By Leah Greenblatt
June 29, 2021 at 01:26 PM EDT
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Iron Man was once an Iron Boy, presumably. Thor had to earn his hammer somehow. And Bruce Banner didn't Hulk-smash his way out of the womb. But for most big-screen superheroes, origin stories often serve as little more than preamble to the myth: expository parsley sprinkled on the red-meat business of saving the world, one billion-dollar installment at a time.

The most notable exceptions to that rule — Wonder Woman, Spider-Man — also tend to be the better films in their various franchises, at least to viewers who hunger for more than intermittent dollops of banter and backstory squeezed in between explosions. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow has waited patiently — eight Avengers chapters over 10 years, plus another 14 months tacked on due to pandemic delays — for her turn. And her self-titled stand-alone (out July 9 simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access) actually feels like a human-scale narrative, albeit still one where many, many things go boom. (Coincidentally or not, it's also the first Marvel film to be helmed solely by a woman, an Australian named Cate Shortland — though 2019's Captain Marvel had Anna Boden as co-director, and recent Nomadland Oscar winner Chloé Zhao will unleash her Eternals this fall.)

Black Widow
Credit: Marvel Studios

Whatever's been hinted in the past about the early days of international assassin Natasha Romanoff, her childhood in Black Widow's opening scenes seems positively Spielberg-ian: skinned knees, fireflies in the garden, family dinner at dusk. It's 1995 in Ohio, and everybody's all-American — until suddenly they aren't. In a moment, her mother (Rachel Weisz) and father (Stranger Things' David Harbour) drop their Midwestern accents like anvils, and young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and her baby sister appear to know more about emergency air evacuations than any kids their age should. That's because they're not a family at all; they're a Russian sleeper cell.

Flash-forward two decades and Natasha has become a lone-wolf exile, presumably escaping the fallout from the events of 2016's Captain America: Civil War. (Further explanations are not forthcoming for casual fans.) Until a mystery package, and a pursuer who looks like the murderous union of Daft Punk and RoboCop, send her on a collision course with her now-grown "sister" (Florence Pugh) in Budapest. Yelena is a Widow too — part of a kind of expendable female suicide squad — and she knows how they got that way. But tracking down the man responsible (a malevolent, bullnecked Ray Winstone) will mean reuniting with the only parents the two girls have ever known.

That's where the movie essentially becomes a domestic dramedy, transposed onto the big-bang set pieces and elaborate lore of a Marvel tentpole. Harbour is a brutish, beefy goofball still longing for his glory days as the Red Guardian; Weisz is the brains, a coolly analytical scientist with her hair tucked into Heidi braids. But the real love story belongs to their ersatz offspring: If anything, Johansson plays the straight woman, stern and a little bit melancholy; she lets British actress Pugh (Little Women, Midsommar) bloom as Yelena, whose Slavic wit and wounded honesty register as almost surreally normal in a setting like this.

The fight choreography is impressively acrobatic, if mildly numbing, and the brisk globe-trotting (Norway, Morocco, a snowy Russian penal colony) can't be faulted. Shortland's directing doesn't spark absurdist joy in the way that, say, Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok did; she's too methodical for that. But Waititi's brand of antic fizziness wouldn't really be right for what is in many ways a tragedy. (It's certainly the only film in the MCU to include a salient plot point about forced hysterectomies.) If Widow, with its winky one-liners and spandexed catsuits, is purely pop feminism, the movie's female gaze still reads like more than a cynical marketing ploy; it's one step closer to real, messy life, Marvel-size and amplified. Grade: B+

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Black Widow

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