‘Black Widow’ is so overdue it loses some impact

Better late than never, but this MCU film would have been a welcome addition to the timeline years ago

Brad Keefe
"Black Widow"

While the movie theater experience isn't quite back to normal, a return to the big screen for the Marvel Cinematic Universe still feels like a moment.

It’s even more fitting that the movie is a standalone “Black Widow” finally getting a release after three delays due to the pandemic.

Even before that, this was overdue. Scarlett Johansson has lobbied for a Black Widow movie since her first appearance as the character in the MCU with 2010’s “Iron Man 2.”

And while there’s certainly an aspect of “better late than never,” based on where this falls in the overall narrative, it would have been better earlier than late.

“Black Widow” is thankfully not an origin story; the MCU is riddled with those, and there’s nothing particularly fresh about them. Instead, the movie is set after (or during) the events of 2016’s “Civil War.” That would have been a really good time to release this movie, but here we are five years and a whole timeline later.

In my ongoing battle against spoilers, here’s a vague plot synopsis: Things kick off in 1995 in Ohio, an unlikely starting point for a globetrotting movie. We meet a mother and father (Rachel Weisz and David Harbour) and their two daughters. That’s all I’ll say about that for now.

Jump forward to Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) on the lam in Norway after the Avengers’ clash in “Civil War.”

Then there’s Yelena (Florence Pugh), another highly trained assassin who probably has something to do with those two daughters I mentioned earlier.

Natasha and Yelana cross paths and kick ass in some action set pieces that feel like the MCU meets "The Bourne Identity." The stunts and choreography are more impressive than the staging of the action-filled first act, but this is when things start to get really good.

Aussie director Cate Shortland delivers pretty standard-issue action in that first act, but “Black Widow” peaks in the middle when it really establishes an emotional core … before returning to more CGI-driven action in the finale.

The action more than scratches the overdue itch for some big-screen spectacle, but Shortland’s best work is how she manages her cast. Johansson finally gets to more fully flesh out Natasha from the character’s past treatment, which the actress has described as “a piece of ass” in a movie that makes the ogling male gaze shots of the past feel even more cringe-y.

But she shares a sisterly bond with Pugh (“Midsommar”) in a spotlight-sharing turn that marks one of the best MCU introductions in forever. It’s a star-making mix of the film’s best comedic moments, best action moments and best emotional moments.

More:Movie review: ‘Midsommar’

“Black Widow” makes this side-quest plot turn in a timeline where we already know the future, which does set up a more interesting story than another origin, but the timing of the release also dampens the impact. The depth that this brings to the character would have been better served if Marvel could have been bothered to give one of its female leads her own movie instead of rumbling through the “more is more” Avengers tales.

“Black Widow” still is a refreshing spy thriller that delivers action that doesn’t depend on superpowers, and MCU exploring tangential stories less tied to a big arc creates opportunity. In fact, it would have felt even more fresh if they weren’t doing even more experimental stuff like “WandaVision” in their home-audience lane.

More:‘WandaVision’ revives the MCU and rethinks what a film can be

And, yes, of course you want to stick around after the credits. I’m here for what they’re teasing.

“Black Widow”

Now playing in theaters

3 stars out of 5