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'Black Widow' review: Marvel's latest seems destined to please its fan base

This image released by Marvel Studios shows Scarlett

This image released by Marvel Studios shows Scarlett Johansson, left, and Florence Pugh in a scene from "Black Widow."  Credit: AP/Jay Maidment

PLOT A former Russian spy, now on the lam, must stop an army of mind-controlled soldiers.

CAST Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour

RATED PG-13 (strong action-violence)

LENGTH 2:13

WHERE Opening July 9 in area theaters and streaming on Disney+ with Premier Access

BOTTOM LINE One of Marvel’s most popular characters gets her belated due.

The fate of the world may rest on a woman’s shoulders in "Black Widow," but here’s a question: If we already know the fate of the woman, do we still care?

The answer depends on your level of devotion to Marvel movies in general and to the figure of Black Widow in particular. A former Russian assassin named Natasha Romanoff, she renounced her past when she joined the Avengers. Thanks partly to the character’s noirish complexity and partly to Scarlett Johansson, the magnetic star who plays her, Natasha has become one of Marvel’s most popular characters. Yet her storyline concluded in 2019’s "Avengers: Endgame," which makes "Black Widow" feel like a slightly belated spotlight on a fan favorite.

Still, "Black Widow" manages to deliver the goods, mainly by sticking to Marvel convention (explosive action, amusing quips). It may or not save the pandemic-plagued theater industry as many have hoped, especially now that Disney is releasing the film simultaneously on its streaming service. But it seems destined to please its fan base with big-budget effects, muscular direction from Cate Shortland and a front-and-center Johansson as a loner on a mission.

Serving as both origin story and side story, "Black Widow" tries to pack a little too much into its two-plus hours. We learn that Natasha once had a family — or so she thought until mom and dad turned out to be Russian operatives. Natasha and her little sister, Yelena, were forced into the Black Widow program, one of those Soviet camps that turn abandoned girls into heartless killers with smoky eyeliner. Both escaped, but now the Widows have a new weapon: The Taskmaster, a cyborg with superhuman strength, light-speed reflexes and a skull helmet.

Yelena, played by the increasingly impressive Florence Pugh ("Midsommar," "Little Women"), gives this film its strongest heartbeat. Like Natasha, she’s a survivor, but she has little interest in playing the hero. Her bitterness, of course, only disguises the wounded child inside her. The film’s most engaging scenes come when the two sisters reluctantly reunite with their "parents," a washed-up Soviet superhero named Red Guardian (an engaging David Harbour) and the brilliant scientist Melina (Rachel Weisz). The family may be fake, but as Yelena says bitterly, "It was real to me."

Near the end, "Black Widow" tries to accelerate but loses steam. The double crosses turn confusing and our hero faces a late-appearing villain, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone, "Sexy Beast"). Action packed as these scenes are, you might find yourself more intrigued by Dreykov’s Midcentury Modern headquarters, tricked out in handsome hardwood and cylindrical chandeliers by production designer Charles Wood.

Few Marvel movies provide true closure; there’s always an opening for another storyline, another franchise. In "Black Widow," a post-credits conversation at a grave site suggests that at least one character will start a new chapter. Our hero’s story may have been fully told, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe will continue to expand.

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