Photo | Marvel Studios
It took me a while to come around to the marvels of Marvel, but the many repeated viewings through Disney+ have given me an appreciation for the labyrinthine tie-ins, and I can now suspend disbelief and enjoy this “cinematic universe.” But none of that is necessary to experience “Black Widow,” a stand-alone origin story for Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff that is full of satisfying Avengers elements but also functions as its own compelling spy movie.
The character of Black Widow does not have superpowers; she is a highly trained but human assassin, not a cape-wearing, Rainbow Bridge-strutting god, a space traveler or a super-soldier. “Black Widow” is sometimes closer to a James Bond movie than a superhero movie, and even shows Natasha watching “Moonraker” in one brief moment of downtime.
From its opening flashback scenes of a deceptively normal childhood in Ohio that lead to the trauma that defined Natasha’s life, emotional depth is this film’s superpower. Kidnapped girls are trafficked for indoctrination in the Red Room, where unwilling participants are mentally and physically transformed into assassins at the hands of the sinister General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). While Natasha was known to be a product of the Red Room, this film introduces subsequent graduates — notably Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova — from a program that controls their actions even more completely.
Together, Natasha and Yelena must face their past and reconnect with their erstwhile parents, and the welcome presence of David Harbour as their father brings opportunities for Marvel’s cheeky humor. The dynamic of Natasha’s rueful experience with Yelena’s upstart energy is sisterly, meaningful and really gives this story teeth. It’s about growing up and attempting to free yourself of the forces that shaped you, universal emotions taken to an extreme degree, expressed with the help of thrilling technology, spy gadgets, Quinjets, global cabals and explosions.
All of that and some really extraordinary action scenes. When I think about the action from the film I reviewed last week, “The Tomorrow War,” the comparison is stark; I think the key difference is logic. “Black Widow” was astonishing but comprehensible, while the Chris Pratt vehicle was just a nonsensical blur. From the characters to the dialogue to the physicality of what happened, everything in “Black Widow” was thoughtful and made sense.
Despite dark themes like human trafficking and forced sterilization, the film has a drive and buoyancy that is riveting. When Natasha and Yelena join forces with the spies who raised them, the film reaches its heart and their reunion reminded me of “The Incredibles.” We even get to see Harbour, who portrays the Russian super-soldier and Captain America foil Alexei Shostakov aka Red Guardian, stuffing himself into his super-suit and declaring, eventually, it “still fits.” Obviously, these assassins are more complex than the feel-good team of that animated movie, this put-together family does manage to function. They face their situation with dark humor, like Harbour’s pride over his daughters’ many successful murders, and the film acknowledges the characters’ trauma without victimizing them.
Mother figure Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) is a hardened and brilliant scientist who teaches her girls pain only makes you stronger, and the women in this movie have an abundance of pain and strength. Their mission in taking down the Red Room is not just one of revenge, but a bid to spare other women what they went through. It’s an unusually nurturing goal for a superhero caper and “Black Widow” gives its characters, especially Natasha, an incredible amount of development, closure and depth. It is every bit as exciting as any other superhero flick, but the thrills feel earned and the action feels real.
As it looks like the Marvel franchise moves deeper into multiverses of complex tie-ins and connected plots, “Black Widow” is one that can be enjoyed by a casual Marvel fan or even just as a plain old “movie.” Encyclopedic superhero knowledge is not required. This is an utterly compelling, character-driven action film that will answer many questions about the beloved and well-known Natasha, but will also independently introduce viewers to a cast of extraordinary women and men who would be just as compelling if you were meeting them for the first time.
“Black Widow” is playing at all multiplex theaters and streaming on Disney+.
New This Week:
“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain”: Director Morgan Neville (”Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) turns his eye to the extraordinary life of the late great chef, author and television star. AMC Mobile 16.
“Old”: The latest from plot-twister M. Night Shyamalan is a thriller about a family on a tropical holiday that discovers the secluded beach where they are relaxing for a few hours is somehow causing them to age rapidly, reducing their entire lives into a single day. All multiplex theaters.
“Snake Eyes”: An ancient Japanese clan called the Arashikage welcomes tenacious loner Snake Eyes (Henry Golding) after he saves the life of their heir apparent. Upon arrival in Japan, members of the clan teach him the ways of the ninja warrior while also providing him something he’s been longing for: a home. However, when secrets from Snake Eyes’ past are revealed, his honor and allegiance get tested — even if that means losing the trust of those closest to him. All multiplex theaters.
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