‘Black Widow,’ With Heart

Marvel send-off is an action-packed, emotion-filled origin story

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An origin story disguised as a swan song, Black Widow pulls double duty in the highly populated, highly calculated MCU. This estrogen-fueled ass-kicker is a victory-lap farewell to now-deceased Avenger Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) as well as a promising privet to spiky sibling and equally combat-ready Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh). The jaded Russian black-ops soldiers are very different but effectively the same. Meet the new Widow, same as the old Widow.

Florence Pugh and Scarlett Johansson trade sisterly barbs (and a few punches) in ‘Black Widow.’

How did Marvel bring Romanoff back from the dead? The roiling thriller is conveniently set in 2016, while she was still alive. It’s also just after the events in Captain America: Civil War forced her to go into exile. Turns out she went to Norway, where trouble finds her in the form of a mysterious villain with remarkably adaptive combat skills. “It’s like fighting a mirror,” says Romanoff. Also like fighting a Power Ranger, since the full-body armor and face-covering helmet — complete with etched teeth — are aggressively cartoonish.

Seems the unknown threat was hunting down a batch of vials that Romanoff unexpectedly received. Inside them: a red synthetic gas antidote to the mind-control chemicals that manipulate the latest generation of Black Widow assassins. Spritz that wake-up potion at these women warriors and they’ll gain free will. Their enslaver is a nefarious Russian covert-ops kingpin named Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who improbably lives in a floating fortress called The Red Room. Imagine a Slavic Lando, but evil and overseeing a private army of lady commandoes.

He recruits his women as children, orphans and outcasts from around the world. “These girls were trash,” he gloats. “I recycle trash.” Which explains his multi-culti femme squad, women of every race and creed under one white man’s complete control. Definitely not woke, this bad guy.

BLACK WIDOW  ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Cate Shortland
Written by: Jac Schaeffer, Ned Benson
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenie, William Hurt, Ray Winstone, Rachel Weisz
Running time: 134 min.

Meanwhile, Natasha and Yelena greet each other with a brutal cat fight in a Budapest apartment. They don’t see each other much, and Yelena’s resentment shows. “You don’t want baby sister tagging along while you save the world with the cool kids,” she gripes, one of her many big-sis burns. The other? Calling out Natasha’s signature Marvel move of landing with one outstretched leg and flipping back her crimson ’do. “It’s a fighting pose,” sneers Yelena. “You’re a total poser.” Ouch!

Pugh’s disaffected scowls are a joy to watch, as she polishes every utterance with a plummy Russian accent. “That would be a good way to die,” she shrugs after causing a cataclysmic avalanche that threatens everyone in sight, including her. That world-weary ennui is thrilling, especially when describing Dreykov’s routine sterilizations and forced hysterectomies. “You don’t have to get all clinical and nasty,” says her foster dad Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), an imprisoned super-soldier once known as Red Guardian who was designed to be the Soviet answer to Captain America.

Years ago, Alexei played parent to Natasha and Yelena, along with bio-scientist Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz). They were once deep undercover as an American family in small-town Ohio, but fled to Cuba in 1995 when word got to the feds. Now, 21 years later, that gas antidote is the reason they’re back together. The daughters need their parents to help them bring down Dreykov. But it’s an unhappy reunion. “The best part of my life was fake and nobody told me,” says Yelena bitterly. So much for family ties. And yet.

As usual, Marvel serves up its patented special sauce of snarky retorts, overplotted storylines, and bombastic action sequences. But there’s more of a heart here, and the bone-crunching hand-to-hand melées land with more impact. There’s real rage, and real pain, that’s being worked through as these very emotionally damaged and politically manipulated people struggle together to make things right.

It’s a level of anguish that is still rare in comic-book movies, and here it feels well-earned. Even from the opening set piece, as the foursome just barely escape America on a single-prop plane, Black Widow feels like a different sort of Marvel movie. But still, with explosions.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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