Bad accents abound and no amount of fun can salvage the third-act cliché of a giant burning object falling from the sky, but overall, “Black Widow” amounts to a satisfying addition to “The Bourne Identity” franchise. Of course, it’s actually a solid beginning to the latest cycle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the appeal of the MCU has always stemmed from the way it plays off existing formulas with dollops of spruced-up action strewn throughout, and the 24th entry hits all of those beats with style to spare.
Director Cate Shortland’s standalone adventure finds Natasha, aka Scarlett Johansson’s eponymous KGB killer-turned-Avenger hero, kicking ass and trading banter with her combustible sort-of sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) alongside gonzo adopted dad Red Guardian (David Harbour) and his wife Melina (Rachel Weisz). Their playful dynamic, based on a premise credited to “Wandavision” creator Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson and written by Eric Pearson, injects “Black Widow” with a spiky attitude that keeps this polished product engrossing throughout, at least until it comes crashing down to the usual busy mashup of mayhem that often mars the Marvel routine.
Like Jason Bourne, Natasha and Yelena were trained killers who defected, and the movie follows a similar kind of rapid-fire approach to the espionage genre as they pick up the pieces of their broken past and squabble through awkward family dynamics. The first MCU superhero movie to return to the blockbuster arena since the pandemic put the whole endeavor in jeopardy gets the job done; it’s also, by MCU standards, downright quaint. Set somewhere in the vicinity of five years ago, before the infamous Thanos blip and sitting around since pre-COVID 2020, “Black Widow” is a lighthearted bubble of a movie from simpler times.
Given that the cosmic events of “Avengers: Endgame” seemed to leave Black Widow dead as a doornail — have the statute of spoiler limitations lifted on that one yet? — this particular one-shot actioner takes place about five years earlier in the timeline, in between the events of “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” as a rift between the superheroes found them splintering into factions. Natasha, perhaps to get a break from all those overheated masculine egos in suits, heads for the hills just in time to get word from her estranged sister that she’s needed in Budapest.
To make a wandering setup short: Though Natasha escaped the scheming KGB program that trained her long ago, her sister has only recently broken free thanks to sudden exposure to a gas that brings her back to reality and eager to liberate the army of brainwashed women forced into murderous servitude by the menacing Red Room program, overseen by bland Russian bad guy Dreykov (Ray Winstone).
Their mission: Infiltrate the Red Room, ideally with the help of ex-Russian mega-hero Red Guardian, aka Alexei Shostakov, played with great relish by Harbour as a portly beardo who looks like he’s lost at sea and loving it. He’s actually locked up in a high-stakes prison facility, but that’s no match for two former Black Widow killers armed with a helicopter and one-liners to spare. Some zany fast and furious feats later, and the trio reunite with Melina for a combustible reunion just in time for the movie to careen into that busy third act.
By that time, however, “Black Widow” has settled into an appealing rhythm in which its lead women run circles around the self-serious formula with feisty back-and-forths that often verge on screwball comedy. Pugh has carried the same anxious-tough balance through everything from “Lady Macbeth” to “Midsommar,” and here serves a perfect young foil to Johansson’s soaring overconfidence. Few stories of sibling rivalry include quite as many punches as they do zingers, but this one juggles both with aplomb. Yelena’s especially adroit at calling Natasya on her recurring tendency to exaggerate her fight moves. “It’s a fighting pose,” Yelena growls, mocking the way her sister does a dramatic half split and peers up to dramatic effect. “You’re a poseur!”
Needless to say, the movie does a far better job than the rah-rah inclusivity gesture at the end of “Endgame” to play up its feminist leanings. “Black Widow” not only passes the Bechdel Test; it forces men to squirm as it puts them in their place. (One standout bit finds the women neutralizing their annoying adopted dad with period talk.) The team-up between the quartet involves a few moments of misdirection to keep the exposition engaging enough, but as always with the MCU, the moments that have next to nothing to do with plot or action make those other ingredients worthwhile.
Like the welcoming breeziness of “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the saga of Natasha and Yelena doesn’t try to rope in the fate of the known universe to make its operation worthwhile. The relatively low stakes help to foreground their moody dynamic, at least whenever the hand-to-hand combat doesn’t get there first. Fortunately, the movie delivers on that front, most notably during a brawl between Black Widow and the robotic killer known as Taskmaster who mirrors her every move. If this is the last time we get to see Johansson mete out justice to her assailants with gymnastic velocity, it’s an apt send-off. The motion is fluid and tense, with closeups and sound effects that hurt. (Cue Yelena, who reminds her sister that she’s not exactly a superhero in the traditional sense: “I doubt the god from space has to take an ibuprofen after a fight.”)
Aussie director Shortland has worked with personal dramas against a sprawling set of events before, most notably with the taut WWII survival story “Lore,” and she does the best job since the initial “Captain America” movies of reducing the vast moving parts of the MCU to background noise. Black Widow was always the calmest figure at the center of the Avengers’ rancorous type-A personalities, and the movie gives her demeanor some context: It’s got oodles of attitude but never veers into quirk, and though some “Thor: Ragnarok” levity is always welcome, there’s a certain gratification that comes from the way “Black Widow” doesn’t try to stretch its material beyond the cool-as-ice demeanor of its protagonists.
Eventually, “Black Widow” sags into the same kind of run-fight-repeat routine we’ve seen countless times before, and even the obligatory post-credits cliffhanger feels like little more than the shrug of promise that that every story in this IP juggernaut is really just a feature-length teaser for the next. At its best, however, “Black Widow” is a welcome break from the overwrought transmedia machine that dictates Disney’s biggest franchise bets, and almost invites you to forget what’s at stake. And while one person eventually moans, “Where’s an Avenger when you need one?”, the movie answers that cry by suggesting that hey, maybe one at a time works best.
“Black Widow” will hit theaters and streaming on Disney+ via its Premier Access banner on Friday, July 9.