Scarlett Johansson has played Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. The Black Widow, in eight movies now, yet it often feels like we’re seeing a slightly different character each time she slinks back on screen. You could blame that on the writing or on the performance—it’s not impossible to imagine the star, or any star, struggling to find a consistent personality for this perennial supporting player in Marvel’s ongoing forever franchise. But maybe it’s just a reflection of the backstory laid out for Romanoff, a reformed assassin who’s switched allegiances multiple times and played whatever part her handlers needed her to play. “I’ve lived a lot of lives,” she says early into the new movie that bears her codename. Isn’t that just another way of saying she’s been a lot of people?
True to its title, Black Widow is the first installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to push the character front and center. Yet for all the work this spinoff puts into generating a traumatic origin story for its moonlighting superhero, it would be a stretch to say that either Johansson or the filmmakers finally find the real Romanoff—or even that they much deepen the various versions of her we’ve met already. In part, that’s because the film can’t seem to envision the Black Widow outside a ragtag support system: When not constantly referencing her primary “family” of fellow Avengers, it’s plunking her down into her heretofore unrevealed original action family, building a new ensemble of yammering teammates around her. She ends up receding a little into the background of her own starring vehicle, earning top billing while still looking like the most opaque, unknowable crime-fighter on the bill.
Last we saw Johansson’s superspy, she was… taking an early retirement, let’s say. To get around the character’s absence from the present MCU timeline, Black Widow rewinds to just after the events of Captain America: Civil War. The film actually begins earlier still, with a dreamy prologue set in the Ohio of 1995. It’s here that a preteen Natasha is forced to say do svidaniya to her deceptively cozy suburban life; like her “mother” (Rachel Weisz) and “father” (David Harbour), who are actually nothing of the sort, she’s a Russian spy whose cover has been blown. (This whole sequence owes a plain debt to The Americans, down to the use of archival footage in the subsequent opening credits, set for some reason to a sultry cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”)
Flash forward to 2016. On the run from the authorities of Western civilization, Nastasha receives a mysterious message that draws her to Budapest. The source: Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), who posed as her “sister” during that ancient away mission, but was too young at the time to know that their happy little family was a front. She’s grown up to become one of the top assassins in an army of brainwashed “Widows,” carrying out orders for the Russian bigwig (Ray Winstone) who kidnaps, grooms, and commands children like the ones these two master killers used to be. But Yelena, having chemically extricated herself from the program, wants out. And so she and Romanoff, her estranged older sibling of espionage convenience, set out to find The Red Room where they were trained—a mission that eventually requires rendezvousing with the agents that masqueraded as their parents two decades earlier.
There’s a hint of something poignant in the reunion arranged for these pawns of post-Cold War conflict: a fake family grappling with the extent to which it became a real one through habit, before being broken up by necessity. Surrogate families are, of course, a common occurrence in this comic-book universe of Avengers and Guardians, and Black Widow pulls the four into another quipping sitcom cavalry—a squabbling team of superheroes, only with some serious domestic baggage weighing heavily on their comradeship. Casting is maybe the primary strength of this mega-franchise, and the film’s familiar bantering dynamic gets a strong assist from new hires. Pugh, who’s wrestled on screen before with a dysfunctional upbringing, understands the assignment; she lets us see the hurt beneath her character’s dagger-sharp sarcasm. Harbour, too, is a hoot as the team’s over-the-hill patriarch, an aging super soldier hung up on his glory days as Russia’s answer to Captain America (though it doesn’t make a great deal of sense that the face of a country’s propaganda campaign would be pulled off that duty for overseas undercover work).
As an action movie, Black Widow sits lower to the ground, at least for a while. Drawing on the example of The Winter Soldier—still maybe the most satisfying entertainment to drop off this blockbuster assembly line—director Cate Shortland (Somersault) initially keeps the combat more hand to hand, more practically achieved, more tightly choreographed. The nominal influences here are spy movies; there’s a little Bourne in the pursuits down narrow European streets, a little Mission: Impossible in the mask shenanigans. But the tongue-in-cheek appearance of Moonraker on a TV is perhaps more appropriate than the filmmakers would like to admit. Black Widow goes full Marvel in its bloated final act, seemingly running down a checklist of Kevin Feige demands: A giant floating fortress! Unconvincing digital explosions! A mysterious masked adversary that’s basically The Winter Soldier redux! Not that audiences will necessary mind the inevitable tilt towards formula. It’s been two whole years, after all, since they’ve boarded one of these theme-park rides. But the reversion to stock studio conventions is a reminder that no matter what genre shades they apply, these movies tend to color within the lines.
The film’s mandated collision of snark and somberness is sometimes uneasy: This is a four-quadrant event picture about trauma and guilt and child soldiers that’s also a glib wisecrack machine. At its center is a character who stubbornly refuses to shift fully into focus. “We’re both killers,” Elena tells Natasha, undercutting her delusions of growth and atonement. “You’re just the killer that little girls call their hero.” It’s a provocative line of thinking that the movie can’t resolve. Romanoff’s arc across these films has been a search for some way to erase the “red from her ledger”—an iconic line that gets a callback punchline here. In fashioning a side adventure that’s really a formal goodbye to one of the franchise’s original principles, Black Widow ties a neat bow on that motivation, offering redemption that feels half-earned at best. But what more could you expect of a film that makes deprogramming look as easy as aroma therapy, solved with a MacGuffin that’s basically change of heart in perfume form? Will we ever see the real Black Widow? That would require a comic-book bonanza that doesn’t treat psychology itself as a dangling plot thread, to be tied up through the Marvel regimen of quips and boss fights.