• by Wes Singleton

Black Widow - B

Rated PG-13, 133 minutes

The thrilling, dark "Black Widow" is a solid standalone Marvel Universe film that ushers in, well more like smashes in, the summer movie season in style as the audiences are returning to the theater post-pandemic. It’s packed with plenty of action that makes up for a flawed story yet still is a fitting coda for its lead.

Taking place after the events of "Captain America: Civil War" (2016), Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Oscar-nominee Scarlet Johansson) confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises. Pursued by a force that will stop at nothing to bring her down, Natasha must deal with her history as a spy and the broken relationships including Yelena ("Little Women's" Florence Pugh), Alexei ("Stranger Things'" David Harbour), and Melina (Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz) she had before coming an Avenger.

Australian film director Cate Shortland handles the direction, while "Thor: Ragnarok's" Eric Pearson pens the screenplay, with a story from Jac Shaeffer ("Wandavision") and Ned Benson ("The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby"). The visuals and action set pieces of "Black Widow" are first-rate and deftly handled by Shortland, particularly that exciting opening scene, but a muddled story occasionally bogs down its pacing. There's still plenty to enjoy, including Emmy-nominee Lorne Balfe's energetic score as well as an impressive cast, headlined by Johansson in the titular role.

Johansson and Pugh's (who is the film's best new addition) sister-like chemistry is a highlight, and refreshing to see a film - especially a Marvel one - starring and directed by women, and while the film isn't necessarily feminist, Natasha and Yelena are two solid additions in any street fight. “Black Widow’s” chief antagonist, Dreykof, played by charming British character actor Ray Winstone, isn’t given enough screen time, and it would benefited with more scenes between he and Johansson. Weisz also doesn’t have enough to do, while Harbour is fun but an occasional annoyance.

I can appreciate providing a backstory for Black Widow, but in execution, there are a couple of faulty items: for one, everyone in Natasha's "family" retains their Russian accent, except for Natasha herself (did The Hulk scare it out of her?). And second, while the talented Harbour and Weisz are believable as parents, Weisz doesn’t age at all through the film.

"Black Widow," with a few story and pacing flaws, is still intense, fun and entertaining, and with some "Robocop"-esque overtones, a tad darker than other Marvel films. It’s also a fitting ending for Johansson and her Natasha character, an MCU mainstay, even as she receives little support from her Avenger colleagues here.

While it's not on the same level as Iron Man or Captain America (but what would be?) it's a sure-fire crowd pleaser, especially for Marvel fans, and its exhilarating finale doesn't disappoint. Speaking of which, stay in your seat for the end credits for the "teaser scene" that has become a staple of these films and the possibility that this may not really end for Black Widow.