By Elias Savada.

The scenery, as in any big Marvel or James Bond movie (many shot at Pinewood Studios, like this was) moves about the globe…. Plenty of races, car chases, collateral damage….”

There’s a lot to like in the latest chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Plenty of action, a nice emotional heft, gobs of angst, and an opportunity for Scarlet Johansson to give her character somewhat of an origin story and energetic fade out, since her death already occurred in Avengers: Endgame. And this standalone volume offers a few moments to talk about family, both the Avenger variety, and another pieced together to resemble a more basic familial unit, occasionally gathered about a dinner table. There may not be much in the way of superpowers in Black Widow, but there’s plenty of whoop-ass, mano-a-mano (actually, there’s more womano-a-womano) combat to keep you entertained over the film’s 2¼-hour length.

For MCU fans aching for their first big-screen adventure since Spider-Man: Far From Home way back in pre-pandemic 2019, welcome back to the multiplex! You still might have to imitate Batman with some appropriate face covering, but you’ll find few of them on-screen. One might be adorned by the film’s most comic addition, Red Guardian (David Harbour), the Soviet version of Captain America. As the film opens, he’s masquerading as an All-American dad, somewhere in the sun-drenched world of suburban Ohio in 1995. Maybe the kids attributed to the dad — Natasha Romanoff (Ever Anderson) and Yelena Belova (Violet McGraw) — are hoping for some mac-n-cheese, but Melina, the mom, jokingly posits caviar and champagne as more acceptable fare. Moments later, this Soviet sleeper cell is on the run.

After a brief stopover in Cuba, the film, which might have been mistaken in its first minutes for a Robert Rodriguez Spy Kids spinoff, morphs into the more adult adventure everyone is expecting. Australian director Cate Shortland, on only her fourth feature as director, joins the Marvel family with a robust, serious-with-comic-elements affair, with an abundance of stunt and CGI work offering a solid addition to a well-shaped screenplay by Eric Pearson, a well-known script doctor on a dozen or so Marvel films (as well as one of the writers of 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok).

The emotionless, kick-ass kids, soon to join other abused and kidnapped young girls in their super duper secret squad, is run by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone, impressively out-sleazing Harvey Weinstein as oppressor of women), an evil Russian mastermind (and friend of too many free world leaders) who transforms them with brain-altering chemicals into a mostly hidden army of derring-do Black Widow assassins, all unaware of their cold-blooded alter egos.

And then Natasha, 21 years later, is fully embodied by the fierce-eyed Johannson. She’s become one of the Avengers, now disbanded in a post-Captain America: Civil War world, and on a Most Wanted list for violating the Sokovia Accords. Her hiding out is a side story, for the most part, as the film treads water until she reunites with Yelena (Florence Pugh, joining the A-Team after a strong performance in the horror thriller Midsommar), with a rousing hand-to-hand fight sequence in a small apartment.

Natasha’s quite cavalier jack-of-all-trades assistant, Mason (O-T Fagbenle) makes the most of his too few minutes, while Rachel Weisz does show off some nice action moves as her “family” comes under extended duress, particularly at the hands of Dreykov’s iron masked, well-armored, sword-and-shield warrior, whose appearance suggests a lookalike sibling of Doctor Doom. As for the computer tablet controlling Dreykov, he’s holed up in a hidden fortress called the Red Room.

Then it’s off to save the world, although first the ladies need to rescue long-imprisoned dad from a Russian jail deep in the frozen Gulag. That sequence is breath-takingly edited, thanks to Leigh Folsom Boyd. She created plenty of similar sequences in some of the Fast and Furious flicks and seems to be an oft-Marvel contributor since helping on Ant-Man (2015). There’s plenty of fun afoot here, too, especially for Harbour, who needed a pick-me-up after earning a Razzle nomination for his acting in 2019’s failed reboot of Hellboy. In Black Widow, his bloated shell and and air of faded glory offer easy targets for the funniest moments, and the script gives him the best dialogue and set ups.

The scenery, as in any big Marvel or James Bond movie (many shot at Pinewood Studios, like this was) moves about the globe, from Norway one minute, Morocco the next, then on to Budapest. Mother Russia makes an appearance. Plenty of races, car chases, collateral damage that showcase Shortland’s capable action direction, all quite nicely choreographed, sharply edited, and accompanied by a forceful score by the much-in-demand Lorne Balfe.

Most of you know without me reminding you; stay through the end credits for a coming attraction — this one is a telltale scene featuring Yelena and a royal member of the Marvel Universe.

Black Widow will open in U.S. Theatres and on Disney+ with Premiere Access on July 9th.

Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).

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