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Scarlett Johansson reprises her role as Natasha Romanoff in Marvel Studios' Black Widow.Marvel Studios / Disney+

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  • Black Widow
  • Directed by Cate Shortland
  • Written by Eric Pearson
  • Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh and David Harbour
  • Classification PG; 133 minutes

Last year was a remarkable 12-month stretch, and not just because of you-know-what: 2020 was the first year in more than a decade without a new Marvel Studios movie. Did you miss them? Was noted superhero-skeptic Martin Scorsese happy? Will your pandemic-damaged life now be complete with the long-delayed arrival of Black Widow? The answer to all of the above questions is a hearty … maybe!

I’m well aware that I’m particularly hard on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. My Rotten Tomatoes history cannot lie. But I’m only tough because I care. If Marvel is bent on forever staying the world’s No. 1 blockbuster machine, then it is going to have to produce wildly entertaining work that stands up to even mild scrutiny. It needs to produce movies that show, or at least feign, progress: stylistically, narratively, emotionally. And with Black Widow, the MCU’s 24th bid to transfix global audiences, Marvel is showing all the signs of regression, long past the mark of simple creative stagnancy.

When the MCU was new to the scene, it delivered a reliably steady blast of entertaining, gee-whiz diversions – even if most of its novelty was found in postcredit scenes promising “To Be Continued …” continuity crumbs that were often more exciting than the movies that preceded them. Whatever, it was cool. Or cool enough.

The space-worm turned with the one-two punch of 2016′s Doctor Strange and 2017′s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – two faux-whoa films that were both so consistently convinced of their own awesomeness that they refused to engage with any of the elements (quick wit, visual inventiveness, genuine stakes) that defined so many of their predecessors. From that point on, it was the MCU versus the moviegoer. It was often easier to roll over and cry Captain America.

Florence Pugh, David Harbour, and Scarlett Johansson star in Black Widow. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises.Marvel Studios / Disney+

Which is what watching Black Widow is like: submission, pure and gentle and inevitable. If you can sit through director Cate Shortland’s action thriller and not find your attention drifting every few minutes – to your mental to-do list, to your curiosity over how much Rachel Weisz was paid to co-star, to your annoyance that you’re watching this trapped at home instead of in a darkened cinema, which would at least offer ultradeafening sound to drown your brain’s volume – then you have my backward respect.

Black Widow didn’t have to be this way – at least not if Shortland’s first 10 minutes are anything to judge. Taking place decades before Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) became a leather-suited Avenger, the opening sequence plays like a very expensive episode of FX’s Russian-spy series The Americans. But instead of Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys playing undercover KGB agents, we have a digitally de-aged Weisz and David Harbour as Soviet superheroes, forced to flee Ohio with their two daughters, including a young Natasha, after their cover is blown by agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The scene, which involves car chases, machine guns, an airplane escape and a nicely jarring soundtrack (jumping from Don McLean’s American Pie to a slow-burn cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit) hints at the kind of tense, interestingly messy film that Shortland might have made were she not burdened by franchise obligations. Once we’re in the story proper – something involving Natasha and her younger sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) dismantling a Russian brainwashing operation – Black Widow quickly turns into another rote exercise in Marvel house style.

Black Widow is available July 9 on Disney+ with Premier Access, and in Canadian theatres, dependent on public health restrictions.Marvel Studios / Disney+

If you’ve seen one MCU movie, then you’ve seen this one, too. There are MacGuffins to be hunted down and protected, ambiguously accented villains to be vanquished, and a climax where a lot of CGI nothingness gets blown to meaningless smithereens. The only thought-provoking thing about Black Widow is trying to figure out why we’re getting a superhero origin story that doesn’t cover the superhero’s actual origins. This is less “How Natasha Romanoff became Black Widow” and more “What Black Widow Did on Her Summer Vacation.”

Like many of those enlisted before him, screenwriter Eric Pearson throws us a few funny bones, letting one gag about Natasha’s fighting stance do a lot of leg work. But mostly Pearson is trying to move around the few game pieces he’s been given with as little fuss or complications as possible.

At least the performers appear to be having a good time. For a story about dour Soviet superspies reunited after a traumatic separation, everyone is smiling an awful lot. Perhaps the actors are just thinking about how much cash they’re raking in for a few months of spandex-work. And good on ‘em, especially the sly Weisz and lumbering Harbour, whose 75-per-cent effort here feels more like 100 given their surroundings. It’s almost superheroic.

Black Widow is available July 9 on Disney+ with Premier Access, and in Canadian theatres, dependent on public health restrictions

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.