The waiting is finally over! For years, Marvel fans have been asking: why did the original Avengers like Iran Man, Thor, and Captain America all get three solo films yet Natasha Romanoff, known as Black Widow, gets none? Then, we saw her final journey in “Avengers: Endgame” in 2019 in which Iron Man got a big funeral, and Captain America finally had the dance with Peggy Carter. On the contrary, Black Widow sacrificed herself but never received an emotional memorial she really deserved.

The more-than-a-year delay, due to COVID, of Marvel Studios’ “Black Widow” finally ends on July 9 as the film will have theatrical release and Premier Access on Disney+. The best part of the film is that director Cate Shortland and writer Eric Pearson (one of the MCU scriptwriters behind Thor, Spider-Man, Ant-Man films and ABC TV series, and of course “Avengers: Infinity Wars” and “Avengers: Endgame”) turn their direction away from superhero films and toward to spy genre with the elements of action and espionage that echo “Mission: Impossible,” “Jason Bourne films,” and “007 James Bond franchise.” Despite the film has to land on the superhero territory inevitably to be part of the MCU timeline, it has human warmth and emotional weight that will make you actually care about the characters instead of the franchise, thanks to the great ensemble (the best among all the 23 MCU films) who charmingly act as actual human beings rather than characters from comic books.

Taking place after “Captain America: Civil War” and before “Avengers: Infinity Wars,” where Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run after violating the Sokovia Accords, she hides in Norwegian mountains and one day receives a package from her adopted sister Yelena (Florence Pugh). We also learn that the sisters were brought up by Russian spy “father” Alexei (David Harbour) and scientist “mother” Melina (Rachel Weisz), pretending to be an ordinary family in Ohio. The reconnection of the “family” forces Natasha back into the mission to destroy the “Red Room,” a secret Soviet agency lead by Dreykov (Ray Winstone) that trains young girls to become killers including Natasha and Yelena.

The center of “Black Widow” is the contrast between the new found Avengers family and the dysfunctional childhood family in different states of Natasha’s journey. Director Shortland, originally from Australia who made her critically acclaimed debut “Somersault” in 2004 and best known for a personal WWII survival drama “Lore” in 2012, knows the meaning of families learning to be a family. Black Widow has always been the grown-up in Avengers group, and this time, we finally learn her tragic past as she embraces the nature of the family. Gradually, she accepts the fact that bond often goes deeper than blood (frankly, it’s a more profound message of family value here than “F9”).

Besides the characters delivered by the great cast, “Black Widow” is packed with thrilling action and chasing. The shaking camera movements sometimes cause the action hard to follow, yet the sharp choreography still makes these car chases, hand-to-hand combats, and gun fights have real urgency and excitement. One of the highlights is the new villain Taskmaster (played by a surprise cameo that will reveal near the end of the film) who mimics different superheroes’ fighting styles, and it’s really fun to recognize the movements from her mimicry, including Black Widow and Captain America and Black Panther. As a result, “Black Widow” is a true action-centered-film that reminds us even in the Marvel fantasy world where Infinity Stones can whip out half of the population in universe, some superheroes are just mortals with flesh and blood. When Natasha gets punched, it looks like she really gets hurt so that you’ll feel the danger and urgency. It’s a very rare sense of feeling you’ll have while watching MCU films.

And we have to go back to its cast! Johansson, Pugh, Harbour, and Weisz are all Oscars and Emmys winner or nominee, but the film belongs to the first two actresses. Both characters had tragic childhood and broken relationships with their families, and they both try to fight their way out of the toxic male-dominated environment. Even though you won’t be able to look away from Johansson’s movement (one of the jokes in the film), the spectacular Pugh totally shades Johansson’s performance.

It’s Pugh’s first leading role in a mainstream blockbuster, and she does an excellent job with her humor, vulnerability, and physical performance. It’s no surprise that Pugh is now getting Oscars buzz as Yelena (she had been nominated for “Little Women,” and no one should skip her performance in “Lady Macbeth,” “The Little Drummer Girl,” and “Midsommar”). If MCU films will finally get an Oscars nomination in the acting category, Pugh is definitely going to be the first. From after the credits scene, we learn that she will appear in Disney+ series “Hawkeye” as the next Black Widow – like the way Falcon inherits Captain America’s shield in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” – it’s exciting to see this dynamic actress is moving her career to the next level of challenge.

Without being portrayed with sexism and objectification like Joss Whedon or Rosso brothers did throughout the first three phases of MCU, “Black Widow” is a tribute to this empowered female hero’s “her-story,” and if you have chance to revisit her sacrifice in “Avengers: Endgame,” you’ll feel more emotion weight in that scene. It’s also a film about the collective female trauma caused by male abusers, and a Marvel superhero film that works on its own terms without too much noises from the entire franchise. As lots of people are now exhausted by getting fed with endless MCU installments that just look the same without any excitement or liveliness, I just hope that Marvel can learn from “Black Widow” and make more standalone films like this one. Being a Marvel fan since “Iron Man,” I’m saying “Black Widow” is a long-waited home run and sincerely looking forward to seeing Marvel hit a back-to-back very soon (Chloé Zhao will bring “Eternals” in November so I’m not that worried).  

GRADE: B+

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  • Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and Disney+
  • Production: Marvel Studios and Truenorth Productions
  • Director: Cate Shortland
  • Writer: Eric Pearson
  • Producer: Kevin Feige
  • Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, and Olga Kurylenko
  • “Black Widow” in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on July 9

Read the review in Chinese

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