Review: ‘Black Widow’ lacks bite of previous Avengers movies

Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in Black Widow / Marvel Studios

For the first time in more than a year a new Marvel movie takes a bow in theaters this weekend with the debut of “Black Widow,” which details the origins of Scarlet Johansson’s super spy, who earned her spot among the world’s greatest super heroes in the Avengers movies.

Early reviews for the film, which opened overseas a week ago, were a bit mixed for the somewhat anticlimactic film that fits somewhere in the back end of the Marvel’s cinematic oeuvre. Its place in continuity is after “Captain America: Civil War” but before “Avengers: Infinity War,” if that helps.

Fans of the film series know that Johansson’s character Natasha Romonoff/Black Widow makes the ultimate sacrifice in “Avengers: End Game” to give her fellow heroes the chance to defeat the evil Thanos.

Knowing that Natasha is going to survive this outing is a hurdle for the movie, but only a slight one. Though the outcome is never really in doubt, the fun is in the journey. This movie has a long one that I’ll attempt not to spoil.

We learn Natasha’s background in this film and that she has a family of sorts, whom she seeks to reunite with to in a plot to overthrow the KGB-like organization that is weaponizing orphans to become assassins and spies like herself.

You see there is a whole army of young Russian women soldiers trained for black ops just like Natasha was before she defected to the United States and was swept up into super heroics with Avengers.

Natasha teams with fellow Widows, Yelena (Florence Pugh) and Melina (Rachel Weisz), and Russian super soldier Alexi, the Red Guardian (David Harbour) to take down the evil exploitative organization headed by Gen. Dreykov (Ray Winstone).

The three Widows and Red Guardian have a family-type connection that is the heart and soul of the movie, which otherwise is an action fest for the sake of action.

Though the Widow “family” is about as dysfunctional and odd as one can imagine the actors make it work. Johansson and Pugh’s sister-like bound shines, and Harbour is hilarious playing the blow-hard, over-the-hill super soldier.

Winstone shows some menace as Dreykov particularly in a showdown where he is provoked by Natasha; however, the Taskmaster is reduced to little more than a mysterious henchman role that’s kind of a waste. Think Boba Fett in “Empire Strikes Back.”

The action is solid, but nothing spectacular or groundbreaking. The film, directed by Cate Shortland, who was handpicked by Johansson, is a smooth affair that will remind some of “The Americans,” the excellent spy series that ran on FX from 2013-2018, though not quite a riveting, compelling, or complex.

Overall, I liked the movie, but it is a lesser effort among the Marvel movies in terms of story and scope. I would rank it above efforts like the second and third Iron Man films, and the lackluster “Thor: The Dark World” but below the rest.

After greatly enjoying the Disney + streaming series “WandVision” and “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” as well as the CW/HBO Max product “Superman and Lois,” I’m beginning to wonder if the super-hero genre is better served by high-end television programing than feature films?

Only time and the box office receipts will tell.

(PG-13) 2 hr. 13 min.
Grade: B-

New in Local Theaters

Black Widow (watch trailer) / (PG-13) 2 hr. 13 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, 112 Drive In, Skylight

Classic Corner: Superman, ‘Lethal Weapon’ director Richard Donner dies at 91

Christopher Reeve in Superman / Warner Bros.

I’m not exactly sure how old I was when I began paying attention to the directors of movies I liked or were interested in seeing, but if I had to guess it would probably have been when I was 10 or 11 years old while eagerly reading every magazine and newspaper article I could find about the upcoming Superman movie.

So, I’ve recognized the name of Richard “Dick” Donner since at least the summer of 1977, and it saddened me and many of his fans to hear the news of his death on Monday. I never had the good fortune to meet the man, but through his movies, I felt I knew him, at least a little bit.

Donner’s films – whether directing or producing — were entertaining and fun, and he had a way of spotlighting the strengths of his actors and polishing their performance like few other popular directors.

While I had followed Donner’s directing career after being thrilled by “Superman: The Movie” in 1978, I did not learn until this week that Donner cut his teeth as a prolific television director in the late 1950s and 1960s on such TV shows as “Have Gun — Will Travel,” “The Rifleman,” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “The Fugitive,” “Get Smart,” “The Wild, Wild West, “Gilligan’s Island,” and “Kojak,.”

Donner directed perhaps the best-known episode of “The Twilight Zone,” in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which starred William Shatner of Star Trek fame as a frightened airplane passenger, who was the only one who could see a monster on the wing of the plane, looking outside his cabin window.

As a producers, he and his wife Lauren Shuler Donner ushered the X-Men to the big screen for Fox Studios, leaving his imprint on rivals Marvel and DC Comics.

Architect of the current Marvel movie dynasty Kevin Feige cut his teeth as an intern and later assistant for Donner working on the X-Men films. Likewise prolific DC Comics writer and former DCU executive and current producer Geoff Johns, who is the show-runner the HBO Max/CW series “Stargirl” got his start with Donner.

However, Donner is certainly best known for the films he directed. Here’s a few of the standouts:

Superman: The Movie (1978)

“You Will Believe a Man Can Fly” was the brilliant ad slogan for the movie that set the template for what has become the dominant film genre at the box office for going on 20 years now. Donner resisted the temptation of using camp humor had made the “Batman” TV show a hot but short-lived success a decade earlier and crafted a classic movie, whose story and special effects still have impact over 40 years later.

The Goonies (1985)

The adventure-comedy is a throwback to the kid adventure films and shorts of the the 1940s where the children are always a bit smarter than the adults. The movie is a load of fun with just enough danger and trouble to keep kids interested without scaring them too much. The film features the early work by future stars Sean Astin (“Rudy” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) and Josh Brolin (“No Country for Old Men” and “Sicario”).

Lethal Weapon (1987)

If “Superman: The Movie” were not Donner’s masterpiece, then “Lethal Weapon” would be. The film cemented Mel Gibson as a superstar. He played the on-the-edge cop who has to be reeled in by his supervisor and friend Danny Glover following the death of his wife. Gibson and Glover shine in the action and the comedy of the best buddy cop movies ever made.

The Omen (1976)

This classic horror seems a bit out of step with much of Donner’s cannon, but it remains a chilling and influential film to this day, detailing how an adopted infant winds up being the Antichrist. The movie features effective performances by Gregory Peck, and Lee Remick in the opening chapter of the trilogy of Omen films. Donner did not direct the sequels, but he set the tone for the series and many other horror flicks of the last 40 years.

Ladyhawke (1985)

This medieval fantasy about a pickpocket (Mathew Broderick) who throws in with warrior (Rutger Hauer) and his lady (Michelle Pfeiffer) to over throw a tyrant again shows Donner’s versatility. The movie didn’t do well at the box office, but it is an an overlooked adventure classic, showcasing Broderick’s humor, Pfeiffer’s beauty, and Hauer’s heroics.