Marvel has taken a two-year hiatus from the big screen following the climatic events of Avengers: Endgame.

Although the studio has produced several successful miniseries in the meantime for Disney+, fans had to wait an extra year for Phase IV of Marvel’s feature film franchise to begin with the COVID-19 pandemic delaying the release of Black Widow, expected to be the final entry in the series for longtime star Scarlett Johansson as the titular assassin.

Director Cate Shortland takes significant inspiration from the spy genre to craft her feature, beginning with an intimate, subdued world of counterintelligence and balancing that against a more bombastic realm of comic book influence for a pleasing two-hour ride.

Black Widow takes place out of chronological order, in the fallout of Captain America: Civil War rather than Avengers: Endgame. Natasha Romanoff is on the run from authorities and stumbles into a faceoff with her long-lost younger sister Yelena Belova and the infamous Red Room, a Soviet assassin program that trained them both.

Johansson is solid in a film that should have come out five years ago to take more advantage of her character arc in the proper context, but the actress has such natural control of the character at this point that she naturally falls into the role regardless of the time jump. It’s a confident, driven action performance that carries the weight of the film on its shoulders while allowing others on screen to shine around her.

While Johansson is the far more established star in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow places her at the same importance level as Florence Pugh, as if Johansson is passing the torch on to a key figure in the next generation of the franchise. Establishing Yelena takes up as much screen time as rounding out Natasha’s storyline, with a sisterly bond between the two characters redefining the elder sister’s arc throughout eight films and creating motivation for the younger sister’s journey still to come.

Johansson and Pugh have incredible chemistry on screen and their natural balance shines in both physical action sequences and more subdued, character driven moments. The pair onscreen together are the highlight of Black Widow.

Pugh especially carries every scene she’s in with a performance that’s as if she had been playing Yelena for 10 years like Johansson has with Natasha.

David Harbour does a good job playing both comic relief and emotional support as the pair’s father figure Red Guardian, while Rachel Weisz’s Melina is woefully underwritten and played overly passive for a spy of her caliber.

As is the case with most Marvel films, the villains are underwhelming with Ray Winstone’s General Dreykov serving as the quiet man in the shadows who may or may not be dead. 

The classic Marvel baddie Taskmaster is almost completely robotic, save for one moment. While the initial combat sequence between Taskmaster and Black Widow is solid, showcasing the villain’s ability to mimic the opponent’s combat style, it often felt that the character was included for the sake of having an iconic villain in the film rather than actually serving a material purpose.

Action evolves over the course of Black Widow, leaning more on a grounded hand-to-hand and car chase style reminiscent of Jason Bourne or James Bond films in the first hour and ramping up the spectacle as time goes on. The pacing and relative lack of action scenes may disappoint some Marvel fans looking for larger set pieces, but the compelling narrative does make up for this in large part.

Within the context of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow falls somewhere in the middle third of the series as a whole as it lacks the long-term storytelling payoffs or dynamic energy of other films in the franchise.

But for an audience starved of superhero action adventure on the big screen, Black Widow certainly holds its own as a solid MCU movie and an important one moving forward that’s well worth the price of admission.

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