Given the events of the most recent “Avengers” movies, it’s safe to assume that “Black Widow” is Scarlett Johansson’s final victory lap in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as she gets a long overdue opportunity to headline a stand-alone superhero movie.
Rather than deeply explore the character and soul of Natasha Romanoff, however, “Black Widow” treats her like a TV star who’s devoting an episode of her series to introducing new characters who might or might not break off into a spinoff of their own. The film does offer additional insight into the character’s tortured past, but the overwhelming effect is that of a baton being passed.
“Black Widow” excels most as Marvel’s attempt to make their own 007 movie. Like Christopher Nolan’s recent efforts “Tenet” and “Inception,” it doesn’t quite achieve that ineffable something that sets the best James Bond films apart, although each brings something to the table: Nolan’s films offer narrative acrostics, while “Black Widow” comes armed with a sense of humor and capable, self-possessed women at the helm. (On both sides of the camera; this latest MCU entry is directed by Australian director Cate Shortland, “Lore.”)
It’s 2016, sometime between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” and Natasha (Johansson) is on the run from U.S. authorities for violating the Sokovia Accords — and if these words mean nothing to you, not to worry, hardly any of that stuff matters. She hides out in a camper in Norway that’s been set up for her by her friend and super-concierge Mason (O-T Fagbenle, “The Handmaid’s Tale”), who has provided food, guns, gas, and even Natasha’s mail from a safehouse in Budapest. Included in those packages is the film’s MacGuffin, which throws her into a fight with Taskmaster (whose identity won’t be revealed here), a deadly, masked assassin who can mimic any hero’s fighting style.
Traveling to Budapest to investigate, Natasha crosses paths with Yelena (Florence Pugh), a fellow “Widow” who has been trained since childhood to be a ruthless killer. (We get a 1995-set prologue flashback of young Natasha and Yelena being raised in suburban Ohio by “parents” who are actually Russian operatives, which calls to mind the dear departed “The Americans.”) Skeptical of each other, they nonetheless team up to take down Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the mastermind behind the Widows program, who’s using chemical manipulation to force the women in his thrall to do his bidding.
Putting aside the wobbly geopolitics here — “Black Widow” seems to think that the USSR was still a thing in the mid-90s — there’s a lot of entertaining globe-trotting adventure and gravity-defying action; the fight choreography and stunt work here is impressive and occasionally thrilling, but more often than not, the effect is undercut by the overcutting of editor Leigh Folsom Boyd (“Furious 7”), who jumps around so often that we rarely get to see a complete range of motion, let alone a follow-through. (This one issue is an ongoing problem in the 21st century for both action films and musicals.)
There are moments where “Black Widow” absolutely benefits from having a woman in the director’s chair, particularly a scene in which Yelena gets to be ruefully sardonic when describing the forced sterilization to which all the Widows are subjected; when Natasha brings it up in one of the “Avengers” movies, the moment is played for tears, but here, it’s a moment of brutal candor and a cataloguing of just one of many indignities suffered by the young women forced into the program.
Pugh assumes the mantle of cat-suited super-assassin with the same ease with which she stepped into Amy March’s crinolines in “Little Women”; she’s allowed both ruthlessness and a pained longing for the innocence of youth, and her banter with Johansson is crisply witty, as are both actresses’ scenes with David Harbour as a past-his-prime Soviet superhero. Rachel Weisz, as a brilliant scientist, commits to this material as though Terence Davies had written it, and she, Harbour, and Pugh immediately feel essential to this ever-expanding film and TV franchise.
“Black Widow” reminds us of the pleasure that can be offered by an MCU movie that isn’t having to do the legwork of setting up the next five chapters. (Not that you shouldn’t sit through the credits for one final button, of course.) Comics fans will revel in the introduction of recognizable gizmos and character names, as always, but even non-dabblers can enjoy the film for Johansson’s tough-as-nails star quality and the scene-stealing by her overqualified supporting players.
“Black Widow” premieres in US theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access on July 9.