“Black Widow” finally reaches screens big and small after a delay of more than 14 months, during which time Marvel’s banner has been carried via streaming on Disney+. While that stretch has likely fueled pent-up demand, it has also demonstrated that the comics-based pop-culture titan can tell a variety of stories, with this one approximating the formula of a Jason Bourne movie.
The approach largely works, in more small-boned fashion, thanks in part to the crispness of the action, whose fight sequences have as much in common with the kinetic aspect of the Bourne saga as superhero-style pyrotechnics, although there’s a fair amount of that too. Yet what really defines the film is meeting the title character’s other “family,” whose members are equal parts colorfully eccentric and lethal.
Nestled during the window between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” the film opens with an extended prologue that fills in additional details about the young Natasha Romanoff’s childhood and origins.
Jumping ahead, the plot finds Scarlett Johansson’s assassin-turned-Avenger on the run from the government, which leads to a reconnection with her spy family and the discovery of a nefarious program — used to control other “widows,” trained with her special skills — that needs to be stopped.
Like the Bourne movies, Natasha was the product of a shadowy government outfit rooted in the mindset of the Cold War, only from the Russian side. That includes a ruthless mastermind named Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and her desire both to atone for the past and stamp out the source that caused it.
The mission reunites Natasha and her sister Yelena, played with scene-stealing flair by Florence Pugh, who is not only as deadly as she is but gets most of the best thickly accented lines. A bit of a potty mouth, Yelena — like everyone else here — has followed Natasha’s career with interest, leading to lots of references to the Avengers in between fighting and reminiscing.
Other key figures from the pair’s youth are the self-absorbed Alexei (“Stranger Things'” David Harbour), who spends a lot of time fondly exaggerating his glory days as Soviet hero the Red Guardian; and Melina (Rachel Weisz), whose role is significant if relatively limited.
Directed by Cate Shortland from a script credited to Eric Pearson (“Thor: Ragnarok”) with contributions from others, “Black Widow” has the advantage of being positioned as a stand-alone adventure given Natasha’s ultimate fate, although it wouldn’t be a Marvel movie without sprinkling seeds that might be harvested elsewhere. Inevitably, the climactic portion is a bit too chaotic in seeking to feature the assorted players all at once.
While Marvel has made concerted inroads in establishing female heroes, “Black Widow” represents a welcome showcase for Johansson, who actually originated the character in “Iron Man 2” as the studio used Iron Man, Captain America and Thor movies as its initial building blocks. Both she and Marvel have come a long way since then, adding emotional weight to the character, who expresses her desire to prove that she has become “more than just a trained killer.”
The movie thus plays like a sentimental closing of one door as the company pivots to its next carefully orchestrated phase — a chance to say goodbye to an old friend while broadening the rather limited view of her world.
If that’s not the same epic feel as the last time fans saw Natasha, it’s certainly not a bad excuse, especially after this protracted wait, to get back into a movie theater.
“Black Widow” premieres July 9 in US theaters and for a premium fee on Disney+. It’s rated PG-13.