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Black Widow Review: Hero Fatigue

It's the 24th film in the MCU. Is "Black Widow" also the worst? Say what you want about "Iron Man 2" and "Thor: The Dark World," but either of those films would be an easier rewatch than this clunky, ill-plotted kinda-prequel that only feels worthwhile when it's dishing dirt on the backstory of Scarlett Johansson's fan favorite character. Completists, of course, will need to see it — but the film feels less like entertainment than a slog of mandatory homework.

Coupled with the recent, underwhelming "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" series, the duo seem to be foreshadowing potential potholes that Phase 4 of the MCU needs to avoid. Too many non-powered characters performing super-human acts that defy the rules of physics. So many twists, turns and double-crosses that everyone's motivations get exhaustively murky. Villains with little more than a name and an accent, the sense that anyone who dies can be brought back in the next scene, and endless hand-to-hand combat that somehow lacks punch.

"Black Widow" starts with a fairly generic flashback, as young Natasha Romanoff and her "sister" Yelena grow up in idyllic Ohio. At a moment's notice, "Mom" (Rachel Weisz as Melina Vostokoff) and "Dad" (David Harbour as Alexei Shostakov) announce it's time to go on an adventure, and the family is suddenly dodging bullets and fleeing the country — but not before Nat looks sullenly out the car window at a pastiche of American cliches, from kids playing with sparklers to an American flag to a high school football game, all while listening to Don McLean sing "American Pie." It only seems surprising that a CG bald eagle doesn't zoom past the car.

We learn that Natasha's upbringing was a ruse, her family a Russian sleeper cell tied peripherally to Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the power-hungry-yet-hidden mastermind behind the Red Room program that transformed Natasha into the butt-kicking Black Widow we've all come to know and love. After some timeline-jumping, we're deposited firmly in post "Civil War" times, with Natasha being hunted by William Hurt's Thaddeus Ross (the most interesting element of the movie from a "bigger picture" point of view, but barely given any screentime) and reuniting the family to take down Dreykov.

Hitchhiking heroes

In sports, arguments often break out among fans over whether an MVP award can be given to a player on a last-place team. After all, the argument goes, how valuable could the player be if the team stinks? A similar discussion could be had around "Black Widow," where David Harbour shines so effectively that he comes across as the best special effect Marvel's FX team never needed to devise. Big and goofy, intimidating enough to break a man's wrist and dumb enough to feel like a dad out of the Homer Simpson mold, Harbour steals every scene he's in. If any character from "Widow" deserves to live on in the MCU, it is undoubtedly his. As a Russian super-soldier equivalent of Captain America, the "Stranger Things" star has transformed himself into a Cold War, live-action Mr. Incredible.

If you like Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, you'll likely have no problem with more Scarlett Johnasson as Natasha Romanoff. She's a talented actor, an able-bodied butt kicker, and an overall appealing movie star. Some good fun is had via Florence Pugh's Yelena, who teases her famous "sister" for her trademark splayed-out action star moves, but beyond that, is there anything new here? Any unexpected directions for one of the world's most famous actors to take her signature role? Not really.

Keeping spoilers to a bare minimum, the most valuable parts of "Black Widow" arrive when the audience learns more about the deliberately-until-now mysterious title character. To be fair, Marvel does do a better job of retconning the character's origins than its "Star Wars" brethren have done with the likes of Han Solo. Questions are answered about the horrific Red Room program, we learn about Budapest, we learn about her "family," and there are some passing comments made to Steve Rogers and the other Avengers "currently" on the run.

But wow, is Taskmaster a letdown (a richly developed character in the comics, here essentially a hybrid of the DCEU's Cyborg and Ryan Reynolds' Wade Wilson circa "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"). The plot, which involves red vials, a '90s floppy disc and freeing the minds of Widows worldwide, is a jumbled mess filled with half-hearted McGuffins, faceless baddies in black, and flying fortresses hidden above a part of the world where apparently nobody ever looks up and clouds remain stationary.

Strike a pose

There are so many rip-off-an-impossibly-lifelike-mask moments that even Tom Cruise in the "Mission: Impossible" movies would roll his eyes. The much-hyped smackdown between Black Widow and an army of other Widows disappoints, not only because it's so brief but because we're never introduced to a single one of these anonymous, leather-clad ladies. And a pivotal reveal involving a bloody nose is so telegraphed that you'll be screaming at the characters two minutes before they realize what's going on.

Strip away the character name and MCU references, and what you're left with is another film about a trained killer using those skills to take on the shadowy organization that created them. What makes this different than the "Bourne" movies, "Hanna," "Ava," "Anna," "Red Sparrow," "American Assassin," "Vanquish," and a dozen others? Perhaps only that the main character gets in multiple car accidents and walks away unscathed, repeatedly falls from heights that would (at the very least) break the legs of any human, and spends scene after scene clinging to something by one arm, with all the stakes of another ho-hum day at the office.

Further diluting the drama is the fact that we all know Natasha won't die, since she'll do that in "Endgame." It takes a really good movie, a "Titanic"-level movie, to hand you such knowledge and still manage to make you think the main character is in some sort of danger, and "Black Widow" is simply not that film. Even the franchise trademark end credits scene is barely worth mentioning.

Watching "Black Widow" play out, you feel a bit like a schoolteacher watching an underperforming student: Marvel, you're so much better than this. We've seen what you can do when you apply yourselves. Please, study harder for the next pop quiz, and let's get this Phase 4 grade back on track.