Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow | Photo courtesy of Disney

Black Widow | ★★★½  | In Theaters July 9 

When taking in a comic book movie, it’s always good policy to deliberately switch mental gears before the story even starts. You’re about to spend the next couple hours in the comic-book movie world, with its attendant logic, themes, and rules.

This approach is especially helpful with Black Widow, the latest from the Marvel Studios assembly line. Keep your expectations adjusted properly, and it’s a pleasant surprise. Compared to the European spy genre films it emulates, Black Widow is a second-tier specimen at best. Compared to recent Marvel movies, it’s an odd and interesting departure.

Scarlett Johansson reprises her role as Natasha Romanoff, ex-Soviet assassin turned good-guy superhero. Since Natasha famously perished in Avengers: Endgame (2019), the new film is essentially an extended flashback set in the period just after Captain America: Civil War (2016).

The movie is as close to a self-contained one-off as anything we’ve seen so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that’s a good thing. It’s an origin story, in part, and a very busy one. The plot twists are too fun to spoil, but prepare yourself for Cold War 1980s flashbacks, chase scenes through the alleys of Budapest, a Siberian prison break, high-altitude goon-bashing aboard a flying fortress, and a sinister sub-villain with the frankly excellent name of Taskmaster.

Also prep for Rachel Weisz as a maternal Russian scientist, David Harbour as a washed-up Soviet supersoldier, and Ray Winstone as the particularly loathsome criminal mastermind. Most important is Florence Pugh as Yelena, Natasha’s sister (sort of), and heir apparent to the soon-to-be-vacated Black Widow franchise slot.

You can find plenty of plot synopses online if you’re in the market, but I propose that the subtextual elements of Black Widow are the most interesting parts, at least for weary veterans of the Marvel movie era.

This is a spy movie, sure, and a superhero movie in parts. But it’s also a film about sisterhood, improvised families, and our shifting cultural attitudes toward young women.

As it happens, I watched Black Widow with my 13-year-old daughter, who is deeply committed to the various Marvel films and streaming series. I’ve found that I don’t mind this much. Superhero movies are really just modern mythmaking, and they’re designed on a basic architectural level to reflect, dramatize, and impart cultural values.

With Black Widow, my daughter clearly responded to the fierce feminist vibe of the film, and to the basic throughline of young women fighting back against old, rich, powerful men in their attempts to divide and conquer the masses.

I hope that the subliminal shape of that narrative stays with her, and with all the young people who will absorb this movie in the next few weeks. It’s good news, I think, that the general trajectory of these stories is changing. This isn’t the kind of movie I got as a kid. Black Widow ends with young women caring for one another, shaking off the toxic bullshit of older generations, and choosing to do the right thing as they see fit.

It’s all pretty good stuff for a comic book movie, and it helps you get past the movie’s weak spots, like the rote repetition of genre tropes that were already tired 30 years ago, or the awkward forced banter between the sisters. (Actually, Pugh has one great bit about that crouch-and-hair-toss pose that Johansson does whenever she lands in a fight scene.)

One final note: yes, there is a post-credits scene; yes, it has a startling cameo appearance; and yes, I had to have it all explained to me. Now that I think of it, there are lots of reasons to see this with a 13-year-old.

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