embraces her, even though you might, quite reasonably, expect her to feel a great deal of resentment towards the woman who ruined her life while dismissing her as collateral damage. (That being said, I did appreciate the fact that the film ends with Antonia being taken in by the other liberated Widows. Too often, Hollywood treats disfigured characters—and especially disfigured women—as if they "belong dead", and it was nice to see Black Widow buck that trend.) There's clearly a metaphor here for abuse and how it functions as a form of brainwashing (and how, quite often, the way that people break free of that control is by trying to defend their fellow victims). But that metaphor is fatally undermined by the idea that one can resolve a lifetime of abuse by inhaling some glowing dust.
It eventually starts to feel as if ignoring that question is the whole point of the exercise. When I saw the first Black Widow trailer, I tweeted that Natasha was going to get the story that Finn should have gotten in The Rise of Skywalker—the product of lifelong abuse and conditioning, she was going to go back and free others like her, using their liberation to turn the tide against evil. Technically, that is what the movie delivers. But by hinging that liberation on a bit of CGI and handwaving, it leaches it of most of its meaning. The crux of the film should have been Natasha reaching out to the other Widows, persuading them, as she was once persuaded, that their lives have more value than just being someone else's instrument, and that it is in them to make a choice about how to use their power. But to do so would have been to make Black Widow a film about Natasha and her interiority, in exactly the way that the film repeatedly chooses not to be.
In the end, Black Widow feels like an encapsulation of the MCU's difficulty in dealing with Natasha. From her first introduction to her self-sacrificing death in Avengers: Endgame, she was always defined by her thoughtfulness towards others, and her willingness to put her own needs aside. This made for an interesting twist on the super-agent type—a trained assassin who is genuinely nice. But it also meant that Natasha's personality was rooted in her self-abnegation. She was never given the space to be angry or sad or to want things for herself. Black Widow chooses to double down on that perception rather than complicating the character. And for that reason, even though I remain sad about Natasha's death, I'm also glad that the MCU has moved forward from her, and towards heroines who are more able to claim their own space in the world.