Review: 'Black Widow' finally does justice to Scarlett Johansson's secret agent Avenger

Brian Truitt

Marvel’s “Black Widow” is a strong solo superhero effort that feels both timely and also way too late.

Directed by Cate Shortland (“Lore”), the spy thriller (★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters and on Disney+ via Premier Access now) finally gives Scarlett Johansson’s secret agent Avenger her own movie, though the film actually works better as a dysfunctional family drama and high-profile introduction to Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, Black Widow’s adopted sister of sorts.

While there’s plenty of action and ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, explaining some things and setting up others, the movie gamely takes a different tack – at least for this expansive mega-franchise – of dealing with female trauma and abuse in an honest way.

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Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, left) reconnects with her "little sister" Yelena (Florence Pugh) in "Black Widow."

While Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff isn’t currently alive in present-day MCU (she sacrificed herself to help save the universe in 2019's “Avengers: Endgame”) this adventure takes place between the events of “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War.” Natasha’s on the run from the authorities and hides out in remote Norway, though, of course, where Black Widow goes, trouble follows and she’s attacked by the mysterious Taskmaster, a figure who mimics perfectly an opponents’ moves.

That fight leads her to a trip to Budapest, Hungary, where she runs into Yelena, who’s not pleased that her big sister hasn’t kept in touch, and they brawl in a kitchen fight, though they choke each other with curtains instead of giving each other a hug. Natasha learns that the Red Room, the notorious covert Russian organization that strips little girls of their innocence and turns them into deadly assassins, is still in business even though Natasha thought she destroyed it. Yelena is a Widow who’s escaped their brainwashing and wants to help others, and the two head off on a global quest to seek out clues and reunite with their “family”: scientist Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour), Russia’s version of Captain America code-named Red Guardian.

Alexei (David Harbour) is Russia's answer to Captain America in "Black Widow."

Even though Johansson’s been an MCU regular since 2010’s “Iron Man 2,” “Black Widow” is the first time a Marvel movie’s treated her right. We get to see little unseen pieces of her personality (who knew she watched James Bond movies for fun?) but also have real conversations with another human being who’s not a dude. When the stoic Natasha and snarky Yelena aren’t bantering and bickering, they engage in real talk about their lives and their shared past. (Flashbacks from their childhood show them and their “parents” working a la “The Americans.”)

That all said, Natasha is oddly the least interesting of the main characters, though it’s not really Johansson’s fault; the new players are just ridiculously good. Yelena’s an absolute spitfire – who fans will be seeing more in the MCU’s future, with Black Widow being dead and all – and Pugh plays her like a rock star, with fantastic energy and magnetic swagger. There’s an intriguing internal struggle between maternal and spycraft sides that Weisz gives Melina, while Harbour’s an ace scene-stealer: Alexei is all egotistical bluster until his daughters bring out the big softie and father figure underneath.

Melina (Rachel Weisz, far left), Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh) reunite for the first time in years in "Black Widow."

Being a Marvel jam, there’s plenty of fighting and explosions to go with the interpersonal drama. “Black Widow” nicely takes a few pages from the playbook of fellow spy-friendly effort “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in terms of blockbuster-ready action sequences. The new film also pays off lines and tales mentioned before by Black Widow in the various “Avengers” films to paint a clearer picture about why she worked so hard to make up for past sins and “the red in her ledger.”

With “Black Widow,” Marvel wins yet again on multiple fronts. Time will tell if this is actually Johansson’s swan song – in comic books, death is more a minor inconvenience than a permanent state, and if the things a hit, she might want to keep the leather suit handy. However, the film makes up for years of Johansson playing third and fourth fiddle in “Avengers” films while perhaps more importantly, unleashing Pugh as the MCU’s brightest new star.