In 2019, Spider-Man: Far From Home gave us a glimpse at the Marvel Cinematic Universe post-Avengers Endgame. More recently, various MCU stories have continued in Disney+ shows like WandaVision, The Falcon & The Winter Soldier, and Loki. Now, two years after the last MCU movie's release, we're finally getting a new big screen entry in the most impactful superhero movie franchise in existence. Unfortunately, it's a prequel.
Obviously, that doesn't come as a surprise. Black Widow died in Endgame, and we've known all along that this story would take place earlier. After a thrilling opening sequence set during Natasha Romanoff's (Scarlett Johansson) childhood, the film jumps to the period in between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, when half the Avengers, including Natasha, were fugitives on the run. On the lam, she hides out in a remote trailer watching James Bond movies on a laptop powered by a finicky generator. It's an intimate scene, and it reveals more about Natasha as a character than all the past MCU films combined.
That's part of the problem: Black Widow has its work cut out trying to explain Natasha's backstory, reveal more about her as a character, fill in a brief gap in the MCU's overarching story, and set up future events. The story itself is simple: Natasha gets a package from her once-sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), that makes her a target of a masked villain known as Taskmaster. The sisters reunite, then track down Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) to help them take down the man responsible for the child-indoctrinating Black Widow program once and for all.
For Natasha, it's a deeply personal quest; for the audience, it's from too far out in left field. In the world of this film, there's a Russian supersoldier code-named Red Guardian who we've somehow never heard of before, and there are dozens of other Black Widow operatives, besides Natasha, who no one in the MCU has encountered before now. This story feels less like it's been plucked from the intricately woven tapestry these movies have formed, and more like it's being grafted on top of a hole that didn't need patching to begin with, with a couple of cartoonishly evil villains that instantly enter the running for the MCU's most forgettable bad guys.
Pugh is the standout, as she should be--since, predictably, her character will likely have a bright future in the MCU. She and Johansson have fantastic chemistry, whether they're fighting each other, doing battle side-by-side, or acting like long-lost sisters who haven't seen one another in years. Scenes featuring the two characters hashing out the past or simply teasing one another are a highlight of the movie. Harbour, meanwhile, is a hilarious and welcome addition. His character, a washed-up, out-of-shape supersoldier who's been stagnating in a Russian gulag for years, would feel at home in the Amazon series The Boys. Lastly, Weisz has by far the least to do of any major character in the movie, and scenes that should be her standout moments are unfortunately bogged down by strange editing choices that muddy certain revelations.
The movie's timing feels awkward in more than one sense. The existing explanation that Natasha was "on the run" in between Civil War and Endgame was perfectly sufficient--maybe there was room to tell a story here, but it's not like there were plot holes that needed filling in. And setting this story so close to the MCU's "present," when we're painfully aware that Natasha is going to dramatically sacrifice herself not terribly long afterward, casts a pall over the entire thing. That's not even mentioning the fact audiences are starving for the next chapter in this saga to truly begin. There's certainly room for prequels and side stories in a post-Endgame universe, but it makes Black Widow feel like just another stepping stone before things really get started. They've been teasing the possibility of a for years; this film really should have been released during the period in which it takes place, when a more intimate story would have felt like a welcome reprieve in between Civil War's Avengers-shattering showdown and Infinity War's world-ending snap.
There's also the issue of Natasha's conspicuous lack of superpowers. The character obviously possesses near-superhuman fighting abilities thanks to her childhood training in the Widow program, but she's also one who could never go toe-to-toe with a villain like Thanos. This film doesn't make any attempt to retcon that by, say, implying that she was given some experimental Russian supersoldier serum during her training--but it does play fast and loose with the character's power level. Natasha survives inexplicably unscathed inside two separate cars that completely explode in giant fireballs, and the film's final act, a mess of shoddy CGI that nearly rivals the visual macaroni salad of the climax of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, annihilates any suspension of disbelief that might have already been stretched implausibly thin by Natasha's past exploits.
Fans hungry for any MCU entry at all will find plenty to chew on in Black Widow, but ultimately the movie is unsatisfying. That may be partially down to real-world issues that are outside of anyone's control, like the pandemic pushing release dates around. But despite strong performances from the leads and the addition of a couple of welcome new characters who may spice up the MCU's future, this Natasha side story has plenty of inherent problems that drag it down regardless of any external factors.