The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Marvel’s Black Widow gets the spotlight she deserves, only to have it stolen from her

Scarlett Johansson in “Black Widow.” (Marvel Studios)
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(2.5 stars)

It’s taken almost 20 years for Marvel fans to get the Black Widow movie many of them have been craving. So it seems oddly appropriate, if unfair, that when it finally arrives, it’s virtually stolen from under her.

Not that Scarlett Johansson doesn’t bring her A-game to “Black Widow,” a big, ambitious prequel that fills in the intriguing blanks of her character’s back­story. In a plot reminiscent of the cult hit series “The Americans,” Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff revisits her youth in a Soviet sleeper cell in the 1990s, when as a gutsy blue-haired tomboy she posed as the young daughter of an Ohio couple who were actually spies named Alexei Shostakov (“Stranger Things’s” David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz). In “Black Widow’s” tense, expertly orchestrated opening flashback scenes, the pseudo-family’s happy home life is interrupted by a U.S. government raid, which they narrowly escape by way of a spectacular and utterly unbelievable airplane getaway.

Natasha had a little sister in Ohio: Yelena, who, like Natasha, was a precocious KGB trainee, but who was young enough to have believed all the capitalistic hokum about cozy Christmases and close-knit nuclear families. In “Black Widow,” the grown-up Yelena is played by Florence Pugh, who delivers a funny, tough and compelling performance in a movie that is clearly meant to launch her character into her own patch of the franchise stratosphere.

There’s no doubt that Yelena is worthy of that honor. But it still feels as if Johansson has gotten short shrift over the course of several Avengers movies in which Natasha has been little more than eye candy, despite her skills, sober-minded pragmatism and personal roots that intersect with geopolitical history in tantalizing ways. When “Black Widow” catches up with her as an adult, she has just gone into exile after the disastrous events of “Captain America: Civil War”; the Avengers have splintered, and she’s ambivalent about her own place in an organization she once opposed. Yelena is a loner for her own reasons: When the two reunite in a Budapest apartment, the sequence resembles an outtake from another TV series, “Killing Eve.”

What ensues is a movie that operates on several levels at once, bridging the narratives of “Civil War” and “Infinity War,” offering up a steady stream of action sequences involving fights, chases, fireballs and, in between, engaging in some wry humor about sisterly competition and dysfunctional families. “Black Widow,” which was written by Eric Pearson, from a story by Jac Shaeffer and Ned Benson, obeys the laws of current movie spectacles, wherein the protagonists toss off blasé asides in the midst of yet another run-of-the-mill SUV skidding into a subway station or helicopter prison break in the face of an engulfing avalanche. (See “F9” for the playbook.) In “Black Widow,” most of those one-liners come from Pugh, who imbues her dialogue with punchy believability, especially when she’s giving her big sister the business. (“Such a poser,” she sniffs when Natasha strikes her familiar one-fisted, hair-tossing superhero landing.)

Still, the seen-it-all sarcasm gets old, which is why Harbour’s Alexei is such an unexpected kick when he reappears. Goofy, bumbling and blissfully un-self-aware, he’s a soldier whose super days are far behind him, a fact that his male vanity won’t let him acknowledge, much less accept.

Director Cate Shortland, whose previous films have been intensely observant psychological portraits of isolated young women, brings the right tonal complexity to “Black Widow’s” more intimate interludes, although one gets the sense that demands of the Marvel behemoth — the action-centric “whammies” that must appear in every movie with metronomic predictability — never allow those moments to breathe as they should. (Shortland has counted “Thelma & Louise” as an inspiration for Natasha and Yelena’s road trip banter.) Ultimately, “Black Widow” shifts the focus from Natasha’s fractured but funny parents and sister to her greater mission, which is to murder the man who turned her — and, it turns out, millions of other lost young women — into a killing machine.

“Black Widow” isn’t subtle about connecting that mercenary training to grooming and sex trafficking, a feminist sensibility that’s reinforced by a mysterious substance that can turn an army of dead-eyed fembots into instant allies. But that not-so-sub-subtext still threatens to be buried under the rubble of ever-escalating mayhem, which inevitably blasts its way into diminishing and increasingly implausible returns. As gratifying as it is that Johansson has finally gotten the movie her character has long deserved — not to mention a worthy and equally watchable foil in Pugh — “Black Widow” simultaneously feels like too much and too little. Do svidaniya, Natasha — we hardly knew ye.

PG-13. At area theaters on July 9; also available on Disney Plus. Contains intense sequences of violence and action, some strong language and mature thematic material. 133 minutes.

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