Movie review: Avengers spy finds her family in ‘Black Widow’

Scarlett Johansson stars in "Black Widow," a prequel exploring her origins. (Marvel Studios/TNS)
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Katie Walsh Tribune News Service (TNS)

Ever since Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), better known as Black Widow, kicked-boxed her way into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, fans have been clamoring for a standalone movie, and for good reason. She’s astonishingly lethal but also incredibly human, with a dark and mysterious backstory as a highly trained Soviet assassin.

Finally, the MCU delivers, and it’s a bit surprising. Directed by Cate Shortland, “Black Widow” has the look and feel of a globe-trotting spy thriller, and it isn’t afraid to puncture some of the“Avengers” mythology, including grappling with what it means to be a “hero.”

The existential questions with which “Black Widow” wrestles, courtesy of writers Jac Schaeffer, Ned Benson and Eric Pearson, are fitting for where Natasha finds herself, after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” alone and on the run. In this vulnerable moment, the unexpected happens: her past finds her.

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An opening sequence details an important moment from Natasha’s history, when two roads diverged, and she was forced down the one that led to becoming a Black Widow. After an idyllic if confusing few childhood years in the U.S., she was raised in a rigorous training program called the Red Room, run by a powerful Soviet politician, Dreykov (Ray Winstone). With an army of young female super soldiers, he controls the global political whims, because he controls the minds of his Widows. The only way to break Dreykov’s control and restore autonomy to these young women is to deprogram them using a chemical gas.

The charge is led by Yelena (Florence Pugh), Natasha’s long-lost sister, a fierce, sprightly deprogrammed Widow who is willing to throw a few punches and more than a few wisecracks at her older sister. Pugh’s presence is one of the most exciting MCU introductions in a long time, and her elevation of the material is thrilling. The same can be said for David Harbour and Rachel Weisz, who play Yelena and Natasha’s former parental figures, Alexei and Melina. Alexei was once the Red Guardian, a Soviet spin on Captain America, a one-sided rivalry he grumbles about constantly. Melina is scientist, and at one point, this foursome played a family of sorts.

Shortland approaches the action sequences as brutalist ballets, airy acrobatics crunching through Norwegian villages, Budapest subways and a Siberian gulag. Yet, it also has the grounded and gritty feel of a “Bourne” movie, and once the gang’s all together, it becomes a strangely charming family comedy. The tones that Shortland weaves together make the film feel singular, though it does exist of a piece with the MCU.

The sardonic, vodka-swilling super assassins who make up Natasha’s dysfunctional adopted family are an entry point for the writers to poke fun at the overused tropes of the “Avengers,” and create space for Natasha to question everything about what she did and didn’t choose. When the title of “hero” is a burden, not an honor, her family — who were thrown together and pressed into service as super soldiers against their will — are there to hold up a mirror. What does being a “superhero” mean now? Is it landing in a three-point stance? Or is it showing up however you can for whomever you call family?

While some of the character motivations remain murky, the film’s focus is on the family (and Yelena, who we’ll likely see again), as well as Natasha finding personal freedom in the liberation of others. The “Avengers” movies have always been about finding strength in the team, or a family, of individuals, so while “Black Widow” may appear to be a deconstruction, ultimately, it remains a faithful adherent to the MCU ideology.

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‘BLACK WIDOW’

3 stars (out of 4)

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone

Directed by Cate Shortland

Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material)

Playing: In theaters and streaming on Disney+ Premier Access Friday

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