Scarlett Johansson plays the latest Avenger to get a movie in 'Black Widow'. For a story about a woman named after a deadly spider, ''Black Widow'' is surprisingly precious with its hero. 

An Avenger who has been afflicted with something of a savior complex, Natasha hopes to redeem the red in her ledger with good deeds but ends up sounding like the dull Dudley Do-Right of the superhero film.

Female assassins, female mad scientists : There seems to be a thematic undercurrent of girl power and the strength of women, which is often systematically subdued or controlled by men, but it feels superficial. 

We aren't introduced to other widows, and, for a film about expert fighters, the fight choreography and cinematography don't do our female warriors justice; the rapidly shifting camera angles obscure rather than reveal the martial arts. 

If I was Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. the Black Widow, a.k.a. the first original female Avenger and yet years overdue for her own film, I'd be hella miffed.

After wearing myself out out doing flips and kicks and spy work, I finally get my own movie, but the result, Marvel Studios' ''Black Widow,'' uncomfortably mashes up a heartwarming family reunion flick with a spy thriller - and then lets its star, Scarlett Johansson, get overshadowed.

''Black Widow'' begins in Ohio in the '90s : Natasha is a brave but serious young girl who already has a hardened look in her eyes. She looks after her younger sister, Yelena, and suspiciously follows the lead of her parents, Melina [ Rachel Weisz]  and Alexei [ David Harbour], who are actually spies posing as a married couple.

Natasha, who has already started training at the Red Room, a secret Soviet boot camp turning young women into deadly-agents is split from Yelena, and the girls are taught to kill.

The main action of the film skips ahead to the time immediately following ''Captain America : Civil War'' [2016] when Natasha [ now played by Johansson] is a fugitive separated from the rest of the Avengers.

If jumping back a few films in the franchise sounds confusing, ''Black Widow,'' along with the current Disney+ series '' Loki'' serves as the Marvel Cinematic Universe's most recent attempt at retroactively building character narratives and and back stories by doubling back on its own colossal, ever expanding timeline.

And so Natasha finds out that not only is the Red Room still in business and its leader, Dreykov [Ray Winstone] still alive, the other ''widow'' operatives are chemically manipulated so they become mindless assassins without free will.

To bring down Dreykov and his Red Room, Natasha reluctantly joins forces with her fake family, including an older Yelena [Florence Pugh], who has found an antidote to the mind control.

In a lot of ways, ''Black Widow'' feels different from the usual M.C.U. film. The coercion and manipulation of young women, the kidnapping and murder missions with civilian casualties - the film seems more like a Bond or Bourne movie, with a tacked on moral about the importance of family, and it sits awkwardly heavier themes.

[In one scene, an exchange about the forced sterilization of the widows is played for comedy but just sounds absurdly dark.]

By the end of the story, which leads into ''Avengers : Infinity War'' [ and a post-credits scene jumps forward to the future, in case the hops around the M.C.U. timeline haven't been confusing enough]. It seems as though ''Black Widow'' is self-satisfied with its protagonist.

She's got the freshly-dyed blond'do, and her journey with her spy family inspires her to get back to her other family, the Avengers. But ''Black Widow'' never feels more than just a footnote in the story, a detour that holds no eight in the M.C.U. narrative, except to set up Yelena for a larger role.

With many of these new Marvel productions, however, it seems that's the best we could hope for : stories that finally feature the underrepresented heroes we want to see, but that often still serve as placeholders, slotting in another piece of the puzzle of the larger M.C.U. as it continues to grow.

I'd hoped ''Black Widow'' could be deadly and fierce, but it ultimately slides just under the radar.

The World Students Society thanks review author Maya Phillips.


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