Black Widow could be called a "midquel" in that it takes place in the middle of Marvel's since-concluded Avengers saga: shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War forced some of the Avengers to flee, including Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). But it opens in 1995 Ohio, when nine-year-old Natasha, her six-year-old sister Yelena, and their parents are forced to flee for another reason: the parents are secret Russian agents whose cover is blown.
We cut to 21 years later, with little Yelena now an adult played by Florence Pugh. Like her older sister, she has been indoctrinated into Russia's top-secret Black Widow program, in which young girls are trained to be assassins. Unlike her older sister, she is under the effects of chemical mind control. Only after a former "widow" sprays her with a cloud of red dust does Yelena suddenly regain her humanity and see the Black Widow program for what it really is. Finding a pack of these red-cloud antidotes, Yelena ships them to Natasha, the two reunite, and they seek out their parents to help them find the "Red Room" and free the other widows from General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), one of those generically evil Russian masterminds you've seen before.
Rachel Weisz joins the bunch as the girls' "mother" (their 1990s Ohio family had been assembled by the Russian government), with David Harbour thrown in as the "father"-slash-comic relief, a Soviet super soldier in the Captain America mold who barely got to fight for Mother Russia before Dreykov betrayed him and put him in jail for God knows how many years. After a jailbreak, several chases, and one absurd plot twist right out of a Mission: Impossible movie, we get to Act 3 and lots of destruction and fighting.
Black Widow isn't a bad film. It's got some exciting set pieces and an unimpeachably charismatic quartet of leading players. But it doesn't have much in the way of character development – and that includes its titular protagonist. Marvel Studios had set the bar high in this department, so it feels like even more of a cheat that we don't learn more here about Natasha Romanoff than we did in previous Avengers films, which wasn't much to begin with. (Black Widow is a standalone movie; only its post-credits scene ties it in to a larger narrative, presumably Disney+'s upcoming Hawkeye TV series.) We know the film was written and shot after Avengers: Endgame, and thus we know Natasha's ultimate fate, yet Black Widow gives us nary a poignant moment to let us miss her. I like Scarlett Johansson very much, but Black Widow feels like it was put together only as a contractually obligated vehicle for the actress, not as a narrative with any purpose.
Frankly, Pugh's Yelena is the most interesting character in this movie. But she has one scene that sums up Black Widow's erratic tone: After freeing her ersatz father from jail, she tells him, in graphic detail, that all the girls in the Black Widow program are given hysterectomies. It's a disturbing moment that gives you a sense of the real trauma that these poor women are put through... yet the film ultimately plays it for a laugh, with macho daddy not wanting to hear about this lady-parts stuff.
In fact the whole plot about the widows and the Red Room is just a MacGuffin; the gloomy Red Sparrow does a much better job at telling the same tale. Moreover, we are told that Natasha's makeshift family only lived together for three years, way back in the nineties. So two decades later, when they find themselves easily falling back into their familial roles, dinnertime bickering and all, it just doesn't ring true.