It’s always been telling that Batman, one of the only superheroes not graced with superpowers, may be the most popular superhero. Masses of comic-book fans identify with his humanity, imagining that they could be him (though he does, of course, have all those toys to make up for his lack of steel muscles, etc.). Natasha Romanoff, better known as Black Widow, draws from the same basic well of appeal. She was trained as a Russian spy and fights like a whirling dervish, though without special powers — so she too, in theory, could be you. “I doubt the god from space has to take an Ibuprofen after a fight,” snarks a character in “Black Widow,” the new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That Natasha does makes her relatable. But audiences going into “Black Widow” may still wonder what, exactly, they’re going to get to see the title character do. In Scarlett Johansson’s appearances in the MCU thus far, going back to “Iron Man 2,” she’s been a kick-ass fighter in sleek leather with a few signature jackknife moves. I wondered, or maybe feared, that “Black Widow” would be two hours of that.
It’s not; it’s much more interesting and absorbing. In the prologue, set in Ohio in 1995, we meet Natasha (Ever Anderson) when she’s around 13, along with her younger sister (Violet McGraw). Natasha has her hair dyed fiberglass blue, which no teenager in the Midwest did in the ’90s, but we’ll let that pass. At home, the girls’ mother (Rachel Weisz) has just sat them down to dinner when their father (David Harbour) arrives with a worried look and says that they have about an hour to ditch the place. They drive out to the countryside, where a prop plane awaits them in a dusty hanger, and with the authorities shooting right into the plane they take off and land in Cuba, where the two girls are given a knockout drug and hauled away.
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Their parents, it turns out, are deep-cover Russian spies, and the entire “family” was concocted and assembled, living together for three years. The girls are delivered to Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a dark mastermind who will raise them to be part of his elite army of lethal feminine Widows. His training sanctum is the ominous Red Room.
The next time we see Natasha, it’s 21 years later, and she’s trying to put together the pieces of her broken life. “Black Widow” isn’t technically an origin story. It’s set in the period after “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), when the Avengers have broken up and Natasha, who defected to the West at the behest of S.H.I.E.L.D., has joined the faction led by Steve Rogers. So she’s already been out in the world, flexing those smash-mouth limbs. Yet “Black Widow” is very much about the origin of Natasha — her skills and her identity. The movie features just enough kinetic combat to give a mainstream audience that getting-your-money’s-worth feeling, but from the opening credits (which feature Think Up Anger’s dreamy slow-mo cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), most of it has a gritty, deliberate, zap-free tone that is strikingly — and intentionally — earthbound for a superhero fantasy. The director, Australia’s Cate Shortland (“Somersault”), works in unvarnished closeup and establishes a mood of lurching, desultory anxiety that’s closer to Russian neorealism than the Russo brothers.
In Budapest, Natasha reunites with her sister, Yelena (now played by Florence Pugh), who’s a cool killer herself, and an even more jaded one. “Black Widow” has action, but at heart it isn’t an action film. It’s a tale of people trying to carve out emotions from a place where they can barely feel any. Natasha and Yelena greet each other with a Mexican standoff followed by a knockdown duel in the kitchen; that’s how they were trained. But it’s not long before they come together over the fact that Dreykov is the monster who stole their lives. Natasha actually tried to blow him up, and thought she’d succeeded, killing his young daughter in the process. But she didn’t know what she was dealing with. When “Black Widow” sets Natasha up in combat against a metallic terminator with a mouth like a skull’s, the fight itself is fairly standard, but when we learn who (or what) is underneath that armor, the movie gives you a creepy tingle.
To go after Dreykov, the two sisters (or sister figures, since they’re not technically sisters) attempt to reassemble their “family,” and that begins with an entertaining sequence in which they break Alexei, their former father, out of what looks like a Siberian prison. He is now a bearded Russian strongman who speaks in a thick accent — or, in fact, he always ways, since he’s actually the Red Guardian, the Russian version of Captain America. He’s a superhero with borscht in his veins. Harbour gives a surprisingly convincing performance as this blustery Slavic blowhard, while Rachel Weisz, as the circumspect Melina, is more ambiguous: part den mother, part Stepford mother. Florence Pugh invests Yelena with a brittle danger that’s like Mata Hari meets Jason Bourne.
But it’s Scarlett Johansson who holds the film together and gives it its touch of soul. Natasha’s desire for vengeance is pulsating, but so are her inner wounds, and Johansson, unusual for the comic-book genre, makes the most vulnerable emotions part of the humanity of her strength. She’s a flame-haired dynamo who needs to slay her former mentor to defeat her own damage. When she finally faces off against Dreykov, played by Ray Winstone as a bureaucrat hooligan, seething under his horn-rims, it’s a duel of wits and will. It also leads to a spectacular finale that evokes the free-falling, apocalypse-in-the-sky climax of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” “Black Widow,” which kicks off Phase Four of the MCU, doesn’t feel like the first stand-alone “Black Widow” film. It feels more like the second, lost-in-the-wilderness “Black Widow” film. But I’m here to say that’s a good thing. Most of us have seen enough superpowers to last a lifetime. “Black Widow” spins on the powers that come from within.
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