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Review: Marvel stops stallin' and gives us the 'Black Widow' we deserve (plus her sister)

Eric Webb
Austin 360

All it took for Natasha Romanoff to get her own movie was fall off a cliff and die. 

Two years after a storyline-capping doom plunge in “Avengers: Endgame." A year after a pandemic delay. More than a decade after first backflipping down a hallway while wearing a Debra Messing wig in “Iron Man 2.” Black Widow is finally anchoring a standalone vehicle.

The Russian superspy turned Avenger played by Scarlett Johannson has been the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s marquee female hero since her debut, all as Marvel Studios has defined an entire era of action movies and made more money than the GDP of some small countries. And yet, while many of Black Widow’s teammates got entire sub-franchises — except Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, but no comment — she’s been relegated to support roles while even newer characters leap-frogged the line.  

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Scarlett Johansson's Avenger finally gets her solo movie in Marvel Studios' "Black Widow."

I mean, the villain from the first “Avengers” movie, Loki, got a TV show out into the world before a character played by the highest-paid actress in the world. No shade to Tom Hiddleston’s god of mischief, but that doesn’t seem quite right, does it? 

Luckily, “Black Widow” is finally out in theaters and streaming for an added fee on Disney+ on July 9. Like most of her peers’ first solo outings, this is a good-not-great genre stand: Think of the wartime adventure of “Captain America: The First Avenger” and the interdimensional space myth of “Thor.”

Here, Marvel sends Johannson and director Cate Shortland into the deadly world of post-Soviet espionage — but still vaguely Soviet, since it’s hard to excise that entirely from a character who was created as a Khrushchev-loyal Iron Man villain. But unlike Cap and Thor, you know going in that this probably is Nat’s last on-screen, and an otherwise fine film has trouble escaping that reality. 

The film finds the hero shortly after the events of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.” (Because, and I cannot stress this enough, the character is dead in the current timeline.) She’s separated from her troubled superheroic family and on the run from the U.S. government.  

In flashbacks, we learn about a previously unexplored childhood, if you can call it that, when Natasha participated in an undercover mission in 1995 Ohio. For a brief time, she experienced a semblance of family with Russian operatives posing as her parents (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz) and her little sister, all for the aim of uncovering some secret U.S. tech. It’s all very “The Americans,” but to young Natasha, it briefly feels real. 

Flash forward 21 years. That mission abruptly ended, and Natasha and “sister” Yelena Belova were trafficked back to Russia’s notorious Red Room, where the girls were brainwashed, mutilated and trained to be elite assassins.  

As Natasha is on the run in the film’s present, her past comes knocking in the form of a newly also-defected Yelena (played by Florence Pugh, who picks up the movie under her arm and walks off) and an unbeatable combatant called the Taskmaster, who can mimic any move. Yelena has stumbled into a way to end the mind control that allows Taskmaster’s boss, the villainous Dreykov (Ray Winstone), to control the women he’s abducted into the Red Room, like the two women were as girls. The sorta-sisters track down their faux-parents for a classic “one last job”: to take down a shadowy mastermind with his eye on world domination. 

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Just like in plenty of films that shattered the box office prior, Johannson’s Black Widow is an all-time great action hero. Distinctive look (red mane, leather catsuit, stun-gun wristbands), cinematic tricks up her sleeve (lethal moves, a knack for disguise) and a sympathetic heart with the menacing backstory to match (former assassin atoning for her blood-soaked past alongside gods and monsters — classic). Shortland’s showcase lets Nat be the hero she always could be, if only given the chance: fully in control of the situation at all times, and also fully human, with all the flaws that entails. It’s a dirty rotten shame that her big marquee moment came so late, and once the star was already narratively out the door. The franchise that coulda been … you've got to KGB kidding me.  

However: Every time Pugh’s Yelena is on screen, it’s obvious that Marvel knew those feelings would come. 

If “Black Widow” serves any narratively propulsive purpose in the MCU — this is mostly filling in continuity gaps, baby — it’s by introducing a fantastic successor to Natasha's legacy. And she’s just as deadpan as she is deadly. Pugh’s one of the most exciting performers to light up a screen in years; check out her daring alt-horror work in “Midsommar” or her single-handed rehabilitation of a literary heel in “Little Women.” (Wild card rec: her turn in charming wrestling dramedy “Fighting With My Family.”) She’s just as good in “Black Widow” as you’d hope, whether she’s kicking the wind out of her surrogate sister, confronting the people who hurt her or geeking out about how many pockets are on her new vest. Wit dry, fists furious — it’s a star turn. 

The mysterious Taskmaster hunts down Natasha Romanoff in "Black Widow."

A long time has passed since we had a Marvel movie — TV like “WandaVision” can tide you over only so long — and Shortland’s flick delivers that familiar smooth flavor. The fights hit; Pugh and Johannson get a truly iconic apartment dust-up/bicker session. The quips are in fine form; Yelena’s running gag about Natasha’s fighting pose in the kind of meta-humor fans eat up. 

"Black Widow” is the kind of splashy, sensational cinema that you either love to rewatch or to deride as a feature-length commercial for capitalism and dead-eyed CGI. But for my money (which is not as much as Marvel or Johansson’s money), a mid-air duel amid the falling debris of a flying fortress that’s gone boom is a nice time at the movies. 

As far as the franchise goes, we’re still firmly in the mid-range, though. Weisz’s secret agent/super scientist makes time to apply sexy eyeliner when she suits up under hot pursuit. The plot hinges too heavily on the availability of wigs. The motivations of the deep-cut comics characters played by Weisz and Harbour, both deeply welcome presences who acquit themselves nicely in this playground, are as clear as an iron curtain. Baddie Taskmaster, silent, makes the crossover from the printed page in vain.

Rachel Weisz, from left, Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in a scene from "Black Widow."

Then there’s the parody-worthy gloomcore cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (lol) and jokes about forced hysterectomies that go on too long (in that they made it into the script at all).  

"Black Widow” will share theaters with “F9,” and though the latter is well-known for its exploration of found family, the lady in the leather pants takes the W in a thematic match-up. You don’t need blood to have love, and this film walks that one step forward. You don’t need to share genes to have family trauma, either.  

The quartet at the center of “Black Widow” make their way in the world by lying to survive. Even their happiest moments were fiction. “The truth rarely makes sense when you omit key details,” as Yelena says at one point.  

But the film posits that being born into pain isn’t your fault. It’s whether or not you break the cycle, and keep your own heart strong, that matters. Even if Natasha Romanoff’s story is done, there’s hope that Yelena Belova can keep spinning that web.

'Black Widow'

Grade: B

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour

Director: Cate Shortland

Rated: PG-13 for some language, intense violence/action, thematic material

Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes

Watch: In theaters and streaming for an additional fee on Disney+