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Scarlett Johansson strikes her signature pose in Black Widow. Photo courtesy of Jay Maidment.

When Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff died in Avengers: Endgame — uh, spoiler alert — I thought, “She can’t be dead, because there’s going to be a whole movie about Black Widow.” I wasn’t the only one, was I? Now I’ve seen that movie, and I still don’t feel much closure about the character’s self-sacrifice. That’s a pity, because Black Widow is actually pretty good as a deluxe action-thriller standing on its own.

The movie begins with a flashback to 1995 that’s straight from an episode of The Americans, as a peaceful summer evening in Ohio is broken when a scientist dad (David Harbour) comes home from work and abruptly tells his wife (Rachel Weisz) and kids that they’re leaving on a big adventure. His younger daughter Yelena (Violet McGraw) thinks this is awesome, but older daughter Natasha (Ever Anderson) knows they’re fleeing to Mother Russia. In 2016, adult Natasha is on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D. and lying low in the remote Norwegian countryside, which seems to be going well until the Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko) tries to assassinate her. The masked, mute villain forces Natasha to reunite with adult Yelena (Florence Pugh) and the other members of her family, none of whom are biologically related to one another.

The film clarifies some of the references in the script of 2012’s The Avengers, as the villain (Ray Winstone) is a former Soviet general named Dreykov who now runs his own international network of brainwashed assassins trained from orphaned girls that he scooped up all over the world. A male baddie who robs women of their ability to consent is a nice idea that’s left largely unexplored, which looks bad after the Marvel TV series Jessica Jones put the same concept to much more powerful use. The same goes for Natasha’s history as a killer for hire. The Marvel films have made so much about this character trying to atone for her previous evil deeds, and while the script takes an impressive swing at depicting those, the impact is underwhelming.

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The movie is better at depicting Natasha and Yelena reconnecting after 21 years apart. Pugh ends up stealing this show, as Yelena mimics Black Widow’s signature combat pose, obsesses about the details of a vest that she’s wearing, and grins as she sees an avalanche bearing down on her: “This would be a really cool way to die.” Her riff about being forcibly sterilized is black comedy at its most grimly hilarious. Depending on what else you’ve seen her in, you may or may not be surprised that she also looks convincing as she shoots out guard towers and takes down Dreykov’s minions as well. Figure out how to pronounce her last name (it’s “pyoo”), because you will see more of her in this series.

Australian director Cate Shortland is the first woman to direct one of these films solo, and it’s weirdly similar to her 2012 German-language World War II drama Lore, which is also about family secrets and an older sister trying to protect her siblings in a hostile environment. She’s at her best during the movie’s more relaxed passages, as this dysfunctional family unit treks across the wilds of Eastern Europe while hashing out long-buried issues and bickering over their relationship to the Avengers. The climactic sequence loses track of the four characters as they carry out separate missions aboard Dreykov’s flying fortress, but we do have a great initial wave of action, which begins with a fight between the sisters in their old Budapest apartment that is about as brutal as the movie’s PG-13 rating will allow. It continues into a motorcycle and car chase through the streets that leaves an impressive amount of damage in its wake. If the action lacks the distinctiveness that Cathy Yan brought to Birds of Prey, it still shows a filmmaker assimilating well into Marvel’s house style.

I wish Black Widow had given Johansson a sendoff as touching as Endgame gave to Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans. It feels like Marvel never fully appreciated her. Still, this movie occupies the same ground as F9, an action thriller about family members trying to repair old rifts, and it’s the better one. The movie is the best blockbuster so far this summer, and it’s a proudly female one. That’s not nothing.

Black Widow
Starring Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh. Directed by Cate Shortland. Written by Eric Pearson, based on Stan Lee, Don Heck, and Don Rico’s comic books. Rated PG-13.

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