TUCSON, Ariz. — It's been nearly two years since a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie debuted, making "Black Widow" a colossally anticipated movie rather than the afterthought it might have otherwise been.
As the start of Phase 4 of the massive storytelling initiative, the weight of the MCU sits heavily on its shoulders. A weak script and low ambition make the movie crumble under the weight.
More suited than a plus-sized pilot episode of a TV series than an event movie, the humorless film is a shrinking violet with a shallow scope and too little action or resonance.
The movie, which opens theatrically and as a premium Premier Access purchase on Disney+ July 9, is competently made but too bland to fit in well with the other mammoth franchises on the MCU roster.
Director Cate Shortland, a veteran of the Aussie art film circuit, falters as she steps up to the big time. Failing to capitalize on the momentum of girl power-themed superhero films such as "Captain Marvel" or the "Wonder Woman" series, "Black Widow" manages to make one of the more intriguing Marvel icons seem dull.
As a character, Black Widow works best as a shadowy, mysterious assassin — a smoldering blank slate on which to project your sense of awe. When you take away the character's mystery, you rob her of much of her mystique and appeal.
There's no fault in the acting. Scarlett Johansson maintains her penetrating screen presence, playing an assassin-turned hero. The storyline, set before the events of "Avengers Endgame," provides a happier-than-expected glimpse at her childhood, before a crisis forces the nucleus apart.
The movie is an extended family reunion, with her father, mother and sister figures rotating in and out of the oblique, shadowy spy plot in which she becomes ensnared. Florence Pugh, David Harbour and Rachel Weisz play important parts. The story is hard to follow and ultimately inconsequential, and there just isn't enough action to keep the blood flowing.
Fan service is minimal, with no appearances from other Marvel heavy-hitters. "Black Widow" is the party that everyone forgot to RSVP to.
A post-credit scene forces an awkward connection to the Disney+ series "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," but is just as muddled and inconsequential as the movie it follows.
"Black Widow" may be a must-see for Marvel completionists and Scarjo superfans, but a hard pass for anyone else with a better way to spend two hours and 15 minutes of a summer day.
RATING: 2 stars out of 4.
This story was originally published by Phil Villarreal on Scripps station KGUN in Tucson, Arizona.