It’s a Marvel production distributed by Disney, so it makes sense that “Black Widow” plays like a version of “Frozen” for grown-up sisters who use mixed martial arts to hash out their issues. At its loopy, counterintuitive best, the long-awaited, long-delayed solo film for Scarlett Johansson’s “Avengers” character lets the star and her castmates dodge all that falling digital masonry for meaty and often quite funny family therapy.
At its worst — which is about half the time — the masonry wins.
“Widow” officially takes place before the events of the last two “Avengers” installments, which means that certain characters remain alive, albeit offscreen. The only holdover from the canonical films is William Hurt’s blustery Secretary of State Ross, who shows up at the beginning and end. Otherwise, Cate Shortland’s film concerns itself with A) Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow trying to stop the nefarious plans for world domination of Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a pretty penny-ante villain as these things go, and B) a family reunion of double-crossing assassins.
A) is Marvel-movie business as usual, but B) feels like something gnarly and relatively new. The film’s prologue, set in 1995 Ohio, establishes the faux-family living undercover, a la “The Americans,” before having to evacuate back to Mother Russia, with young sisters Natasha (Ever Anderson) and Yelena (Violet McGraw) dumped into Dreykov’s top-secret training camp for mind-controlled “black widows.”
Cut to the modern day, and Natasha has freed herself and gone on to become an Avenger, while Yelena (Florence Pugh) is still initially a lethal zombie hit lady. Even when she’s back to herself, the sisters have to settle their differences via a brief rumble with guns and garottes before setting out to liberate “dad” Alexei, a.k.a. the Red Guardian (David Harbour, gone spectacularly to seed), from a prison in the snowy wastes of Siberia. (We’ve already been to Morocco, Budapest, and Norway by now, “Black Widow” doubling as a decent armchair vacation.) That sequence begins with a bone-breaking arm-wrestling contest and ends with an avalanche, and it shows that Shortland — whose previous films, “Somersault” (2006) and “Lore” (2012), have been driven more by emotions than special effects — can handle full-scale Marvel action bombast like a pro.
Only when “mom” enters the picture — Rachel Weisz as Melina, the brains of the undercover outfit back in Ohio — does “Black Widow” become more than an off-brand “Avengers” movie, the Yugo of the MCU fleet. In fact, the film slows down for a fascinating display of actorly chops, parental noodging (“Natasha, don’t slouch”), and long-repressed resentments. “The best part of my life was fake, and you never told me,” says Natasha accusingly. Replies Melina, defending her sub-par parenting, “Why does a mouse born in a cage run in a little wheel?” It takes a skilled performer to sell a line like that, which may be why Marvel tends to hire the best.
Harbour’s Alexei becomes the comic relief of these scenes, breaking out his old Soviet superhero outfit and grousing that he could have been as popular as Captain America. Meanwhile, Pugh’s Yelena is busy stealing the movie. Pugnacious and rash, the character serves as both Natasha’s and the film’s bratty kid sister, and the actress (“Midsommar,” “Little Women”) surfs the waves of the script’s pop psychology and hand-to-hand combat with the ease of a born star.
By contrast, Johansson’s Natasha has to be the responsible sibling in terms of plot lifting and restatement of mission — a thankless task, but the actress carries it with aplomb. “Black Widow” loses its sense of individuality only in the final act, when the family storms Dreykov’s super-secret murder HQ/satellite base up in the troposphere — someone tell me how that works — and the impersonal digitized destructo climax kicks in.
It’s fiery. It’s big. It’s deafening. It’s dull. The established Marvel movie formula — hire great actors, sprinkle the script with smarts, shovel on the sensationalism, and play to the fans — is looking awfully shopworn by now, left behind by the TV side of the company’s “Phase Four” franchise renewal, shows like “WandaVision,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” and “Loki.” “Black Widow” was originally supposed to be released to theaters in May 2020 but was delayed by the pandemic; it’s a mark of how much has changed in 14 months that the film is now simultaneously coming to theaters and streaming channel Disney+, a development that would have been unthinkable in pre-COVID days. The property that was supposed to be the first movie installment of “Phase Four” by now just feels phased out.
Directed by Cate Shortland. Written by Jac Schaeffer, Ned Benson, and Eric Pearson. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs, and available on Disney+. 133 minutes. PG-13 (intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material).