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There’s no denying the fact that it’s weird Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) had to die on the Sacred Timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe before she got her own movie. Despite the fact that she has been fighting alongside the Avengers since the MCU’s Phase One, versatile Russian spy Natasha Romanoff has been relegated to second banana in Captain America sequels and star-studded Avengers team-up movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Avengers: Infinity War. We’d pick up informative scraps regarding her mysterious past, but Black Widow and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) were given the short end of the stick with regards to solo adventures, for various reasons.

That changes now that Cate Shortland’s Black Widow is arriving both in theaters and on streaming (following a lengthy delay). The movie solves the narrative problem caused by Natasha’s sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame by constructing a prequel for our lethal protagonist. Black Widow picks up shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, and finds Black Widow on the lam from General Ross (William Hurt) because she assaulted T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and helped Steve (Chris Evans) and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) escape the german airport. And the best review I can give you for Black Widow is that this standalone movie was worth the unusually long wait. Here’s why.

I appreciated Black Widow’s deeper dive into Natasha’s backstory.

Prior to Shortland’s Black Widow, we’d been made aware of some important touchstones in Natasha’s development, from her training at a young age in The Red Room to a humorous exchange with Clint Barton (Renner) about a mission in Budapest they each remember differently. And while that running joke finally pays off in this movie, there are plenty of other blank spots in Widow’s infamous ledger that also get filled in.

Some are small. We meet a new character named Mason (O-T Fagbenle), a covert operative who helps Natasha obtain items in between missions. Other developments are significant, as when we establish Ray Winstone’s Dreykov as an antagonist from Romanoff’s past whom she believed had been dispatched. The issues that surface as Natasha tries to stay off of the grid are substantial enough to justify this trek through her past, with credited screenwriters Jac Schaeffer (WandaVision), Ned Benson and Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok) untying numerous loose ends for Widow that include the existence of The Red Room program, the brainwashing of fellow Widows, and the creation of a new villain in Taskmaster. All of these elements deepen the colors that already fill in Black Widow’s fascinating history, while the next revelation explains why the assassin holds the concept of “family” so dear.

I bought into the dysfunctional family vibe of the Romanoffs.

Without giving away too many of the movie’s best surprises, Black Widow introduces three important characters from Natasha’s history -- the “family” she knew from her adolescence… though what information, when you are a spy, can really be trusted. Alexi (David Harbour), her father, was a participant in the Super Soldier serum program, adopting the moniker Red Guardian. Melina (Rachel Weisz), Natasha’s mother, tried to be the glue that held the family together, though her own experiments with mind manipulation make her valuable to their Russian warlords. Finally, and most notably, Black Widow introduces the equally deadly Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Natasha’s sister and another graduate of the Red Room’s Widow program whose eyes have recently been opened to the harsh realities of her past.

The familial vibe and the chemistry shared between Johansson, Pugh, Harbour and Weisz ensures that Black Widow stands on its own and thrives when the action slows down -- which, to Shortland’s credit, doesn’t happen very often. Character development for this artificial Russian family is paramount, and Black Widow will spend as much time around a kitchen table allowing this dysfunctional clan to squabble as it does choreographing a thrilling prison break or pulse-racing car chase. Harbour, specifically, steals the show with his cavalier arrogance, playing a once-significant Soviet spy who’s out of the game but doesn’t yet realize it. But Johansson and Pugh also forge a sisterly bond that sings every time they zing each other with back-handed criticisms in the midst of battle.

The action is top-notch, with some outstanding Marvel set pieces.

And plenty of battles do come. Black Widow offers up wall-to-wall action, beginning with a white-knuckle airplane escape in its opening scenes, and concluding with a massive, multi-pronged aerial fight. If the MCU established a formula for the number of action set pieces allowed in a single movie, Black Widow doubles the count, and keeps you near the edge of your seat with creative stunts, large-scale sequences (that prison break is a highlight), and relentless fights.

Shortland’s approach to the action stands out, as well. Influenced by Korean cinema, she often uses hand-held cameras to immerse us in the action, but not so far into the combat that we become dizzy or disoriented. Black Widow may rely a little too heavily on CGI for its largest set pieces -- there’s a shot of Johansson and Pugh sharing a parachute that’s so phony, it’s jarring -- but the visceral take on its hand-to-hand combat reminds us that Natasha doesn’t have the super powers of Captain America, Thor, or The Hulk. But she has the heart of an Avenger. And for that reason, she’ll always have the hearts of Marvel fans.

8 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five
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